Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Style and substance

  • Comment
Philip Johnson died last week at the age of 98. Kenneth Powell explores the history of a unique and often controversial figure

One quality that Philip Johnson possessed in superfluity was charm. When I first met him, more than a decade ago, in his office on Manhattan's 3rd Avenue, he was lavish in his praise not only of British architects (Richard Rogers was a particular enthusiasm) but equally of the British architectural press and critics. Some of us should relocate to New York, he advised, before berating the local critical scene, such as it was.

It was hardly surprising that Johnson should feel unhappy about American critics. Michael Sorkin had dismissed him as 'the architectural analogue of Ronald Reagan, another seamless producer of a seemingly endless series of contradictory statements'. For Ada Louise Huxtable, Johnson's AT&T Tower on Madison Avenue was 'a stand-up joke', its Post-Modernist styling the result of architectural 'cannibalism'. Campaigners in Boston managed to get the second phase of one of his projects cancelled and another architect appointed, a serious comedown for 'the dean of American architects'.

Johnson's association with Post-Modernism, regarded by many in the US as a mistake but in Britain as a moral failing, ensured that he had no chance of winning the Royal Gold Medal. (Venturi, who has a better claim to the title as the father of PoMo, has yet to win it. ) Then there was the issue of Nazism. Franz Schulze's 1994 biography of Johnson was frank about both his subject's homosexuality and his dubious political past. Back in the 1930s, Johnson, a frequent visitor to Germany, was enthralled by Hitler and his 'blond boys in black leather'. He was 'carried away' by his experience of a Nuremberg rally and found the German blitzkrieg on Warsaw, which he watched as a privileged observer, 'a stirring spectacle'. In the US he associated himself with right-wing figures such as Father Charles Coughlin and Governor Huey Long. It was not until late in his life that Johnson publicly admitted the 'unbelievable stupidity' of his escapades in the pre-war years.

Some never forgave him.

Not that any of this hindered his rise to a pivotal position on the American architectural scene. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1906, the son of a wealthy lawyer, he progressed easily from a top-notch school to Harvard University, reading classics and philosophy. He was in his mid30s when he returned to Harvard (where Gropius had become head) to qualify as an architect.

He sailed through in three years, given special dispensations. After all, Johnson had been the organiser of the 'International Style' exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1932 and had served as the first chairman of MoMA's department of architecture (his personal wealth allowed him to refuse a salary).

Johnson had met Mies van der Rohe in Germany in 1930.

He became a passionate devotee of the master's work, curating a MoMA retrospective in 1947, and in 1954 entering into a professional collaboration with Mies for the Seagram Building, the work that defined the Modern Movement's new identity as the style of corporate capitalism.

Johnson was, however, much more than a faithful acolyte, as his fit-out of the Seagram's Four Seasons restaurant confirmed.

His famous Glass House at New Canaan, near New York City, predated Mies's Farnsworth House and reflected a distinctive philosophy of place and materials.

It became the focus of a campus of buildings, the last of which, the Visitor Pavilion, was completed in 1995. (On Johnson's death, the entire estate passes to America's National Trust for Historic Preservation. ) His first scheme for this building was an exercise in the Shingle Style. What was built has more of the spirit of the 'Deconstructivist Architecture' show he curated at MoMA in 1988, seriously advancing the careers of Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman and others.

Post-Modernism, like the Modern Movement, was about ideas as much as styling, but for Johnson architecture was about aesthetics. He sought to create beautiful buildings, and sometimes succeeded - such as at the exquisite Pre-Columbian art museum at Dumbarton Oaks, completed in 1963.

A tendency to historicism emerged in his architecture as early as the 1950s - he was one of the contributors to that exercise in compromise, New York's Lincoln Center. An extension to the Boston Public Library, in contrast, was impeccably contextual.

With AT&T and the series of corporate office palaces generated by his partnership with John Burgee, he appeared to be binning his Miesian credentials. PPG Place in Pittsburgh (the Palace of Westminster paraphrased in mirror glass) was guaranteed to fuel his detractors. A rerun of the scheme was proposed for the 'London Bridge City phase II' site by the Thames, but was never realised.

Johnson's support for, and endorsement of, the work of architects such as Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Hadid and Gehry, and his role as promoter of debate (witness his 1990s intervention into the controversy over the future of Berlin), were as significant as his buildings - perhaps more so. He shared with his old sparring partner Frank Lloyd Wright the ability to jettison one set of ideas and set out in a new direction. He was a stylist to the core, both personally and professionally, with all that term implies. World architecture has lost a unique, if difficult, figure whose own career summed up much of its history during the past three-quarters of a century.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.