PRINT April 1988



WHAT DID HELEN CHANDLER ever see in Bela Lugosi? Why would an attractive young virgin eagerly bare her neck to a transparently predatory old vampire? And, a lot of people have been wondering, why would an architect consider it an honor to appear in an exhibition curated by Philip Johnson?

To hear all the shrieking going on over Johnson’s show of “deconstructivist” architecture due to open in June at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, you’d think that garlic cloves would be dangling from every neck that ever bent over a drawing board. As Michael Sorkin noted in the Village Voice column last December that first went public with the story, people are outraged that Johnson, a trustee of the Modern, apparently got the idea for the show from interviewing a prospective candidate for the director’s job at the museum’s Department of Architecture and Design. The candidate wasn’t hired, though Johnson seems to have liked his ideas enough to end up taking one of them for the museum’s use. A lot of people are shocked that the museum doesn’t care how bad this looks—as an abuse of power, intellectual shoddiness, and the subjection of work of strong conviction to the curatorial whim of an architect without moral or esthetic ideals. They’re scandalized that architects like Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, and Coop Himmelblau would agree to be part of the show under such circumstances. And they’re scarcely less troubled by their own anger. It’s not as if we haven’t been forewarned; we know how Johnson operates. Mies van der Rohe, Johnson’s long-ago mentor, once said he didn’t want to be “interesting,” he wanted to be “good.” Johnson long ago decided that he could get more mileage out of being bad. Our outrage only fuels him.

The standard lines being used to defuse everybody’s anger, especially one’s own, are: (1) it’s going to be a great show, the best architecture show MoMA has done in years, so why fuss? and (2) give the guy a break, he’s 81 years old. Well, I hope it is a great show. But as to the second line, I’m not so sure—it seems to me a strong possibility that Philip Johnson resembles the persona Walter Pater fashioned for the Mona Lisa, a figure “older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.”

Johnson has often had the grave on his mind. “I put the nail in the coffin of Modernism,” the architect boasted of his Chippendale-top AT&T building, 1978, in New York. Possibly so; but what took him so long to get the body into the box? After all, it had been nearly half a century since Johnson had sucked the blood out of Modernism with his landmark “International” show at MoMA in 1932, an exhibition that sacrificed the social content of Modern architecture on the altar of formalism, reducing an ideological program to a night of the living if beautiful dead. And who can recall without a delicious shiver the chilling moment when, asked whether he planned to include Frank Lloyd Wright in that show, Johnson replied, “Isn’t he dead?” America’s greatest architect had 27 years and some of his most innovative buildings to go. But then the grave doesn’t hold all the secrets; or, to paraphrase Johnson, you cannot not not know the future.

Instead of feeling outraged, why don’t we just resign ourselves to the likelihood that over the millennia Johnson and his jar of mortician’s wax have always been with us. Why do you suppose, to take one example, that people stopped building pyramids? Wonderful forms, pyramids: handsome, easy to keep up, with breathtakingly cool interiors, real energy-savers, a sphinx’s perfect formal companion. We could have gone on building them forever. But you can get too much of a good thing, so one ancient evening Philip Johnson arose, from a casket of Nile silt, with a bright idea: let’s do a show on pyramids! And put the nail in the coffin of the Old Kingdom.

Or take the Greek temple. What a great idea, the Greek temple: classical lines, statuary groupings any museum director would go to war for, easily convertible to gunpowder storage when attendance goes slack, a truly timeless concept. But guess what happened: Philip Johnson mounted a show on classicism and put the nail in the coffin of the Doric order.

We’ve seen this happen again and again. Gothic cathedrals. Renaissance palazzi. Baroque churches. Georgian terraces. Art Nouveau cafés. One day they’re up, the next they’re down. There’s no need to waste time idly speculating on the rise and fall of civilizations, the clash of ideas, the exhaustion of lines of formal invention, the introduction of new technologies. Who needs all that fancy theorizing when a more logical explanation lies so readily at hand? Whenever things get too lively, the clock strikes, the owls hoot, the bats fly out of hell, and Philip, hammer and nails in hand, gallops forth in a horse-drawn hearse to announce that it’s time for a show—or, rather, a viewing.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design, New York. His column appears regularly in Artforum.