Philip Johnson

'Godfather of American architecture'
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The Independent Online

Philip Cortelyou Johnson, architect: born Cleveland, Ohio 8 July 1906; Director, Department of Architecture, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1932-54, Trustee 1958-2005; died New Canaan, Connecticut 25 January 2005.

Philip Johnson was unquestionably the most influential American architect of the 20th century. Although he built on a considerable scale and in a variety of styles during a career that extended over 60 years, Johnson will be remembered as much for his activities as propagandist, patron, educator, and orchestrator, as for those as practitioner. He was variously described as "the dean of American architects" and "the godfather of American architecture", roles which he filled with gusto.

His early career tarnished by a youthful enthusiasm for Nazism, Johnson was later commissioned by Shimon Peres to design a nuclear power station in Israel, though it was only at the end of his life that Johnson made a public recantation of his erstwhile political affiliations. The FBI maintained a file on his activities for over 30 years, until he was finally judged to be no threat to national security.

Philip Cortelyou Johnson was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1906, the second (and eldest surviving) son of the wealthy lawyer Homer H. Johnson and his wife Louise. Expensively schooled, Philip enrolled at Harvard in 1923, majoring in philosophy and finally graduating in 1930. By this time, however, his interests had become dominated by architecture. An acquaintance with Alfred Barr, the first Director of New York City's Museum of Modern Art (which opened in 1929) led to Philip Johnson's collaboration with the historian and critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock on a hugely influential study The International Style: architecture since 1922 which accompanied the exhibition of the same name shown at Moma in 1932.

Johnson's personal wealth allowed him to take on an unpaid post as chairman of the museum's new department of architecture - for long the only department of its kind in any museum - and to travel extensively in Europe. He met the German architect Mies van der Rohe in Berlin in 1930, describing the latter as "the greatest man I have ever met". Mies travelled with the young American to Brno in Czechoslovakia, where the latter was greatly impressed by the Tugendhat House (which Mies, oddly, had never visited). Johnson became a tireless champion of Mies's work (though the latter had severe reservations about the direction that Johnson's own work took in the post-war years).

The International Style was criticised by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was included somewhat reluctantly by Johnson in the Moma show - as the greatest living American architect, albeit a senior figure already in his sixties, he could hardly be excluded. The two men subsequently cultivated a sometimes uneasy friendship, Johnson playing "prince" to Wright's "king". Johnson's own rejection of the functionalist philosophy that had dominated his earlier approach to architecture allowed him to appreciate Wright's work more fully, though he pronounced the detailing of the Johnson Wax building "execrable".

Johnson was a frequent visitor to Germany from the late Twenties onwards. It was in late Weimar Berlin that he first gave full rein to his homosexuality - at Harvard he had been tormented (he later reported) by anxieties about his sexual orientation and had suffered from severe fits of depression. A few years later, he thrilled to the sight of "blond boys in black leather" as detachments of young Nazis marched past. Johnson's attraction to Hitlerism was strong and led him to associate with the writer Lawrence Dennis (later charged with sedition), who shared his admiration of the charismatic Louisiana governor Huey Long. He was equally an admirer of the "radio priest", Father Charles Coughlin, notorious for his anti-Semitism and involved with a number of extreme right-wing organisations in the United States.

Johnson's enthusiasm for Hitler was fuelled by attendance at a 1938 Nuremberg rally, where he was "carried away by it all". The sight of Warsaw in flames after German bombing in 1939 was, he reported, "a stirring spectacle". Towards the end of his life Johnson referred to his political activities during the 1930s as the result of "unbelievable stupidity".

In 1940 Johnson's career took a new turn when he enrolled as a student in the Department of Architecture at Harvard University, then headed by the German émigré Walter Gropius. Johnson's impressive qualifications allowed him to graduate in three years - in 1943 he was drafted into the US Army. While studying under Gropius, Johnson built for himself a remarkable house in Ash Street, Cambridge, that drew its inspiration from the courtyard houses of his idol, Mies.

After release from the army, he established a practice in New York, returning also to Moma, where he was to remain a pervasive influence virtually to the end of his life. In 1947 he curated a major retrospective there of the work of Mies, who was now, of course, established in the US, teaching and building.

Johnson's most famous building, the Glass House at New Canaan, Connecticut, near New York, was completed in 1949. It was Johnson's residence during the latter years of his life and it was in the house that he died. Although broadly Miesian in inspiration, the house was a highly idiosyncratic work, notable for its powerful response to the green landscape surrounding it (where Johnson subsequently developed a small campus of buildings) and its explicitly formal order, focusing on the great brick cylinder (housing a bathroom and open fireplace) that lay at the heart of the house. The Glass House ranks alongside H.H. Richardson's Glessner House (which Johnson helped to save from destruction), Wright's Fallingwater and Mies's Farnsworth House (which was completed after the Glass House) amongst the greatest works of American domestic architecture.

