Philip Johnson

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Philip Cortelyou Johnson (July 8, 1906January 25, 2005) was an influential American architect. With his thick, round-framed glasses, Johnson was the most recognizable figure in American architecture for decades. Part icon, part oracle, part stand-up comic, Johnson was a reliable source of wit and provocation.

Philip Johnson at age 95 with his model of a 30' by 60' sculpture created for a collector in the Middle East. Posthumous installation is scheduled for completion in 2007.  In addition to his many large projects, Johnson produced dozens of such small works over his long career, on paper and built.
Philip Johnson at age 95 with his model of a 30' by 60' sculpture created for a collector in the Middle East. Posthumous installation is scheduled for completion in 2007. In addition to his many large projects, Johnson produced dozens of such small works over his long career, on paper and built.

In 1930, he founded the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA and later (1978), as a trustee, he was awarded an American Institute of Architects Gold Medal and the first Pritzker Architecture Prize, in 1979. He was a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. When Johnson died in January 2005, he was survived by his long time partner, David Whitney, who died only a few months later, on June 12, 2005.


[edit] Early life

Johnson was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He attended the Hackley School, in Tarrytown, New York, and then studied at Harvard as an undergraduate, where he focused on history and philosophy, particularly the work of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. Johnson interrupted his education with several extended trips to Europe. These trips became the pivotal moment of his education; he visited Chartres, the Parthenon, and many other ancient monuments, becoming increasingly fascinated with architecture. [1]

Then in 1928 Johnson met the Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was at the time designing the German Pavilion for the Barcelona exhibition of 1929. The meeting was a revelation for Johnson and formed the basis for a lifelong relationship of both collaboration and competition. The pupil had finally found the master.

In the 1930s Johnson sympathized with Nazism, and expressed antisemitic ideas [2] [3].

Johnson returned from Germany as a proselytizer for the new architecture. Touring Europe more comprehensively with his friends Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and Henry-Russell Hitchcock to examine firsthand recent trends in architecture, the three assembled their discoveries as the landmark show "The International Style: Architecture Since 1922" at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1932. The show was profoundly influential and is seen as the introduction of modern architecture to the American public. It introduced such pivotal architects as Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe. The exhibition was also notable for a controversy: architect Frank Lloyd Wright withdrew his entries in pique that he was not more prominently featured.

As critic Pater Blake has stated, the importance of this show in shaping American architecture in the century "cannot be overstated." In the book accompanying the show, coauthored with Hitchcock, Johnson argued that the new modern style maintained three formal principles: 1. an emphasis on architectural volume over mass (planes rather than solidity) 2. a rejection of symmetry and 3. rejection of applied decoration. The definition of the movement as a "style" with distinct formal characteristics has been seen by some critics as downplaying the social and political bent that many of the European practitioners shared.

Johnson continued to work as a proponent of modern architecture, using the Museum of Modern Art as a bully pulpit. He arranged for Le Corbusier's first visit to the United States in 1935, then worked to bring Mies and Marcel Breuer to the US as emigres.

During the Great Depression, Johnson resigned his post at MoMA to try his hand at journalism and agrarian populist politics. His enthusiasm centered on the critique of the liberal welfare state, whose "failure" seemed to be much in evidence during the 1930's. As a correspondent Johnson observed the Nuremberg Rallies in Germany, he covered the invasion of Poland in 1939. The invasion proved the breaking point in Johnson's interest in journalism or politics -- he returned to enlist in the US Army. After a couple of self-admittedly undistinguished years in uniform, Johnson returned to the Harvard Graduate School of Design to finally pursue his ultimate career of architect.

[edit] The Glass House

A model of the Glass House on display at MOMA in NYC
A model of the Glass House on display at MOMA in NYC

His early influence as a practicing architect was his use of glass; his masterpiece was a "Glass House" he designed as his own residence in New Canaan, Connecticut, a profoundly influential work (1949). The concept of a Glass House set in a landscape with views as its real “walls” had been developed by many authors in the German Glasarchitektur drawings of the 1920’s, and already sketched in initial form by Johnson's mentor Mies. The building is an essay in minimal structure, geometry, proportion, and the effects of transparency and reflection.

The house sits at the edge of a crest in Johnson’s estate overlooking a pond. The building's sides are glass and charcoal-painted steel; the floor, of brick, is not flush with the ground but sits about 10 inches or so up. The interior is open with the space divided by low walnut cabinets; a brick cylinder contains the bathroom and is the only object to reach floor to ceiling. Johnson built several structures in his estate. Fifty feet in front of the Glass House there is a guest house, echoing the proportions of the Glass House and completely enclosed in brick except for some small round windows at the rear. It contains a bathroom, a library, and a single bedroom with a gilt vaulted ceiling and shag carpet. There is also painting gallery with an innovative viewing mechanism of rotating walls to hold paintings, as well as a sky-lit sculpture gallery. The last structures Johnson built on the estate were a library-study and a reception building, the latter, red and black in color and of curving walls.

