John Portman's Renaissance Center Design Defined Detroit's Skyline

AP Images
AP Images

John Portman, the architect behind GM’s famed Renaissance Center building, died on Friday at 93 years old-no cause was given-according to this report from the New York Times.


Portman was well known and perhaps even revered for bucking design trends of the time with large futuristic atria and indoor capsule-like elevators. For fifty years he was among the most influential architects, redefining the business with famed works like the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Peachtree Center in Atlanta, Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, and many more. Hotels, retail centers, and business offices, monoliths plucked straight from Portman’s dreams are scattered all over the world.

In the 1960s and 1970s Portman’s architectural work redefined the business, and his signature forty-story atrium, open glass elevators, waterfalls, hanging gardens, and revolving rooftop restaurants became the norm-often working with the Hyatt corporation. He studied the works of Frank Lloyd Wright to ensure that his buildings were cohesive with human use. Where hotels and offices were traditionally drab and boring, Portman attempted to inspire awe.

The Renaissance Center, known colloquially as the RenCen, is a complex of seven interconnected buildings located on the riverfront in downtown Detroit. The first phase of the building was completed in 1976, and was the tallest hotel ever built at the time, and remains the tallest building in the state of Michigan. The complex houses a shopping center, restaurants, brokerage firms, and banks, earning it the term ‘city within a city’.

The RenCen was thought up as the brain-child of Henry Ford II, and financed primarily by Ford Motor Company with a 1970 cost of $500 million. In the building’s first year of full operation, it brought an estimated one billion dollars of revenue to the city of Detroit. Initially, FoMoCo held a large block of offices in the building. Years later, General Motors stepped in to purchase the building in 1996 and it has been their world headquarters ever since.

As a native Michigander, I’ll always be strangely proud of the RenCen, and Portman’s contribution to Detroit.

Jalopnik contributor with a love for everything sketchy and eclectic.


The Detroit skyline would look so much different without it. For a 40+ year old design it looks strikingly modern.