Philip Johnson

Recognition

1973 AIGA Medal

Born

1906, Cleveland, Ohio

Deceased

2005, New Canaan, Connecticut

Recognized for his distinguished architecture and influence on the quality of graphic design

By any standard, 1972 was a tumultuous year for American architecture. In January, the first of Minoru Yamasaki’s twin towers for the World Trade Center in New York City opened to tenants. In March, demolition of the same architect’s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex began in n St. Louis, Missouri when the first of its buildings was brought down with an explosive detonation—an event that the architect Charles Jencks would later call the day Modernism died. In October, Louis Kahn, the architect most beloved of architects at the time, opened the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, to huge acclaim. In the midst of all this activity, one might almost be excused for overlooking the fact that Philip Johnson, the architect many architects at the time loved to hate, was awarded the AIGA Medal and completed several projects. That would be a mistake, however. Even in a lifetime practically overflowing with milestones, like becoming the first recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize four years later, 1972 was an important year for Johnson.

It’s impossible to speak of 20th century American architecture without encountering Philip Cortelyou Johnson at every turn. He was, for instance, partly responsible for bringing Modernism to the United States. Upon graduating from Harvard University in 1927, he set off upon a series of journeys to acquaint himself with the emerging modernist movement in European architecture, and returned to a post at the newly-founded Museum of Modern Art. There, with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Lewis Mumford, and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., he organized the exhibition Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, and published a book, The International Style: Modern Architecture since 1922, which would eventually lend its name to the architectural movement it described.

Energetic and charming, Johnson was a great connector of people and ideas—by age 30, he counted Ludwig Mies van der Rohe among his close associates, and would later be responsible for giving the great master his only New York project, the legendary Seagram building. Born to a fairly prosperous Cleveland, Ohio family, Johnson was also a young man of independent means. His wealth no doubt helped him pursue opportunities—he received no salary at MoMA, and instead paid a secretary out of his own pocket. But it also supported his innate talent for resilience. In 1936, a brief interlude in politically conservative journalism brought him a bit too close to Nazism for comfort (flippant as ever, he once said this was because he couldn’t be expected to resist the sight of “all those blond boys in black leather”). But when the United States joined the war in 1941, he signed up for the army. He would continue to atone for his Nazi period throughout his career by building for many Jewish organizations.

Between the end of World War II and 1972, Johnson had designed buildings and garnered accolades that for any other architect would have been a whole career’s worth. With his 1949 Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, he beat Mies to executing the first, fully transparent dwelling anchored by a brick core. It was extravagant even in its minimalism—“Don’t build a glass house if you’re worried about saving money on heating,” he told Esquire magazine 50 years later. In 1953, he created the Sculpture Garden at MoMA, where he had been involved as curator, trustee, and art donor for twenty years. He was the master planner of New York’s Lincoln Center (1955–1964), Mies’s right hand on the iconic Seagram building (1954–1958), and executed his first foreign commission, the art museum in Bielefeld, Germany (1968).

The opening salvo of 1972 was the completion of the IDS Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota—Johnson’s first skyscraper, executed with the architect John Burgee. That year, Johnson finally recognized the young Burgee as a partner in his practice, and the partnership gave the 66-year-old architect the ballast to launch another, equally vibrant phase in his career. The man who brought Modernism to America would eventually become one of the world’s preeminent postmodernist architects.

It started that October, with the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi Bay. A small, poured-concrete structure, the three-story museum stands blindingly white against the green site and the blue ocean beyond. In form, it is muscular for its size, in keeping with Johnson’s penchant for monumentality. In plan, it has been suggested that the building owes something to the artist Frank Stella’s “Irregular Polygons” series, much like the Sculpture Gallery Johnson had built on the grounds of his Glass House in 1970. It wasn’t quite Postmodern—proto-brutalist, perhaps—but it was certainly a far cry from the stark minimalism of Johnson’s earlier work.

The museum’s patrons had to pursue a reluctant Johnson to design the building; once persuaded, he brought the full force of his personal circle to the institution. The opening exhibition was curated by Johnson’s longtime life partner, David Whitney, although it would be a few years still before the couple began to acknowledge their relationship in public. The show featured three artists: Jasper Johns, whose iconic work “Flag” (1954) Johnson had donated to MoMA in 1958; Frank Stella, several of whose works were in Johnson and Whitney’s collection; and Andy Warhol, who was a close friend of the couple’s. Among Warhol’s paintings in the show was a portrait of Philip Johnson. The connection between art and architecture was one of Johnson’s core tenets, but this opening was literal and self-referential even by his showy standards.

