Remembering Philip Johnson

by Steven W. Semes

Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1949 <br> Philip C. Johnson AssociatesOne day in the early 1980s, architect Philip Johnson met with one of his clients, New York real estate developer George Klein, to present his design for a proposed office tower in Lower Manhattan. Klein told Johnson that he loved the design: the floors were eminently rentable, the elevator cores optimally efficient, the public spaces both grand and welcoming. “I love everything about it, except those—those things on the top.” The building, adjacent to the Florentine Renaissance Revival Federal Reserve Bank (designed by York and Sawyer in 1924), featured a set of castle-like turrets and battlements against the skyline. “I understand every part of the design but I just don’t get those things at the top!” As Klein became more agitated, Johnson reached over and, like a parent comforting an anxious child, tapped him lightly on the back of his hands and said quietly, “George, George, it’s only architecture! Just leave that to me.” With a startled look on his face, Klein looked up and said, “Okay, whatever you say.”

Johnson’s comment, “it’s only architecture,” is more illuminating than it first appears. On the one hand, it reassured a client insecure in his own aesthetic judgments, and on the other, it showed a perhaps cynical understanding on Johnson’s part that Klein had hired him precisely to provide a cynosure of provocative design. The Texas developer Gerald Hines had said that a Johnson-designed office tower could garner rents ten percent higher just from the famous architect’s “signature” on the building. If it took medieval turrets to reap this kind of reward in a competitive market, then Klein would just have to learn to love them. Viewed from our position twenty-some years later, we might say that Klein was right: on the completed building the turrets really don’t make much sense. The problem arises from those simple words Johnson spoke to Klein: They are, in fact, only architecture, meaning they are a kind of logo, an assertion of design not unlike the telling detail on an evening gown that distinguishes the couture creation from ready-to-wear. Aside from those turrets, there was little to separate this office building from any number of others at the time.

When he died on January 26, 2005, at the age of ninety-eight, obituaries and media commentaries emphasized Johnson’s mercurial, novelty-seeking, style-conscious, artistic intelligence. Throughout his career, he was often criticized as superficial in his approach to architecture but just as often envied for his success. Though his projects—especially the office buildings of the 1980s—were usually thoughtfully planned and detailed, his focus tended to linger on the look of a building, the signature silhouette that identified the building as a Philip Johnson design. In addition to Klein’s turrets, there is the Chippendale top of the AT&T Building in New York, the gothic spires rendered in reflective glass at PPG Place in Pittsburgh, the glassy Art Deco tower for Transco and the oblique minimalist sculpture of Pennzoil Place, both in Houston.

This emphasis on external styling dates back to his early years as a curator and critic, as in the 1931 Museum of Modern Art exhibition and book that first made his reputation, The International Style. Here Johnson and his co-author, Henry Russell Hitchcock, decoupled the unadorned, cubistic prisms of the early modernist designers Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, J.P.P. Oud and others from the socialist politics that accompanied them, making the new look suitable for wealthy American patrons and corporate executives. By the late 1940s, classical was out, modern was in, and Johnson, after receiving his architecture degree from Harvard in 1948, became one of the most visible and prolific exponents of the new style. His Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, of 1949 was, and remains, an icon of the new architecture he helped to popularize.

But Johnson’s attention did not remain long with the glass boxes of his early period. The buildings he designed during his lengthy career as a practitioner often seemed like the experiments of an easily bored child prodigy, as he moved listlessly from one style to another. At one point a critic accused him of making only “fantasy architecture.” “What other kind is there?” was his quick reply. His relationship to the mainstream modernist architectural establishment remained ambivalent as he went about undermining the remnants of the old classical tradition, while at the same time being a thorn in the side of purists in the modernist camp. As he lurched from one style to another, he seemed to take special delight in the irritation he caused the defenders of the established order, whoever they happened to be at the time.

Still, a common thread can be detected binding together much of his large, if uneven, body of work—his desire to clothe what he saw as the liberating possibilities of modernist materials and construction in an abstracted drapery of remembered historic architecture, especially from the classical tradition. “You cannot not know history,” he reminded his students, countering the modernist party line at a time when architectural education had largely banned serious study of the history of the discipline. Even if you are ignorant of history, you cannot escape its presence, Johnson seemed to say. If you know it well and incorporate its lessons, historic architecture will enrich your new architecture, no matter how superficially oppositional it may appear. He himself possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of architecture, historic and modern. He seemed to know every building of importance as if he had been personally present at its creation: ancient Greek temples, Roman basilicas, Renaissance and Baroque palaces and churches, neoclassical villas and museums, eclectic train stations, modernist workers’ housing, everything. His memory for architecture was like the memorized repertoire of a great classical musician. No reference seemed too remote to escape his awareness.

Johnson’s architectural heroes were the Frenchman Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736–1806), the Prussian Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) and the Briton Sir John Soane (1753–1837). These three contemporaries were stunningly imaginative architects given to inventive manipulations of mass and light, as well as idiosyncratic use of the formal grammar of classical architecture. They also emphasized abstract qualities of shape and space, while ornament and decoration were either subdued or suppressed. Johnson’s work is replete with allusions not only to their general styles, but to individual buildings designed by these three.

