PRINT October 1978

Philip Johnson and History

THE RESTORATION OF THE PAST to architecture, after several decades of only intramural tumult in the profession, produced last spring the more public shock of Philip Johnson’s project for the American Telephone and Telegraph building in New York. Its conspicuous size and site, at 56th and Madison; its publication on the front page of the New York Times; and, above all, its raw juxtaposition of classical forms on a skyscraper, as a rejection, not a reform, of modern architecture, brought into question the meanings of tradition and the purposes of historicism in recent American architecture.

It is appropriate for Johnson to have raised these doubts, since his long career and his viewpoint exemplify more fully than any other architect’s the confounding of historical sense by architectural modernism in America. Whereas the modern painting that Johnson also did so much to foster could be safely encapsulated in the Museum of Modern Art, the new architecture had to rise here between churches or mansions striving precariously to recreate the past, and factories or skyscrapers that broke mindlessly with tradition, as one can see on the very block in which the Modern stands. From across the Atlantic new and old came here simultaneously, or even in reverse order—Art Deco, for example, arriving before the German Rationalism which on the Continent preceded it. In a style where priority and being up to date were everything, who could make sense of this? Perhaps only a mythmaker.

For this Johnson was well prepared. After graduating with a degree in classics from Harvard, he went in 1928 to Stuttgart to see the exhibition of modern housing assembled by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the hill of Weissenhof. Twenty years later, writing his study of Mies, Johnson was still to see Weissenhof as Eldorado: “The greatest group of buildings in history.” But Johnson had arrived in Europe after the Weissenhof exhibition had closed; he saw it only from the outside, without the banners and the crowds which had made it such a vivid event the year before. For Johnson, as for most Americans, architectural modernism on the Continent was always to belong to the past, at a temporal distance that was exaggerated by geographical remove. But with his classicist’s imagination he was able to reinvest European history, recent as well as ancient, with the timeless contemporaneity of myth, as Schliemann might have done with the fragments of Troy.

In America, however, European modernism still appeared shockingly new. As a critic, and later as an architect, Johnson was always to be the latecomer, yet in America he appeared as the prophet. He found himself stranded, like American novelists and artists of the 19th century, on a half-size Olympus, always in the shadow of the European architects but still too high for these shores. It was a position made tenable by high jinks and polemics, like Whistler’s before him.

In the 1930s Johnson began his career, not as an architect but as a curator of exhibitions, placing modernist activity at still another remove. He assisted Henry-Russell Hitchcock on the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932 which introduced European modern architecture to this country; he worked on the famous exhibition of “Machine Art,” the catalogue of which opens with statements by Plato and Thomas Aquinas in the original Greek and Latin. Johnson was later to conceive of modern architecture as just such an archly learned exhibition of set pieces.

This is literally true of two works of his that are “accepted as classical of the 20th century,” in the words of Hitchcock: the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, and Johnson’s own estate in Connecticut. On display in Connecticut are the Glass House, with the brick-walled inversion of it for guests; a classically arched gazebo on the lake; the underground picture gallery; and the skylighted sculpture court, each recalling different moments and architects from the past. Like the English gardens of the 18th century, to which it has often been compared, the Johnson estate presents works of architecture and sculpture for the associations they call up in juxtaposition with each other and with the landscape. These are objects of little formal invention or internal complexity, like the standard objects of the “Machine Art” exhibition, and they take their meaning from the manner of their display in space and the visitor’s movement among them—a form of the “processional” layout prized by Johnson.

When Johnson became an architect, after the war, he chose to follow in the path of Mies van der Rohe, the most exacting of modern architects. To choose that martinet was to choose a domination that could only be escaped—and, by the modernist imperative to originality, had to be escaped—by what Harold Bloom calls “disciplined perversity.” Johnson’s way out was to advert to the Neoclassical sources in masonry of Mies’ architecture, but to transmute the Teutonic post-and-lintel of Carl Friedrich Schinkel into dainty arches out of the Arabian Nights. His Amon Carter Museum preserves in Forth Worth the memory of Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin; the lake pavilion in his own garden echoes Schinkel’s gardener’s cottage in Potsdam; the second extension of the Museum of Modern Art, with its arched and trabeated mullions, reunites both forms with Miesian steel. Johnson now scorns this architecture as a kind of adolescent escapade of mid-life. But renouncing his past, which was a search for a longer past, did not lead to a better understanding of either.