[edit] The Seagram Building

After completing several houses in the idiom of Mies and Breuer, Johnson joined Mies in the design of the 39 story Seagram Building (1956). This collaboration resulted in the remarkable bronze and glass tower on Park Avenue, whose strength of proportion, elegance of material, and constructional rigor led the New York Times to judge it the most important building of the twentieth century.

Completing the Seagram Building with Mies also decisively marked a shift in Johnson's career. After this accomplishment Johnson's practice enlarged as projects came in from the public realm -- such as coordinating the master plan of Lincoln Center and designing the New York State Theater of that complex. Meanwhile, Johnson began to grow impatient with the orthodoxies of the International Style he had championed.

[edit] Later Buildings

AT&T Building, now the Sony Building
AT&T Building, now the Sony Building

Although startling when constructed, the glass and steel tower (indeed many idioms of the modern movement) had by the 1960's become commonplace the world over. He eventually rejected much of the metallic appearance of earlier International Style buildings, and began designing spectacular, crystalline structures uniformly sheathed in glass. Many of these became instant icons, such as PPG Place in Pittsburgh and the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California.

Johnson's architectural work is a balancing act between two dominant trends in post-war American art: the more "serious" movement of Minimalism, and the more populist movement of Pop art. His best work has aspects of both movements. Johnson's personal collections reflected this dichotomy, as he introduced artists such as Rothko to the Museum of Modern Art as well as Warhol. Straddling between these two camps, his work was seen by purists of either side as always too contaminated or influenced by the other.

From 1967 to 1991 Johnson collaborated with John Burgee, and from 1984 onwards with the second partner, Raj Ahuja. This was by far Johnson's most productive period certainly by the measure of scale -- he became known at this time as builder of iconic office towers.

The AT&T Building in Manhattan, now the Sony Building, was completed in 1984 and was immediately controversial for its neo-Georgian pediment (Chippendale top). At the time, it was seen as provocation on a grand scale: crowning a Manhattan skyscraper with a shape echoing a historical wardrobe top defied every precept of the modernist aesthetic: historical pattern had been effectively outlawed among architects for years. In retrospect other critics have seen the AT&T Building as the first Postmodernist statement, necessary in the context of modernism's aesthetic cul-de-sac.

Johnson's publicly held archive, including architectural drawings, project records, and other papers up until 1964 are held by the Drawings and Archives Department of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University, the Getty, and the Museum of Modern Art.

[edit] Johnson's notable works include:

[edit] Quotes

  • "I would rather stay in Chartres Cathedral with the nearest john two blocks away, than spend a single night in a Harvard dorm."
  • "Architecture is surely not the design of space, certainly not the massing or organization of volumes. These are ancillary to the main point, which is the organization of procession. Architecture exists in time."
  • "The job of the architect today is to create beautiful buildings. That's all." 1965.
  • On architects being known for long life spans: "Of course they live long -- they have a chance to act out all their aggressions."
  • "To be in the presence of a great work of architecture is such a satisfaction that you can go hungry for days. To create a feeling such as mine in Chartres Cathedral when I was 13 is the aim of architecture."
  • "Early unsuccessess shouldn't bother anybody because it happens to absolutely everybody."

Johnson wrote (Heyer, 1966):

The painters have every advantage over us today...Besides being able to tear up their failures—we never can seem to grow ivy fast enough—their materials cost them nothing. They have no committees of laymen telling them what to do. They have no deadlines, no budgets. We are all sickeningly familiar with the final cuts to our plans at the last moment. Why not take out the landscaping, the retaining walls, the colonnades? The building would be just as useful and much cheaper. True, an architect leads a hard life—for an artist.
...Comfort is not a function of beauty... purpose is not necessary to make a building beautiful...sooner or later we will fit our buildings so that they can be used...where form comes from I don't know, but it has nothing at all to do with the functional or sociological aspects of our architecture.
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[edit] External links

[edit] References/Further reading

[edit] Gallery

NAME Johnson, Philip
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Johnson, Philip Cortelyou
DATE OF BIRTH July 8, 1906
PLACE OF BIRTH Cleveland, Ohio, United States of America
DATE OF DEATH January 25, 2005
PLACE OF DEATH New Canaan, Connecticut, United States of America