In his book Philip Johnson & Texas, Frank D. Welch draws a more direct connection to the origins of postmodernism, writing, “The whiteness of the Corpus Christi museum was Johnson’s nod to the group of ambitious young architects—later protégés of Johnson’s—who were called ‘The Whites’.” Foremost among these was Peter Eisenman who, as director of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, had grown close to Johnson. In Eisenman and his friends Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier, the older architect recognized the beginnings of an exciting tide for architecture. Writing for a publication accompanying an exhibit of their works at MoMA in 1973, he wrote: “They are interested, as artists millennia before them have been, in the art of architecture. I feel especially close to them in this world of functionalist calculation and sociometric fact research.”

Thanks to their influence, and that of Robert A. M. Stern, Johnson would find himself a dedicated postmodernist by the end of the decade. In 1972, Johnson and Burgee were named the architects of the Miami Dade Cultural Center with the hope that they would be able to revive Miami’s flagging downtown area with a modernist masterpiece. But the architects’ proposal was neo-traditional—the first piece of civic architecture in modern Miami that paid tribute to the area’s tropical climate and Hispanic history.

In 1978, when Johnson unveiled his plans for a new tower for AT&T in Midtown Manhattan, The New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it “a design that raises passions equally in learned symposia and on the cocktail circuit.” The brouhaha was because Johnson proposed to insert, in a cityscape full of austere and sparkling glass towers, a stone-faced tower that stood on a Milan-inspired colonnade and was topped by a pediment that immediately recalled the 18th century furniture of English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale. It was entirely novel—the first postmodern skyscraper, by most accounts—and yet stunningly elegant. In six short years, at the age of 72, Johnson had reinvented himself.

After Frank Lloyd Wright, it is hard to think of another American architect who so forcefully caught the attention of the general public. Part of this is due to Johnson’s immense and powerful cultural sphere of influence—his dealings with the MoMA alone were complex enough to warrant the publication of a book on the subject. But it was his ability to adapt and renew his ideas that kept him in the public eye and his postmodern turn in the 1970s has been paralleled by few others in his profession.

There were many influential projects still to come for Johnson throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including a slew of tall office buildings across America and in Europe. In 1995, he made the last addition to the grounds of the Glass House, a black and red visitor’s center he called Da Monsta. He died in his sleep at the Glass House, on January 25, 2005, when he still had two major projects in the works—the Urban Glass House in New York and the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in Lancaster. They were completed posthumously.


Timeline:

1906 Born to Homer Hosea and Louise Pope Johnson in Cleveland, Ohio

1930 Returns from an architectural tour of Germany and the Czech Republic to graduate from Harvard University with a major in Philosophy; joins the architecture department at the Museum of Modern Art

1932 Organizes the exhibition Modern Architecture: International Exhibition alongside close associates Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and Henry-Russell Hitchcock; co-authors, with Hitchcock, the book The International Style: Architecture since 1922

1941 Enrolls in the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he studies architecture with Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius

1947 Is elected to the board of trustees at MoMA, where he curates the exhibition Mies van der Rohe

1949 Completes the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut

1956 Executes the interiors of the Seagram Building in New York, in collaboration with the architect of the building, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

1960 Meets his lover and future partner David Whitney while lecturing at Brown University

1967 John Burgee joins Philip Johnson’s office

1972 The IDS Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi Bay, Texas, open to acclaim; Burgee is made a partner in Johnson's firm; awarded the AIGA Medal, the very first national honor he received

1979 Becomes the first recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

1980 Completes the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California

1984 Completes 550 Madison Avenue (AT&T Tower) in New York, the most significant postmodern building of his career

1991 Is edged out of his firm by Burgee; launches his independent practice. The Museum of Television and Radio (now Paley Center for the Media) opens in New York.

1994 Officially comes out as gay with the release of his biography by Franz Schulze

1995 Makes the final addition to the grounds of the Glass House—a pavilion called Da Monsta

2005 Dies in his sleep at the Glass House

2008 The Pennsylvania Academy of Music, in Lancaster, is his last building, completed posthumously


Sources:

Goldberger, Paul. “Philip Johnson, Architecture’s Restless Intellect, Dies at 98.” The New York Times. January 27, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/27/arts/design/philip-johnson-architectures-restless-intellect-dies-at-98.html.

Ouroussoff, Nicolai. “Philip Johnson, An Appreciation: A Tastemaker Propelled by Curiosity.” The New York Times. January 27, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/27/arts/design/a-tastemaker-propelled-by-curiosity.html.

Schulze, Franz. Philip Johnson: Life and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Welch, Frank D. Philip Johnson & Texas. University of Texas Press, 2000.


This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.