PRINT May 2005


Philip Johnson

PHILIP JOHNSON is not gone. The “godfather” of American architecture keeps producing the same excesses of praise and criticism that he attracted his whole life. It was his special gift always to be able to elicit this intense yet ambivalent reaction. From the moment in January 1931 that he was asked to direct an exhibition at MoMA at the precocious age of twenty-four until his recent death not quite four months after he retired at the daunting age of ninety-eight, Johnson rattled institutions and ideas. To his credit, he is unlikely to be treated kindly in official memory.

There was always as much to criticize as to praise in Johnson. Yet most of the inflated reaction says more about the people reacting than about him. One of his key roles was to act as a highly visible screen onto which people could project their fantasies—a role he seemed to enjoy because it paradoxically granted him a kind of privacy. The most public figure in architecture—who literally lived in a glass house and was endlessly explicit about his ambitions, tactics, and limits (and eventually his sexuality)—was finally elusive. His smooth speed of mind and word only served to create a seamless shelter for ever-present vulnerabilities.

From the beginning, Johnson constructed himself as a public personality, a media figure, with a combination of boyish enthusiasm, relentless intelligence, and strategic brilliance. Every act was calculated for effect, and before long he was an institution in his own right. Immediately after curating the pivotal 1932 “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” at MoMA in partnership with the historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, he was appointed the inaugural director of the museum’s Department of Architecture. The relationship between architecture, its collection, and its exhibition immediately changed with the innovative launch of the first such department in the world. Architecture could now be positioned and promoted differently. Johnson quickly turned the department into the arbiter of quality, operating like the editor of a polemical magazine: The museum would serve as an activist medium rather than as a mausoleum. Exhibitions were launched like salvos in a battle. Circles of practitioners, critics, collectors, clients, and a newly cultivated public hovered around this new scene, created by a rich, young aesthete from Cleveland who had no formal training in the field he now presided over.

Johnson is unthinkable outside of this role at MoMA, and the museum is unthinkable outside of him. He curated so many of its pivotal exhibitions, designed some of its most admired spaces, and was the donor of thousands of key paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, posters, and books. Johnson was usually ahead of the museum, and he remains so. His influence is so great that we still need him to enter the building: The image on our member’s card is a detail of Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe of 1962, donated by Johnson the same year. The gift woke the museum up to the contemporary American art it had been ignoring, and Johnson’s massive 1969–72 donation of Pop and Minimalist works established the core of the museum’s holdings in those areas with pivotal works like Rauschenberg’s combine-painting First Landing Jump, of 1961. Having started with a Paul Klee painting he bought from the artist when visiting the Bauhaus in 1929, Johnson’s collecting kept gathering momentum, particularly with the collaboration of David Whitney, his life partner from 1960 on. If one were to reassemble all the gifts to MoMA alongside all the remarkable works that will now go on public display at his house in New Canaan, Connecticut, Johnson’s collection would rival any in the world and attest to his knack for presciently identifying key figures, works, and tendencies.

In the architecture world, Johnson’s keen feel for the pulse is equally admired, but the reviews of his own work are mixed. His designs are usually seen as derivative, which is how he described them himself, repeatedly flaunting his overarching principle of getting the job. He had the same influence on the interpretation of his own work as on that of others. There is a surplus of unimpressive buildings, yet Johnson was a much better architect than his insistent confession of fickleness and superficiality would suggest. We have to greatly admire any designer who leaves us the Glass House (1949), one of the most celebrated structures of the last century; Pennzoil Place (1976), which redefined skyscraper design; the subtle brilliance of the Four Seasons restaurant interior (1958); and the pre-Columbian galleries at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, DC (1963), with their nuanced play of interlocking geometry and light. Many other exemplary projects could be singled out, but Johnson’s self-deprecating wit once again acts as a shelter, a preemptive defense against critics. His infamous chasing of successive styles overlooks the consistent qualities in the work, the steady pursuit of sensuous efficiency and an expertise with the calibrated processional experience of space. The tension between the minimalist, empty glass box of the house in New Canaan and the interior decor of its antithetical closed, brick guest house is emblematic of the way his work continually absorbs the dual influences of Mies van der Rohe’s minimalism and the simplified yet rich classicism of the late-eighteenth-century English architect John Soane. The result is a paring down to basic elements, then a seductive elaboration within the surface of these elements. The work was always minimalist in the sense of capturing and communicating a diagrammatic idea, even if that idea involved a complexity of geometry or decoration.

