Space Opera: A Sculptor and His Architect

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Essay exploring relationship of John Portman's architecture to Charles O. Perry's sculpture.



SPACE OPERA A Sculptor and His Architect

by Kiel Bryant Hosier

What follows is not a typical research paper. The impression, therefore, should not be that no research was undertaken – quite the contrary. We steeped ourselves in gathered material on both “protagonists,” Charles O. Perry and John Portman, Jr., a partial listing of which may be found in the endpapers. When we visited the works in person, we were struck by the inferred stories crying out to be told. This is our attempt to tell them. Think Irving Stone.


The whole point is collaboration. GORDON BUNSHAFT

You quickly discover that if you travel abroad and tell people where you’re from the world divides the United States into two parts — the USA and San Francisco. The first elicits scowls; the second only smiles. KENNETH REXROTH

We are, all of us, pilgrims who struggle along different paths toward the same destination. ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY

NEW YORK CITY – August 1939 When the genius finished his speech, a thousand lights exploded into existence – and the Fair was open. Dark masses became crystalline cyan fantasies, seemingly alive, resplendent. Tumbled luminescent cascades drew ever skyward, waterfalls of light turned upside-down. As Albert Einstein descended the podium into cheering admiration, young John Portman, Jr., 15, circled absently, forgetting his parents, totally enraptured by the sparkling monuments scything the ink-black sky. Far off he made out the signature cylinder and sphere – as the brochures said, Trylon and Perisphere – and on his determined hurry to that spectacle, his eyes and mind savored every newly summoned wonder studding the path. He had been through this twice before – at Chicago, in rapid succession, 1933 and 1934 – but five years was a big difference, at his age, and anyway the scale of those – on reflection – seemed somehow far diminished by the present galaxy of technological delights engulfing him. The great Fairs, to Portman’s enflamed imagination, were mere oases of a Future yet to be poured upon the world entire. He couldn’t articulate precisely the features such a world must exhibit – obviously much of the gee-whiz displays here weren’t made to endure – but that it would come was a fact, in Portman’s mind, as obvious and indisputable as the natural laws. The Fairs suggested a global consensus on this point, affirmed by each pavilion, dazzling in their turn: the powerfully expressive palace of the USSR, soliciting a bizarre graphic in Portman’s head – clearly drawn, like the Frank Godwin serials he adored – of the Giza sphinx copulating with the spiked Mormon Temple he’d once seen on the way through Salt Lake City; the gleaming, gilt sienna Duchess of Hamilton, advent of a new industrial aesthetic – its glossy lozenge seeming, to John, like Flash Gordon’s rocket turned on its side with a few wheels stuck on to adapt it for rail use; the same for Raymond Loewy’s iron marauder, the PRR S1, a Goliath of mankind’s reckless passion for

velocity. Tempering such eloquent gestures of motion and progress came the sedate pavilion of Great Britain, a saintly white edifice perched politely over the watercourse. Differences attracted John – the germ of a formal theory percolating in his mind. Contrasts seemed necessary to a successful engagement with the festival – to provide pauses and intermezzos between the grander compositions. Whether textural or thematic, none escaped John’s attentive eyes. The buildings, he noticed, were each stellated by fantastic works of art – whether purely ornamental or, more often, marvels of scientific advancement. He wondered at these, delighting on a more fundamental plane at the sheer movement of humanity around him. Later, touring the Big Apple itself, Portman found himself frozen in rhapsody before an architectural event that instantly eclipsed all prior favorites, even the Empire State Building. Swimming up from his reverie, he managed to squawk: “What is that?” John Portman, Sr., smiled at his son, gestured at the shining, shouldered masses – and answered: “Rockefeller Center!” When they entered, passing mighty Atlas, John Jr.’s mouth hung agape at the polished, glinting interior. It was now perfectly framed by the elaborate elevator threshold. When the doors closed, sealing off the view, John’s rapt expression became a frown. LIBBY, MONTANA – Christmas 1939 The Kootenai River refused to be tamed. No matter how many times ten-year-old Charlie Perry tried to duplicate its gentle curves with his brush, the resulting twisty mess only mocked him, no closer to looking like the real thing. He shrugged: today, it was reduced to a background feature. The rest of his painting worked well, he thought – a fair description of the house as dressed for Christmastime, fir tree twinkling from the living room’s bow window. The flying