A natural socialite with impeccable connections, Johnson secured commissions for new houses from many of America's richest families, including the Rockefellers, Fords and Hirshhorns. In 1954 he met the young Phyllis Lambert, whose father was chief executive of the Seagram corporation. Lambert was looking for an an architect to build the company's new Manhattan headquarters. Johnson backed Mies, who subsequently engaged Johnson as his partner for the project. The result was the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, completed in 1958 and the most perfect expression ever realised of the Miesian tall building. Johnson's own contribution to the project included the fit-out of the Four Seasons restaurant, where he was a regular client for the next 40 years.

Johnson's drift into what some critics described as "style-mongering" or "hedonistic nonchalance" was detectable even in his work of the 1950s in which he renounced functionalism in favour of a more eclectic band of influences. The interiors of the Guest House at New Canaan (1953) paid homage to the inventive English classicist John Soane, while the Sheldon Art Gallery at Lincoln, Nebraska and the Amon Carter Museum at Fort Worth were highly formal compositions in a classical spirit.

One of the largest commissions of the early Sixties, the New York State Theater (part of the new Lincoln Center, designed with Johnson's then professional partner, Richard Foster) was critically panned, along with the other buildings in the complex, as a weak compromise between the traditional and the modern. In contrast, the jewel-like Museum for Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, is one of Johnson's finest works, as disciplined as it is historically referential and a suitable container for the exquisite collection it contains.

Johnson's partnership with John Burgee (launched in 1967) saw the scale of his practice strikingly expanded. Johnson and Burgee were responsible for a number of very large office projects, including the IDS Center in Minneapolis, Pennzoil Place in Houston, Texas, the Transco Tower, also in Houston, and the extraordinary PPG headquarters in Pittsburgh, a paraphrase of the Palace of Westminster executed in reflective glazing and completed in 1984. (The firm produced proposals in a similar vein for a site close to Tower Bridge in London, but these were fortunately never realised.) An office scheme in Boston, Massachusetts, featured hundreds of Venetian windows, arranged in rows, an effect that was widely ridiculed. Johnson's response to criticism was disarming: "I am a whore . . . paid very well for high-rise buildings," he admitted.

Johnson's association with Postmodernism, an approach to architecture and urbanism of which he was hardly the first exponent, was fostered by his authorship of the AT&T Tower on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, completed in 1984, and widely known as "the Chippendale building" on account of its pedimented top. Inside, Johnson persuaded the client to instal a splendid gilded statue, The Genius of Electricity, salvaged from the old AT&T headquarters and depicting a naked youth straddling the globe and brandishing a length of cable and several bolts of lightning. Johnson Burgee's Postmodernist manner generated buildings that ranged from the pleasantly contextual (a cultural centre in Miami in the Spanish Mission style) to the entirely banal (the Crescent development in Dallas).

Their Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, built for Pastor Robert Schuller and completed in 1980, is, however, a breathtaking structure, technically awesome, and one of the most memorable modern churches, entirely in tune with the affluent and fervent born-again Christians who patronise it. The so-called "Lipstick Building" on New York's Third Avenue, where Johnson maintained an office after splitting with Burgee in rather unhappy circumstances, was another work that seemed to contain memories of a more rational past.

As a supporter of young architects, Johnson had a notable record. During the 1970s he championed the "New York Five", including Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman (a close associate) and Michael Graves. More recently, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid enjoyed his endorsement. The 1988 "Deconstructivist Architecture" exhibition at Moma, curated by Johnson, brought all three, together with Bernard Tschumi, Coop Himmelblau and others to the attention of a wide public and certainly launched a number of global careers. Another career launched by the show was that of the writer and academic Mark Wigley, who wrote the catalogue (which few felt added much to an understanding of the work on display).

The dinners of the Century Club in New York, over which Johnson presided, were seen as the meeting point for the inner circle of the American architectural scene. He maintained a regular table at the Four Seasons restaurant until the last years of his life and enjoyed meeting and entertaining visiting architects and writers, forever generous of his time and hospitality.

Johnson was the first recipient in 1979 of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, won most recently by Zaha Hadid, having been awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects the previous year. He was periodically mentioned as a likely recipient of the Royal Gold Medal awarded by the RIBA, but his Postmodernist associations, perhaps even more than his murky political history, meant that he was never likely to receive the award.

Johnson, who once said that his ambition was to live to be 100 - and then retire to Rome - announced his formal retirement last year. He was working into the new century, principally on projects for private houses. David Whitney, his companion over the last 45 years, survives him.

Kenneth Powell

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