Philip Courtelyou Johnson
Johnson’s influence on architecture had extraordinary reach and took many different forms. Architects who knew and admired him—and some who didn’t—remember a New York fixture and a legend.
|© luca vignelli/esto|
I recall a story following Philip’s retirement from the office and his departure from regular lunches at The Four Seasons Restaurant. One of his friends told him, “You know Philip, the Four Seasons is not the same without you.” Philip didn’t miss a beat and responded, “The Four Seasons is nothing without me.”
Another recollection I have is of one of the times when Philip Johnson and David Whitney had dinner in the corner of the Pool Room. Philip called me over to the table, which concerned me since I had recently replaced the rubber trees by the pool with preserved palms—a change from Johnson’s design. Philip told me, “I’m glad you didn’t ask me…they look wonderful.”
ALEX VON BIDDER, MANAGING PARTNER, THE FOUR SEASONS RESTAURANT
|Four Seasons Restaurant (1958)|
|ezra stoller © esto|
I am grateful to have this opportunity to write a few words on my mentor of twelve years, Philip Johnson. Mr. Johnson preached that serving the client’s aspirations was an architect’s highest priority; he was proud to be in the service business. As proof, I can recall countless times that Mr. Johnson would destroy models, tear up drawings, or completely abandon ideas at the slightest sign of the client’s discontent. So confident in his purpose and his skills, he would never argue but simply start over. I feel fortunate to have spent all those years under the guidance of so noble a man as he.
DENNIS WEDNICK, PRINCIPAL, DENNIS WEDNICK ASSOCIATES
The loss that those of us who are two generations removed from Philip Johnson feel upon his death is at first surprising. He epitomized, after all, everything that we, the children of the 60’s, the post-structuralists/decosntuctivists/feminists, loathed: success built on male clubiness, not on architectural merit or social contribution; power built around the cult of personality; stylistic fickleness that not only bore no shame but contributed to media and academic hegemony; social elitism cloaked as “intellectual” discourse; gayness deployed not as cultural/institutional opening but as cultural/institutional closure. But we should not be surprised by our surprise. For all of the distaste surrounding Johnson’s tactics, he was the post-structruralist animal par excellence: flexible in identity genderwise, professionally and aesthetically; changing the rules of the game as he went, not just his position in it; astute about the ephemeral nature of historical acclaim; savvy in constructing a position not about a stable present but an unknown future; supremely ironic and self-conscious. We are sad because now we only have the generation ahead—the white/grays—to do battle with, and they are so much less fun, savvy, and robust. The architectural landscape just got infinitely more boring.
PEGGY DEAMER, ASSISTANT DEAN AND ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, YALE SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE
|Seagram building (1958, with Mies van der Rohe)|
|ezra stoller © esto|
Johnson’s Second Act
Johnson’s second career overlapped with his first. Following World War II and his graduate education at Harvard, he would continue a lifelong relationship with The Museum of Modern Art, but would make a greater name for himself as an architect. His most important commission would be an ongoing one. In the late 1940s he began work on his home, the Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut, a project for him without end, which would be symbolic of most of the stylistic turns in Johnson’s portfolio.
Most people date the Glass House at 1949, which is correct for the first glass pavilion and original 5 acres, but Johnson used the title to refer to the entire property, now 42 acres, which included pavilions from each following decade through the 1990s. Johnson was passionate about the property’s landscape and considered it part of the architecture.
Johnson’s long career can best be summarized by decades. Beginning with houses similar in feeling to his Miesian-inspired Glass House in the 1950s, Johnson later took on institutional projects, such as libraries, museums and theaters in the 1960s, from the Sheldon Library in Lincoln, Nebraska to the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. The 1970s would offer larger projects like the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California and the seminal office buildings at Pennzoil Place, done for developer Gerald D. Hines, with whom Johnson would form a long relationship that would span more than a dozen buildings. These were done with then-partner, John Burgee.
Also from the late 1970s and into the 1980s was Johnson’s iconic work for AT&T. Designed to bring back the glory of stone-faced skyscrapers to Manhattan, the building became a poster child for postmodernism. Johnson would not retire until two decades following its completion. Deconstructivism inspired the clever geometry of St. Basil’s Chapel in Houston and other projects of the 1990s done with his current firm, Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie Architects, but in time Johnson would explore sculptural forms beyond standard geometry, as seen in his recently completed, torqued and twisted clock at Lincoln Center. Similar forms were used in his monumental Cathedral of Hope, designed for a primarily gay congregation in Dallas, and today, still unbuilt.