saucer trying to steal their wind vane with its lasso of light was purely fanciful. “Creative license,” his mother would say. This morning had been a wonderful haul for Charlie. A new set of watercolor paints, a subscription to Argosy, and Lincoln Logs. He’d played with the Logs for hours, assembling, disassembling, re-assembling, never following any of the enclosed instructions. The possibilities were endless: he could build a whole neighborhood, if only he had the pieces! Perry thrilled at each log-hewn fortress he constructed – the individual logs themselves were so limited, so powerless; yet, joined together, they could become great. What was the word he’d heard his father use – “metaphor” – yes, there seemed to be a very strong one at work here, if only he could access it. It was the first time Charlie had ever been curious – outside the schoolroom – about the concept of a “designer”. He scanned the box thoroughly, thoughtfully, finding a small inscription beneath the large blocky brand name – declaring: “DESIGNED BY JOHN LLOYD WRIGHT.” Someone named Elbert Hubbard used a similar typeface, Charlie reflected, thinking to the yellowed magazines he’d seen papering his father’s desktop. It was to his father he posed the question: “Who is John Lloyd Wright?” “The son of a famous architect.” “A famous what?” “Here,” his father said, pulling a blue clothbound book from his shelf. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary – Fifth Edition. He set the volume on the table and opened it, finding “architect”. Charlie read:
architect (ar’chi-tect), n. [From L., fr. Gr. architeckton chief artificer, master builder, fr. archi- + tekton

workman.] 1. A person skilled in, or a professional student of, architecture; one who designs and oversees the construction of buildings. 2. A contriver, designer, or maker.

Charlie’s mind immediately played a montage of the many different “buildings” he’d just constructed and demolished, all out of Lincoln Logs. “I’m an architect!” His father nodded, glancing to the little towers serried on the floor. Each was incredibly distinct. Some were solid bricks, others open, perforated. None looked at all like log cabins. “Or a sculptor,” he said. Outside, the temperature was plummeting. Charlie quickly jotted his name at the corner of his watercolor, scooped up his easel and jumped inside. NEW YORK CITY – November 1959 John Portman, Jr., architect, felt he was defiling a sacred tomb. Flashbulbs detonated continuously, filling the white-painted foyer with ominous, stroboscopic light. Since his decision to pursue architecture, “full bore,” he had been on a global tour, searching, seeking, absorbing. The past few years had proven extraordinarily fecund for the field – Frank Lloyd Wright’s last work, the one he presently violated; Le Corbusier’s dreams seemingly on the verge of fulfillment in Brazil, via Oscar Niemeyer. New totems of the jet age were sprouting up everywhere. By all rights, John should have felt elated – but he was distrait. He sauntered gloomily past the busybodies crowding the antechamber. Someone – a Guggenheim? – was making a dedication speech, cutting a ribbon. In his state, the whole performance felt stilted and false.

Martinis and hors d'oeuvres began to circulate. The crowding lessened – people flowed around John like water around a moraine, and he saw they were going toward the light. Glass doors were propped open onto a shaft of warm sunlight. An atrium? John had very specifically avoided any advance press about the building to experience it untarnished. The volume of light intrigued him, drew him forward – out of the foyer and his funk. He recalled the great atria of the classical world, of Pompeii, Herculaneum, the martyrs of Vesuvius; the Pantheon and its oculus, and the deeper past, the Parthenon, the Treasury of Atreus, Karnak. Always he had adored the atrium as a spatial, architectural device – lending wherever it was found a soaring aspect and, somehow, making the infinite and uncontainable heavens a private experience. These and all other thoughts evaporated away as he began the ramp’s ascent. Genius. It was the only word his mind could muster. Genius! A helical companionway – unusual enough – girding not a column of stone or metal, but of light. John felt his eyes might explode from his head. He went to the railing, looked over. A surge of glee and vertigo washed through him. Outstanding! The descending ramp, a tunnel of positive and negative space, absolutely mesmerized Portman. His eyes drifted over everything, recording, inventorying. The artwork was especially important, a safe harbor for the eyes – “Order and variety simultaneously achieved,” he said aloud, and quickly scribbled the same in his notepad. His eyes kept flashing to the stairwell opposite his vantage point. A slight swell traveling the entire axis, scooping into the atrium tunnel’s perfect negative-space cylinder – interrupting it. An image played over in his mind – the elevator doors of Rockefeller Center rolling shut, sealing off the view. Sealing off the view . . . Suddenly, it hit him. His eyes lit up and he fished for his notebook, sketching furiously. NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT – 1958