By 1960 Johnson had begun to look for a more direct exit from modernism. He foresaw, and welcomed, the end of “the entire modern movement.” He paraded against the demolition of Pennsylvania Station—an early demonstration for the preservation of architecturally “historic” architecture. His enthusiasms foreshadowed the Beaux-Arts exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art a decade later; still, his works, whatever he professed, still looked like Mies’. When Robert Venturi in the 1960s at last found a way back into history, Johnson was caught short and couldn’t understand it. As one of the jurors for a competition, Johnson turned down a brilliant project of Venturi’s: it looked too much like Depression housing from an American past that had been ignored by Johnson for a mythical European one.

In the new A.T.&T. project Johnson has caught up with the past, belatedly and with a vengeance. No other new building refers so literally and prominently to architectural tradition. The base refers to the Pazzi Chapel, the shaft to Louis Sullivan, and the organization of the whole to McKim, Mead and White’s Municipal Building in New York. But the broken pediment, with steam issuing from the break, is the real cause of the talk about the new project. As the flat roof was the emblem of modernity in the 1920s—canonized at Weissenhof—so the pitched roof is now the sign of its rejection. It is also the only element of Johnson’s skyscraper without an obvious and specific pedigree. Such broken pediments served on occasional minor ancient works and, of course, on Chippendale secretaries, to bring heroic size down to scale, alluding to antique temples but diminishing their monumentality. But decapitating the pediment of a major building—even without a plume of steam—mocks as it asserts the fundamental pretensions of architecture. That is exactly what Robert Venturi, whom Johnson now says is much on his mind, did with the split gable or pediment of his mother’s house in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.

Johnson’s dependence on the younger architect—the man who slayed Mies—only brings out the great difference between two generations of American architects in their views of history. The architects who came into their own in the 1960s and early ’70s were the first generation of Americans to have mastered the modernist heritage, to have made it their own and to have gone on from there, whether they submerged it in the Beaux-Arts tradition or earlier references—like Venturi or Charles Moore—or worked their own variations upon it—as Peter Eisenman has now done with De Stijl, Richard Meier with early Le Corbusier, and Michael Graves with Cubist art. Therefore the architecture of the ’20s is for them safely in the past.

But for Johnson and his contemporaries, modernism was both too near and too far away. Erwin Panofsky has said of the medieval period that it could not exorcize the threat of Antiquity because the ancient world was still too much present; only when the ancient world had receded into the past, and what had been called “modern” became “medieval,” did the Renaissance domesticate antiquity as art. Similarly, the International Style loomed over American architects after World War II, and they struggled against it in numerous heroic comedies—Paul Rudolph in a frenzy, Louis Kahn with pomp and sermons, Eero Saarinen with rusting steel and fieldstone in concrete, and Johnson in travertine arches. But the International Style did not go away; the more the latecomers flailed, the more classic and enduring it seemed.

The chief difficulty was that these architects could not see their work as part of a continuously changing history. Not having known much about the origins of modernism, they accepted its own self-image as a complete break with the past, which was a misconception furthered by their training under the most ahistorical of the modernists, Gropius, or his imitators. It followed that the next change would have to be just as drastic—that history proceeded by revolutions, or the appearance of revolutions. These artists could not conceive of a development from European modernism. The pioneers of the modern movement were made into immortals above history. They could be followed (Johnson behind Mies) or repudiated (Rudolph against Mies). But the Americans had no ideas or values of their own strong enough to remake the masters in their own image.

Each new work of the younger architects, however, alters the sequence of the past without breaking with it. Their work belongs to the same history and will rise in the same cities as buildings of the International Style and the Beaux-Arts and Neoclassicism and the picturesque. Conversing with the past, they share some of the ease of the earlier American Beaux-Arts and eclectic architects in its presence: it’s no accident that Venturi and Graves, not Johnson, have inventively recaptured the Moderne. Nor do these architects pretend to eliminate modernism from history; in fact, it is often their gateway to the past. So Graves’ recent work moves through Le Corbusier and Art Deco to the Renaissance; Venturi’s ski lodge in Colorado touches Dada on its way to the forest architecture of Eastern Europe and pioneer American forts and cabins; Charles Moore’s Gund House in Westchester rearranges formal Virginia mansions and New England boxes according to the informality of recent American life. A work by a young Dutch architect—Rem Koolhaas’ competition design for Roosevelt Island housing—is more directly comparable with Johnson’s new tower than any of these: both take their meaning from mid-Manhattan’s skyscrapers, but where Johnson plays against the Miesian towers, Koolhaas recapitulates the up-and-down jazziness, the color and austerity of new and old, in forms neither modern nor traditional but with the aura of both.