Johnson cultivated the very same quality in conversation and polemic. He was an astute reader of situations, able to cannily reduce everything to a charming and efficient sentence. In the late ’80s, he invited me to put together an exhibition at MoMA, and I will never forget his clarity and humor, the boundless enthusiasm and laughter of a child. It was as hard to keep pace with him walking briskly along Fifty-third Street as it was to keep up in a conversation. He was fascinated by the latest innovations yet easily encouraged to reminisce. He was a walking archive, with vague memories of the recent past and precise memories of the 1920s. Everything was driven by an impatient desire to cut through to the key issues or sensations. At the time, he was propelled by an active disinterest in the discourse around postmodernism that had captivated him for some years. The sense that the discourse was finally moving again was his only elixir. Johnson was yet again a catalyst, inserting himself at the center of the scene to help push things along, embracing the latest wave of experimentation while using the implied promise that he would equally easily embrace a subsequent move as a thin but effective defensive layer.

Johnson was passionately in love with his field and in so many ways better than his reputation. Yet we cannot forget his appalling affair with fascism that overlapped and interrupted his early years at MoMA. Having more than just a personal sympathy with the Far Right, Johnson attempted to found a political party, attended one of Hitler’s rallies, enthusiastically followed the invaders into Poland, and wrote in support of the Reich. He was not just seduced by authoritarian power but tried to be active in its consolidation. In a strange way, this well-known episode has ultimately been treated as less offensive than his self-described weakness for style, which again reveals more about the field than it does about him. Architects rarely see themselves as ethical role models. The discipline feigns blindness to its complicity. But the nuanced work has yet to be done to identify the exact relationship between Johnson’s actions and his work. Rather than scandal or analysis, all we have ended up with so far is an implicit association between the dictatorial power that attracted him and his own influence on the discipline as its “godfather,” along with his infinite comfort consorting with the plutocracy.

This image of power is inseparable from Johnson’s generosity. He was famously supportive of the generations before and after him, which is almost unheard of in the field. He helped connect architects to clients; underwrote organizations, research, and publications; and even gave direct financial aid to some designers. He collected architects like paintings and photographed his collection. A series of pictures of groups of the chosen designers after meetings behind closed doors magnified the image of power, even though he was more propped up by his protégés (Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, et al.) than he was responsible for their success. Johnson’s actual role was to be the symbol of power that allowed the whole system to operate, even if he had very little ability to control anything. This is a role unlikely to be filled again. It defines a time, now passed, when a single figure, a single museum department, a single institution, or a single book could wield so much influence. A figure like Philip Johnson is as redundant in today’s dense culture of overlapping global networks as it was crucial in the last century.

Johnson was in the unique position of being able to confuse the roles of patron, designer, and curator. The immediate steep rise in the value of the aluminum stock that he received from his parents at the age of eighteen allowed him to experiment. He hired Mies and Lilly Reich to do the interior of his apartment in Manhattan in 1930 before he had even seen their work. Ten years later, after setting up many commissions for others and trying to escape his political blundering, he finally decided to train as an architect and was immediately able to act as his own client, building a house for himself in Cambridge during his time at Harvard. The sophisticated design echoed the courtyard-house schemes of Mies and was successfully presented as his senior- thesis project in yet another confusion of roles. Like the Manhattan apartment before and the Mies-inspired Glass House later, the domestic space was used as a key site for the endless salons that incubated Johnson as a public figure. He wore each house like an ostentatiously crisp, tailored suit to be admired more for the way it has been chosen from a particular line than for its actual design.

This pleasure in the supposedly subordinate variations in a line reveals a deeper affinity with Warhol than their friendship and collaborations might indicate. The two were great collectors because they were great shoppers. While Warhol turned commercial objects and personalities into icons, Johnson treated the world of design objects as something to absorb, analyze, and tweak in subtle variations. Other architects were his readymades. Yet he was strangely reluctant to copy himself, allowing some lines to develop in his work for a short time but avoiding Warhol’s hypnotic seriality in order to polemically represent nothing in particular other than tasteful choice and change itself. What didn’t change was him—a remarkably resilient figure whose distinctive silhouette became clearer with each shift of enthusiasm.

In the end, all talk of Philip Johnson is brought to a stop by the remarkable Glass House, a landscape project that goes far beyond its inspiration in a house by Mies. Its beauty lies in its marshaling of so many different elements to construct the effect of emptiness. Its brilliance transcends the personal soap opera of its architect or any discussion of the originality of copies in our culture. We are a left with a design that finally shuts everyone up, including its restless designer.

Mark Wigley is Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York.