A wondrously complicated object – many-sided and symmetrical – dropped onto the regal mahogany desk. Coins of tree-sifted light fell upon its use-worn faces. “This brick, as a building unit, needs no mortar and is unrestricted by limitations of size.” Josef Albers removed his spectacles and leaned forward, his nose centimeters from the object. The brash presenter, Charles O. Perry, M.S. Architecture, stood silent to endure the scrutiny. Bird-shadows fluttered over the walls. After a time, Professor Albers sat back in his chair, squinting. “You’ve taken my instruction to heart – to discover the true nature of materials.” His neutral expression broke into a smile. “How’d you do it?” Relief flooded Charles in successive waves. He gathered his breath and said: “It is mathematically derived – the result of a question. Can the rhombus shape be changed, to become something else? Something new? The concept was intuitive . . . I consider the result both artful and functional.” “Most certainly. I think you’ve something extraordinary – a singular voice. The question becomes: will it find life in architecture, or sculpture?” Charles O. Perry only smiled. ATLANTA, GEORGIA – 1966 It was already larger than most cities in the world – and it wasn’t even half completed. John Portman, Jr. stood proudly atop Peachtree One, the first tower of his sprawling urban complex – destined to rewrite the rules of civic life not solely in Atlanta but throughout the United States and abroad. Sporting a scuffed hardhat and concrete-gray suit, he sipped his Coca-Cola and watched the newly erected monoliths drag shadows through old downtown. When dusk finished falling, he stalked down into the still-empty building core and descended, waving past the modular guard gate that marked the portal into his multi-hectare site.

At his self-designed home, dubbed Entelechy (“actualization”), he set the mail neatly upon his glass-topped desk. The sorting and opening of mail was a cherished ritual. He set to it, gracefully disemboweling each envelope as it rose to the top of the stack. Ad mail, ad mail, personal letter, ad mail, San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, ad mail – San Francisco Redevelopment Agency? His eyes traveled the words again, slowly. He opened this one more carefully than the others, guessing its contents, deliberately protracting the moment. It was as he had hoped – an invitation to design. And what? He kept reading. Even better than he had allowed himself to dream: the city was asking for a new, “West Coast Peachtree Center” somewhere called the Embarcadero, and would he come out to visit the site for preliminary analysis? The next morning he scheduled a flight. The letter had also mentioned an architectural unveiling: Skidmore, Owings and Merrill were to debut an innovative curtain wall tower for the Alcoa Aluminum Company – directly adjacent to the proposed working site. SAN FRANCISCO – 1966 “Envious. You make me envious, every single time.” It had been three years since Charles Perry left the salaried employ of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and moved to Rome, but unlike certain notorious ex-SOM employees his had not been an acrimonious divorce. Natty Owings himself had counseled Charles on the move, encouraging him to pursue his true passion – now that he had identified one. Charles had stared at the ocean from Nat’s stupendous Big Sur living room, contemplative, fireplace crackling peacefully. He knew exactly at that moment: sculpture would be his life. Myron Goldsmith slapped a hand on his shoulder. “Every single time.”

They were standing before the brilliant, blazing cross braces of the finally-completed Alcoa building. Below them splayed a small plaza, centered by a bronze icosahedron – or was it? On inspection, each face sunk into the hedron’s center – spiraling inward toward an arcane mathematical truth. This was Icosaspirale, one of Perry’s first independent commissions, and he didn’t really care that the client happened to be his former employer. Myron, and others, had insisted. In many ways, Icosaspirale perfectly consummated Charles’ long-held penchants and fascinations. It was the thesis of all his boyhood experimentation in Meccano, Erector Sets and Lincoln Logs. A critic might have noted a heavy Buckminster Fuller influence, who seemed to exert a monopoly on hedra these days, but any honest observer would see the obvious reference to Myron’s own extraordinarily innovative external bratticing system – the system that would become the signature motif of all his subsequent work. “It’s lovely.” Charles recognized the accent immediately – mannered Georgian. He and Myron turned at the sound. A smiling man in concrete-gray suit approached, hand extended. Charles took the hand and shook it. “Charles Perry, sculptor, and this is Myron Goldsmith, lead architect.” The man’s smile grew. “John Portman. That’s a jewel of a thing you’ve put up there. Both of you.” Myron bowed. Charles nodded. They both, of course, knew the name. They’d even heard the rumors. Still, courtesy demanded: “To what do we owe the pleasure?”