The contrast between the approaches to history of Johnson and the younger architects brings to mind the first contest between modernist and historicizing skyscraper projects in America, the competition of 1922 for the Chicago Tribune Tower. At one extreme was the famous design of Walter Gropius and Adolph Meyer, its exposed steel frame adumbrating most of the modernist skyscrapers of the 1950s and ’60s in America. At the time, however, American architects paid much more attention to Eliel Saarinen’s second-prize project. Saarinen’s design so impressed Raymond Hood that he abandoned the more imitative mode which had won him the Tribune prize and modeled many of his famous New York skyscrapers of the ’20s upon it. Johnson has said of his A.T.&T. project (in an interview in Skyline) that he wished it to keep the company of older midtown buildings such as “the Radiator Building, the Daily News, all of Ray Hood’s buildings”—exactly the buildings which Johnson and Hitchcock had wanted to exclude from their show of 1932 on the grounds that they were not modern enough. But now, as then, nothing could be further from Johnson’s vision than Hood’s and Saarinen’s skyscrapers, which so coherently emulated Gothic towers and New York City’s new zoning laws plus Sullivan’s simplified lines that they fitted in easily with past and present in the skylines of Chicago or New York. Modernism for those eclectics was just one more style in the historical sequence and in the urban context: it had no mystical force of its own. Their view is more nearly shared by Venturi, Moore, Graves, Koolhaas and the other younger architects, whose work is an interpretation rather than, in the old modernist vein, a forcing of history.

Johnson’s project resembles none of these Chicago Tribune entries, but rather Adolf Loos’ notorious project in the form of a single colossal Doric column. It too took its meaning from an egregious rejection of its urban and historical setting, as an object in an exhibition. How could the Austrian arch-modernist arrive at much the same conclusion as the Beaux-Arts architects and the eccentrics who submitted towers bearing temples, pyramids, obelisks, Egyptian, Greek and Roman columns, even an Indian chief? Because, in part, mythmaking, for all of them, superseded every other aspect of architecture. All quoted historical forms only in order to transcend historical continuity, to escape the temporal as well as the urbanistic limitations of the skyscraper in Chicago in 1922. For Loos the meaning was polemical, a challenge to America’s utilitarian architecture. He was deadly serious, and chased Colonel McCormack around southern France, convinced the Colonel would change his mind and award him the prize. Johnson is naughtier, with that huffing pediment of his, but his too is a polemicist’s view of history as a rebellion in built slogans and manifestoes against America’s past. It makes little difference whether such polemics are straight or ironic.

The absurdities of the modernist position are not so readily escaped, except by acknowledging them as part of our heritage. Neither Johnson nor the younger and more vocal advocates of “Post-Modernism”—chiefly the architect Robert A.M. Stern and the critic Charles Jencks—seem fully to savor the strain of belated modernism in their own positions. They believe that in returning to the signs of the past they are returning to the language of the people. Johnson speaks of a new regionalism—the New-Yorkiness of his tower, the Floridian character of his Mission Revival cultural center for Dade County: Stern, of a return to the natural craving for ornament: Jencks, of a manifold imagery comprehensible to different groups at the same time. But these are merely attempts to usurp the old claim of modern architecture to broad social meaning—the claim for which it is now most harshly condemned. And all believe that they are on the true path to the new architecture, which will displace the old from the main sites. Their real concerns are for the future.

Or as Johnson said, concluding an interview about his project: “I do hope I’m ahead rather than behind in going to stone—going back to stone? Ahead to stone? I’m all mixed up. Which is perfectly normal and proper for an artist. An artist cannot afford to be self-satisfied, which reminds me of that wonderful quote from Malevich: ‘Only that man can be said to be alive who doesn’t mind discarding what he believed yesterday.’”

Richard Pommer teaches architectural history at Vassar College.