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Critics Choice - Philip Johnson transcripts

Transcripts from beyond the grave give entertaining insights into the life of Philip Johnson, says Andrew Mead

As a power-broker on the American scene for more than half a century, and an architectural chameleon who adopted numerous styles, Philip Johnson certainly laid himself open to criticism during his long life – and that was before he was outed as a former Nazi sympathiser.

But one surprise in The Philip Johnson Tapes (Monacelli Press, £27.50) is how self-critical he proves to be. The book records discussions between Johnson and his architectural protégé Robert AM Stern during the 1980s. The agreement that they would not be published while he was alive (he died in 2005) allowed him to be frank.

Johnson continually finds faults with his projects. ‘I didn’t know anything about detailing. Nor did I think it was important or necessary. It leads to much, much harder work,’ he says of his early houses. Of the Wolf House (1948) in Newburgh, New York State, he adds: ‘I was a very poor supervisor on the job. That’s not my dish at all.’ Stern joins in and, referring to New York City’s Lincoln Center (1965), says: ‘You just messed it up.’

Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s contemporaries sometimes get a rough ride: Walter Gropius’ house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, is called ‘that nasty little cottage’. Johnson also recalls his work with Mies van der Rohe on the Seagram Building (where Johnson is pictured below), ‘Mies couldn’t talk about architecture when he was sober,’ says Johnson.

This is a very funny book.

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