John looked to the ground, drew invisible lines with his toes. “Oh, me . . . “ he trailed off. “I’m here for that.” He thumbed behind them at the staggeringly vast tract of condemned architecture. Myron let out a low whistle. “Condolences.” John laughed: “What I was born for.” Charles stared at the site, trying to envision what might replace the current sprawl. The immensity of it sent a shiver down his spine. 1966 – 1973 As Portman’s micro-city climbed heavenward along the Embarcadero, Perry enjoyed a whirlwind of global fame – recognized as one of the great new sculptors to have emerged during the latter half of the 20th century. His work went in galleries that once displayed Rodin. Alexander Calder spoke of him in reverent tones. In Italy, his modular brick system – perfected under Josef Albers’ tutelage at Yale – became the subject of an exhibition in Spoleto, Italy. Portman’s first revolutionary hotel, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta (completed 1967), rocked the architecture community. Critics were mostly, predictably, harsh – but a resounding public enthusiasm for the airy, whimsical design denied them any merit. People thronged to the hotel, delighting in its uninterrupted openness, overhanging corbelled balconies, and most of all its joyous glass elevators, freed at last from the claustrophobic dark of the past. For the Atlanta Regency, a simple rosette kiosk offset the towering parallelepiped geometry of the atrium. It was a self-inserted reference to his memories of the Guggenheim, where installed art engaged in an ever-renewed contredanse with Frank Lloyd Wright’s unchanging lines. The issue wouldn’t come up again until the very final phase of the Embarcadero Center’s construction. Or so it had been agreed.

Impatience shifted plans. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency was to construct Justin Herman Plaza a full 7 years early, forcing Portman to reconfigure the groundbreaking of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco from Phase 5, concluding 1981, to Phase 2, concluding 1973. As he sat over his completed model, the glue still drying, he bent down for a better view into the atrium – to be perhaps his most dramatic yet. Triangular in plan, one entire wall – and all the rooms contained therein – angled sharply up from the bottom at 45 degrees, to terminate at a revolving restaurant. It was to be spectacular. And yet, as he gazed up into his miniature universe, clumpy foam bushes in tiny painted potters, perfect acrylic miniatures of his now world-famous elevators, he felt an absence. There was to be a triangular fountain near the entry escalators, yes. What was missing? What did he need to really set off the – Before the thought had fully rendered, he was on the phone. The missing element was Charles O. Perry. There is no denying the integral import of Charles O. Perry’s contribution, a 16-foot spore-like sphere called Eclipse. It rises over Portman’s triangular reflecting pool as a cosmic event, frozen in time and miniaturized for our enjoyment. The ropes of winding aluminum seem to be without beginning or end, infinitely flowing. As one falls into orbit about Perry’s timeless marvel, the proudly futuristic levels and bands of Portman’s atrium are continually framed and re-framed, suggesting new interpretations and insights. While softly reflecting light, Eclipse concomitantly persuades us it is the light, an exotic power core fueling the reciprocal vision of John Portman, Jr. and Charles O. Perry. More than a mere eyecatch, the mesmerizing molecular sculpture is a visual centerpiece, crucial to the Hyatt Regency experience. It is no surprise that Perry and Portman became close friends, Perry’s work enhancing many of Portman’s later complexes and hotels. As perhaps the ultimate acknowledgement of their aesthetic interdependence, all published plans of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco include – without comment – Perry’s Eclipse.


Blake, Peter. Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked. Boston : Little, Brown, 1977. Portman, John. The Architect as Developer. New York : McGraw-Hill, 1976. Riani, Paolo. John Portman. Milan : L’Arcaedizioni, 1990.

Webster’s Colliegiate Dictionary – Fifth Edition. Springfield, Mass. : G. & C. Merriam Co., 1937.
INTERNET : Charles O. Perry’s promotional website. : High Museum of Art, Atlanta, special exhibit section on John Portman, Jr.

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