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Philip Johnson (1906-2005)

The adventurous life and changing allegiances of Postmodern kingmaker Philip Johnson

With Philip Johnson one can hardly speak of the term reputation in the singular; I know of no other architect who has had so many of them, or more contradictory ones. He liked it that way. For the better part of his 98 years, he was a public figure and subject of contention. Even now, with his death in 2005 receding into memory, he remains a polarising figure, an architectural litmus test, a man at once beloved and reviled.

Johnson was different things to different people, and sometimes different things to the same people. To the general public he was a dapper éminence grise, the personification of the gentleman architect. To the developer he was a high-end brand, a name to be affixed to the latest stack of floor plates, with a corresponding bump in prestige and profit.

‘He was a kingmaker who thrust the profession into public consciousness’

To his fellow architects, or some of them, he was a kingmaker who thrust the profession into the public consciousness, the man who minted celebrities and virtually created the ‘starchitect’ class. To others, he was a dark force who stripped Modernism of its social agenda and then betrayed it twice more, first as standard-bearer of the postmodern movement, then as promoter of deconstructivism’s empty formalism.

If there is a difficulty in nailing him down, it is because he was a man of endless contradiction. It is this fact, above all, that makes him such a fascinating, beguiling figure. (Full disclosure: I am at work on a new Johnson biography.) He was a historicist who proselytised for the new, a populist who was an elitist, an anti-Semite who befriended Jews, a visionary who lacked vision, a ‘genius’ who proclaimed his lack of talent, an enfant terrible who was a bastion of the establishment, a gossip and an intellectual, a gay man in a homophobic corporate world.

He could be heart-breakingly cruel, breathtakingly generous and flat-out hilarious. He shifted with prevailing winds with the tactical skill of an America’s Cup champion − except for those times when he didn’t.

Since he was so old for so long, it is instructive to recall how young he was when he thrust himself into the public consciousness, in the early 1930s, as director of the nascent architecture department at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Johnson was neither an architect nor an architectural historian, then, and still in his 20s. His mentors, Alfred Barr and Henry Russell-Hitchcock, were hardly august figures, each approaching 30 ahead of the opening of their awkwardly titled Modern Architecture: International Exhibition. Is it any wonder these three Harvard-trained aesthetes codified the modern movement in art historical terms, or that their show retroactively assumed the name they conjured, the International Style?

Johnson’s rise was a product of his own wealth. In the 1920s, while a student at Harvard University, he came into a fortune, a gift from his father. That money allowed him to travel abroad as he wished, to have Mies van der Rohe design him a New York apartment, to bankroll an assistant at MoMA. It inoculated him against the pressures of the world and allowed him to experiment for himself when there was no great demand for his services. His career, certainly, is an illustration of the power of affluence in a sharply divided American society.

In his prodigal years of the 1930s, he hoped to apply that power not in the field of architecture, but politics. He left MoMA, in 1934, and became a tireless advocate for a series of loathsome right-wing figures, including Hitler. He imagined himself as something of an American führer, and it was only when that plan collapsed that he returned to architecture, and as a practitioner not just a propagandist.

His greatest gift may well have been as a wielder of influence. He sat on juries that shaped the discipline’s future, doled out commissions, used his position at MoMA to shine a spotlight on those he deemed worthy and to orient the discipline in new directions. The list of architects who benefited from his patronage, the ‘kids’, as he called them, is a veritable who’s who of contemporary practice. To be invited to his table in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons − number 32 − was a rite of passage.

The restaurant was his design, one of his underrated contributions to the Seagram Building; without him it would have been a more sober place. For that matter, it might not have existed at all. The promotion of Mies in the United States had been a decades-long personal mission for Johnson, and it was Johnson who brought him together with Seagram heir Phyllis Lambert.

Biography

Philip Johnson
1906-2005

Education
Harvard University
Educator
Director of the Architecture Department at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Key buildings
Glass House, Connecticut (1949)
Seagram Building, New York City (1958)
Pennzoil Place, Houston (1975)
AT&T Building, New York (1984)

Garlands
AIA Gold Medal (1978)
Pritzker Architecture Prize (1979)

Quote
‘All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space’

Johnson is often underrated as an architect, largely because he produced, to be frank, a great deal of truly awful work, especially during his later, ‘I am a whore’ years, and because his two most prominent works are so polarising. There is, first and foremost, his own Glass House, too often stigmatised as a pale imitation of Mies’s Farnsworth House.

That was its precedent, to be sure, but as its own exercise in modern composition and harmony with the landscape it is something unique, a bespoke architectural environment like no other. And then there is the AT&T Building (now the Sony Building), one of the most inscrutable buildings of the last century. Was he serious? Was that wildly expensive tower an arch postmodern joke? If so, how can one explain its leaden monumentality? Here was Johnson, as ever, trying to have things all ways at once.

It is easy to forget his many successes: the series of refined modern homes that he built for his society friends in the postwar years; MoMA’s sculpture garden; midtown’s great oasis; his beautifully composed Pre-Columbian art pavilion at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC; and the New York State Theater, first derided along with the rest of the Lincoln Center, but now beloved as one of the city’s great jewels.

Then there are his two truly exemplary skyscrapers, the IDS Center in Minneapolis and Pennzoil Place in Houston − glassy modern shafts with pedestrian-friendly courts; and the wacky New York State Pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair − like nothing else in his catalogue. Do these victories forgive the mis-steps?

If there is any single characteristic that defines the architectural vocabulary of Johnson’s work, it is the void. Vacant spaces appear with regularity at the hearts of his buildings, regardless of programme: private residence, office tower, public institution. The Glass House, the building that will always define him, is in essence an empty container, a simple open room, a null space.

Johnson spoke with great eloquence about the primacy of procession in architecture, of the critical importance of experiencing a building through time and space. His own work, however, is generally defined by courts and atriums and open rooms − points of stasis. He imagined these as spaces of social interaction, and at their best, when animated by a human presence, they can achieve a great energy. Emptied of that presence, they can be just the opposite − barren, inert, inhuman.

Those voids are reflective of nothing so much as Johnson himself; he was, like his architecture, a vessel always in search of an external charge. It is this essential nature that explains his history of shifting positions, his changing favourites, his obsession with the new. It is what kept his table at the Four Seasons filled, and what made the Glass House America’s pre-eminent architectural salon. It is what made him vital, the secret to his longevity in career and in life.

Illustration

Adam Hill • See more work on his website

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