Johnson’s attempted synthesis of historic precedents and modernist styling was inaugurated in his Glass House. Like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the house’s debut was accompanied by footnotes in the form of an essay Johnson wrote explaining the composition’s historic antecedents, from the Athenian propylaea, to the Parisian barrières of Ledoux, to the Potsdam villas of Schinkel. The new architecture of the Glass House was undoubtedly shocking and radical, but it was also richly allusive, albeit on a broadly abstract level. Similarly, the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, the Dumbarton Oaks pavilion in Washington, D.C., the Sheldon Art Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the Roofless Church in New Harmony, Indiana, among many others, presented plan, section and elevation ideas that alluded to the architecture of the late eighteenth century, but only as if their antecedents had been reduced to the elementary particles of their composition. Whatever resemblances might be found between Johnson’s stark pavilions and any previous architecture were entirely diagrammatic, a matter of literary and spatial analogies alone.

Playhouse Theater, Cleveland, Ohio, 1983 Johnson/Burger Architects with Collins & RimerFor example, the 1960 façade of the New York State Theater includes elements that remind one of a classical façade of columns and entablatures, but these elements remain only suggested by roughly analogous shapes. The composite form, the progressive subdivision into smaller scale articulate detail, the punctuations and proportions of the classical orders, and the elaboration of ornament are missing. In Johnson’s designs we see only the bones, the diagram of a classical composition rendered in flat, unadorned planes of stone and glass. This reduction of composite form to abstract shape, inspired no doubt by developments in modernist painting and sculpture since the late nineteenth century, was an essential component of architectural practice and education from the 1950s through the 1980s, and Johnson embodied this approach perhaps more fully than any other architect. His personal connections with modern artists, many of whose works he collected, reinforced Johnson’s aesthetic experiments during the period.

Briefly, in the 1980s, Johnson moved beyond allusion toward a more literal inclusion of historic precedent. In designs for the School of Architecture at the University of Houston, at the Play House Theater in Cleveland and in the lobby of 190 South La Salle Street in Chicago, historical models from Ledoux, Soane and Schinkel started to trickle down into the details, including actual elements drawn from classical architecture. The Houston building displayed a crown of Greek-inspired columns atop a volume modeled directly after a design by Ledoux. For the theater in Cleveland, Johnson’s hometown, he added a series of new volumes to an existing collection of red brick 1920s buildings, creating a “village” of theaters. These were unified by a porticoed rotunda which Johnson based on Bernini’s church of Santa Maria dell’Assunzione in Ariccia. Upon close examination, however, the details of these buildings remained in the modernist vernacular of unadorned brick walls punctuated by glass and aluminum entrances. But in the lobby of the Chicago office building he went further: the space was surrounded by fluted Corinthian pilasters supporting a full entablature, with ornamental details gilded. To be sure, the lobby design lacks the refinement of its presumed historic models, and the proportions of the pilasters do not conform to the classical canon. As a result, they look spindly and too weak to support the massive cornice above them. But for a moment, Johnson seemed to have stepped out of the modernist look altogether, if somewhat awkwardly.

A brief anecdote from the period illustrates the ambivalence of Johnson’s position. In 1983, while working on the Play House Theater in Johnson’s office, I was taking a course in drawing the classical orders sponsored by Classical America and taught by Alvin Holm. I had been working on my class drawings during the lunch period when I was called to Mr. Johnson’s office to review the drawings of a new project. I quickly grabbed the papers off my desk and ran upstairs. He leafed through the drawings, making various comments. When he came upon my drawing of the Doric Order, he stopped and asked “What’s this?” Rather nervously, I explained that I’d brought up my class work by accident. “That’s marvelous. It’s so important that you study your orders. Everyone should study classical architecture. It’s so important that you learn this. Of course, we don’t do that sort of thing here.” Shortly after this, however, he started sketching the Corinthian pilasters for the Chicago lobby.

But perhaps this flirtation with the classical was an over-reaching, because Johnson’s attention soon moved on again. To my mind, it is a pity that Johnson did not pursue further his brief foray into the classical. His historical learning, fastidious eye and native feeling for the expressive possibilities of architectural form would have allowed him to make important contributions to the tradition, I believe. Two factors worked against this. First, while he could discuss architecture in words better than almost anyone, he never developed a facility in drawing, which is essential to classical design. His reliance on his own crude sketches, interpreted by his staff of draftsmen and model-makers, virtually assured that his buildings would continue to have an abstract, under-articulated character, as if only intended to be seen from a distance. Classical architecture, without a clearly articulated sensibility in the details reflecting the spirit of the whole, collapses into cartoonish diagrams. Second, for all his learning, he remained to the end a diabolical contrarian impatient with constraints of any kind, especially aesthetic ones. Johnson’s “bad boy” side could not avoid lampooning even his most revered models. He and the younger architects he championed at the time, Robert A. M. Stern and Michael Graves among them, produced parodies of the classical that epitomized the postmodernism of the 1980s. They wanted it both ways: they sought depth in historical allusion but could not resist “the shock of the new.” (Interestingly, over the last two decades Stern has dropped the irony and embraced a more serious and learned approach to traditional and classical design, as at his recently completed Spangler Center at the Harvard Business School.)