Once significant numbers of visitors have strolled through his New Canaan property, eventually to be made public through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Johnson should be better understood. The property synthesized Johnson’s architectural ethos, where small, but monumental, structures embody architectural ideas and are integrated into varying conditions of landscape, from a smooth lawn to tall, wild grass within a total composition. Like his house, Johnson was at once urbane and traditional. He was also passionate about the next, new thing. HILARY LEWIS IS THE CO-AUTHOR OF PHILIP JOHNSON: THE ARCHITECT IN HIS OWN WORDS (RIZZOLI) AND THE ARCHITECTURE OF PHILIP JOHNSON (BULFINCH/TIME WARNER BOOK GROUP). SHE IS NOW COMPLETING A THIRD VOLUME ON JOHNSON FOR THE MONACELLI PRESS.
|AT&T building (1984)|
ezra stoller © esto
Philip and I had many encounters and conversations that were, for me, near historical. Yet some of my favorite memories of him were less consequential in the larger scheme of things and represented the often unexpected intermingling of his architecture and the random events of the moment. I remember the first time I had lunch with David Whitney and him in New Canaan. Seated at the corner dining table, I could see the entire room—the painting by Nicolas Poussin, the sculpture by Elie Nadelman and, of course, the incredible landscape in autumnal splendor—all while eating lobster salad, potato chips and chocolate ice cream.
TERENCE RILEY, CHIEF CURATOR, DEPARTMENT OF ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN, MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
Is he really dead? I assume that he’s languishing in cryo, in the vault next to Walt, awaiting reanimation or cloning—Boys from Brazil style—when the technology is sufficiently advanced. Philip 2100! What styles will he purloin then? What as yet unborn favorites will he play? Will a Campari still await at his table at the Four Seasons? Will the glass house be in move-back condition? Will the Fourth Reich be up and running to receive the frustrated imprint of his sinister genius? Will his membership at the Century still be active? Will anyone remember him?
I’m taking no bets.
MICHAEL SORKIN, PRINCIPAL, MICHAEL SORKIN STUDIO
Lipstick building (1986)
© peter mauss/esto
Johnson Comes to New York
Philip Johnson’s extraordinary influence on New York City’s architecture scene began almost by chance. An undergraduate at Harvard in 1929, his sister Theodate introduced him to Alfred Barr, who was then teaching a pioneering course in modern art at Wellesley College. Johnson soon began traveling to New York to meet with Barr to discuss modern art and the founding of the Museum of Modern Art. Through Barr, Johnson met the young art historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and in 1930, armed with introductory letters from Barr to the leading European modernists, the two set of on a tour of the continent’s modern architecture. This ultimately led to the Modern’s first architectural exhibit, the celebrated 1932 Exhibition of Modern Architecture, or as it usually called The International Style: Architecture Since 1922.
In 1931 he co-curated (with Barr and Julian Levy) the independent show Rejected Architects, which created a public furor and paved the way for the International Style exhibit. It featured work by young architects that didn’t meet the requirements of the conservative Architectural League. The show was staged in a rented storefront and Johnson hired a sandwich-board man to parade in front of the League’s offices with the message “See Really Modern Architecture Rejected by the League.”
The League was outraged and tried to have the man arrested, but the attendant front-page publicity insured the show’s success and brought modern architecture to the public’s attention for the first time in the United States.
Although Mies van der Rohe had been announced as the designer of the International Style show, it was Johnson who, as the director of the Modern’s Department of Architecture, installed it. Alongside the standard private and public monuments it featured factories, hospitals, and a section on public housing prepared by Lewis Mumford and Catherine Bauer. The exhibit opened on February 9, 1932 and was visited by nearly 33,000 people before traveling across the United States.
Johnson continued to promote modern-ism throughout the 1930’s at the museum. In 1934 he staged Machine Art that presented objects such as door locks, ball bearings and toasters as designs of aesthetic beauty for the first time in a museum. That year he executed perhaps his first architectural design in the exhibit Why America Can’t have Good Housing—he mocked up a typical slum apartment he said was “complete and perfect down to the last cockroach.”
In 1934, Johnson unexpectedly gave up his directorship at the Modern. He and the museum’s executive director Alan Blackburn announced they were forming a National party and moving to Louisiana to work for the radical populist Huey Long. His political career was short lived—its main accomplishment seems to have been the design of a grey shirted uniform. Johnson moved back to New York for good after graduating from Harvard’s architecture school in 1945.
WILLIAM MENKING IS AN EDITOR AT AN
|Philip Johnson in the Glass House (1949)|
© ezra stoller/esto
I have lost a great friend; architecture has lost a great friend.
Philip Johnson possessed a great talent, but it was too little appreciated by those who confuse consistency with conviction. F. Scott Fitzgerald put it well when he wrote to the effect that a mind incapable of simultaneously entertaining contradictory ideas wasn’t much of a mind. Philip’s was the best mind of his time and, attuned to the contradictions of life, he did not sweep them under a carpet of conformity or consistency.
Philip was a friend to me for over forty years. I began as his student and remained such to the end. Whenever I encountered a problem I turned to Philip, not in the hope that he would solve it, but in the knowledge that he would be sympathetic and inspire me to move on to the next best thing.
Philip Johnson was a great rejuvenator.