From his classical phase, Johnson leapt into the chaotic world of deconstruction. Only here, in the final years of his career, did he seem to leave the world of history behind altogether. Under the influence of another group of younger colleagues (“the Kids,” as he called them) including Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman, Johnson seemed to revel in an ultimate freedom to make pure shape, alluding now to, well, nothing. In the end, abstract shape won out over composite form, and Johnson delivered the Monsta, a brooding, dark, walk-in blob of a building that looks like nothing whatsoever, and now serves the New Canaan estate as a visitor center.

If the uses of history were one dominant theme in much of his work, another was the presence of the theater, both as a building type and as a metaphor for buildings in general. Johnson’s buildings, even the simplest, display an unmistakable theatrical flair. Indeed, he designed a number of theaters, and they have in common a singular focus on the public’s procession from the entrance, through the lobbies and into the house, that equals or exceeds the attention given to the dramatic setting of the stage and proscenium itself. The multi-tiered promenade around the grand lobby of the New York State Theater is provided solely to allow the audience to view itself. Public spectacle was as important to Johnson as the performance on the stage, perhaps more so. All Johnson’s buildings, even commercial office buildings, seem to illustrate this theatrical approach. After all, given the technological requirements of the type, the only things left for an architect to design in a contemporary office building are the exterior skin and the procession from the sidewalk to the elevator cab. That he envisioned this trip as a procession rather than a graceless lunge was something that distinguished all his projects.

Perhaps an outgrowth of this theatrical element was his interest in monumental design. By this I mean an interest in a monumental feeling, even at a less-than-monumental scale. This is another trait that appeared at the beginning, at the Glass House. Here was an object of utmost simplicity, a pristine, crystalline, rectangular prism resting on a brick plinth and set down on a perfectly flat lawn, like a post-industrial rendering of some kind of ancient shrine. An aura of monumentality, even at small scale, is one reason why his smaller buildings are among his best (such as the Glass House, the Dumbarton Oaks Pavilion, the Roofless Church). When the scale is truly large, as in some of the office complexes and banking halls, the aura of sublimity can be overpowering, or just colossally banal.

Regarding the intersection of the monumental and the mundane, Johnson once quipped that he would rather sleep on a cot in Chartres Cathedral, with the nearest bathroom two blocks away, than in a modern house equipped with every convenience but with no style at all. This is a revealing comment in several respects. First, one wants to respond that Chartres Cathedral was not built to be slept in, but for a purpose higher than mere monumentality. Johnson’s own attempt at truly monumental scale in a religious building, the all-glass Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, is both crudely colossal and utterly empty of content. Second, the remark shows Johnson’s well-known impatience with the drab requirements of the owners’ program, including the need for such-and-such number of toilets. Third, it reveals something fundamental about Johnson’s character that has been, to say the least, problematic for him: he had a deep and rather undiscriminating desire to be overwhelmed by what Vladimir Nabakov termed “aesthetic bliss.” The magnificence of the cathedral or the beautiful green color of the German Nazi uniforms were equally entrancing to him, and equally detached from what they signified to other people. One of these instances proved relatively harmless, the other inspired youthful misjudgments that he spent most of his career trying to live down.

In other words, Johnson allowed his judgments to be led by his eye, and the eye alone cannot lead one through a responsible life, or even to the best art. One must have a head and a heart as well. Here the criticism that his work was superficial finds a kernel of truth. While the beautiful, mostly reflective surfaces he created and collected around him were often alluring, they were also opaque to any gaze that might seek to probe deeper into the layers of meaning extending behind or beneath them. Like the paintings of Jasper Johns, Joseph Stella and Andy Warhol he collected, the witty surfaces Johnson made can, at their worst, seem like little more than the visual equivalent of cocktail party chatter. Hence, we have office buildings with Chippendale tops or wrapped in a wallpaper of endlessly repeated, abstracted Palladian windows. An American heiress might look elegant draped in a designer gown in a room inspired by socialist workers’ housing in Weimar Germany, and yet the contradiction between the look and the meaning of the architectural setting finally forces itself upon us. Forms and surfaces ultimately do mean things, whether the designer recognizes them as meaningful or not.

For those of us who began our careers in architecture during the ascendancy of the postmodern Johnson, his legacy is what we used to call a “mixed bag.” Among many buildings which will likely not be remembered, there are several that I believe will endure as moments in which the classical tradition and the modernist revolution struck an uncertain truce and sought to illuminate one another. For many of us who are today renewing the practice of classical design, we can look upon Johnson’s work during that time as a kind of transition, like that in the 1930s from the classical to the modernist; but now running in reverse, from the modernist back to the classical. The fact that this move is still met with intense opposition from the arts establishment demonstrates that Johnson’s quip “it’s only architecture” was either wrong or, more likely, was entirely ironical. Clearly, either the ongoing debate about how buildings should look is about a lot more than architecture, or architecture itself is a lot more than we might have thought.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2005, Volume 22, Number 3