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Philip Johnson (American, 1906–2005)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American architect, critic and collector. The son of a well-to-do lawyer, he early displayed a keen natural intelligence that was diligently cultivated by his mother. He enrolled as an undergraduate at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, in 1923. A restless nature drew him successively to disciplines as diverse as music, the classics and philosophy, while emotional turmoil led to several breakdowns that delayed his graduation until 1930. By then, however, he had developed a close friendship with the young art historian Alfred H. Barr jr, who in 1929 assumed the directorship of the new Museum of Modern Art in New York. At about the same time Johnson met another art historian, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, whose article on J. J. P. Oud (‘The Architectural Work of J. J. P. Oud’, The Arts, xiii/2 (Feb 1928), pp. 97–103) had suddenly focused Johnson’s scattered mental energies on architecture and, more specifically, on modern European architecture of the 1920s.

In 1930 Johnson and Hitchcock toured Europe, studying the work of the architectural avant-garde. On his return Johnson, appointed by Barr and assisted by both Barr and Hitchcock, organized the epoch-making Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, which opened at MOMA in 1932. The show effectively introduced to the American public the work of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Oud, together with that of other selected architects from around the world. The name International Style, which became associated with the exhibited work, can be traced to several independent sources, but its place in the contemporary vocabulary is traceable chiefly to the title of a book, The International Style by Johnson and Hitchcock, that accompanied the MOMA exhibition. Both exhibition and book advanced the concept that early modern architecture, especially in Europe in the 1920s, had qualities in common that suggested a style global in its reach. Johnson and Hitchcock emphasized the formal and aesthetic value of these qualities, while ignoring the social and political dimensions of the architecture in which they were embodied.

Though formally appointed Director of the Department of Architecture at MOMA in 1932, the habitually restless Johnson resigned that post two years later and began a bizarre political career in right-wing politics. The offer of his services in 1935 to the controversial Louisiana populist Senator Huey Long was dismissed, somewhat contemptuously; but Johnson soldiered on, attaching himself more successfully to the famously demagogic radio personality of Detroit, Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, for whose journal Social Justice Johnson wrote several articles. Running on the Democrat ticket in 1935, Johnson won nomination to the state legislature from his Ohio district. He later withdrew his candidacy, preferring to work for Coughlin in the latter’s own efforts to unseat President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. Coughlin failed at this, whereupon Johnson drew actively closer to an explicit embrace of fascist doctrine. He travelled several times in the mid- to late 1930s to Germany, attracted not only by the aura surrounding Adolf Hitler but by the rapid political advances made at the time by the Nazi government.

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 dampened much of Johnson’s political ardour, and by late 1940 he had returned to Harvard as a student of architecture in the university’s graduate school. He studied with Gropius and Marcel Breuer, both refugees from Germany and the Bauhaus. Johnson graduated in 1943, served in the U.S. army and was back in New York by the end of the war. He opened his own office, but the sluggishness of the post-war economy prompted him to divide his time between his practice and, following another invitation from Barr, a resumed position as the head of the architecture department at MOMA. During this second tenure at the museum, his most important accomplishment was The Architecture of Mies van der Rohe (1947), an exhibition accompanied by a monograph, both offering the first full-scale documentation of Mies van der Rohe’s career. Johnson also designed the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller sculpture garden (1952; remodelled by Johnson in 1964) at MOMA before leaving the museum in 1954 to take up architectural practice on a full-time basis.

Johnson’s long-standing devotion to Mies van der Rohe was apparent in his early buildings, predominantly suburban residences. Chief among these was the Glass House (1949) at New Canaan, CT, designed for his own use and widely regarded as one of his finest works. Derived from Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1946–51) at Plano, IL, but more classical in plan, the Glass House attests to Johnson’s naturally critical turn of mind and his preoccupation with history. In an article written in 1950 for the Architectural Review, he listed the influences behind the Glass House, which included not only Mies van der Rohe but also Le Corbusier, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Kazimir Malevich, Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the De Stijl movement.

In the early 1950s Johnson’s work veered sharply away from the manner of Mies van der Rohe. A pronounced dependence on historical sources was especially evident in his Kneses Tifereth Israel Synagogue (1956) in Port Chester, NY, which features references to Ledoux and Sir John Soane. Although he accepted Mies van der Rohe’s offer to serve as a partner in the design of the Seagram Building (1954–8; with Kahn and Jacobs), New York, his own work of the 1950s and 1960s was marked by a dizzying, eclectic variety of styles underpinned by a steadfast commitment to a formalist aesthetic. Notable completed buildings from the period are the Roofless Church (1960) in New Harmony, IN, with its domed canopy, the geometrically planned Museum for Pre-Columbian Art (1963) at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, the monumentally classicist New York State Theater (1964; with Richard Foster) within the Lincoln Center, New York, the inventively proportioned Kline Science Center (1965; with Richard Foster) at Yale University, New Haven, CT, and, for his own New Canaan estate, a painting gallery (1965) and a sculpture gallery (1970) to house his personal collection of contemporary art. He was a significant collector, mostly of avant-garde works, and a major donor of painting and sculpture to MOMA. His gifts included work by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Julian Schnabel.

Johnson worked with a number of partners in his practice, including Landes Gores (1919–91) from 1946 to 1951, Richard Foster (b 1919) during most of the 1960s and early 1970s and John Burgee (b 1933) from 1967 to 1991. It was Burgee’s experience with the large commercial firm of C. F. Murphy Associates in Chicago that prompted Johnson to hire him, setting the stage for a remarkably prosperous two-decade-long partnership and a multifaceted catalogue of high-rise buildings. Of these, the IDS (Investors Diversified Services) Building in Minneapolis (1973; with Edward F. Baker Associates) and Pennzoil Place (1986; with Wilson, Harris, Crain & Anderson) in Houston were significant in breaking free of the parallelepiped form common in post-war skyscrapers. IDS featured chamfered, serrated corners, while Pennzoil Place consisted of a pair of trapezoidally-planned, glass-clad towers that nearly touched at the opposing obtuse angles.

During in the 1980s Johnson’s penchant for extreme variety of form reasserted itself. The Crystal Cathedral (1980), a glass polyhedron in the late modern manner, in Garden Grove, CA, was followed by a group of structures variously indebted to the historicism of the post-modernist movement. The RepublicBank Center (1984), Houston, is abundant in Gothic guildhall allusions, even as the Transco Tower (1985), Houston, bows to the classicism of Bertram Goodhue and the PPG (Pittsburgh Plate Glass) Corporate Headquarters (1984), Pittsburgh, is an improvisation in glass based on London’s Houses of Parliament. The building that drew the widest attention to Johnson, vaulting him to public superstardom, was the AT&T Building (now the Sony Building; 1979–84). Various period references, mostly Renaissance and Baroque, were overshadowed by the celebrated Chippendale pediment that provides the building with a unique profile on the Manhattan skyline. While this and other ‘signature’ commercial structures were spectacular and more often than not satisfying to their clients, they aroused heated controversy among the critics, many of whom rebuked Johnson for his purported fascination with novelty for novelty’s sake. Johnson returned to MOMA in 1988 as the guest curator of an exhibition entitled Deconstructivist Architecture, billed as a ‘development post-dating post-modernism’ and notable for the inclusion of such new designers as Daniel Libeskind (b 1946) and Zaha Hadid (b 1950). In his late eighties, having parted company with Burgee and opened a new office by himself, Johnson turned away from Deconstructivism as he had steadily from previous manners, maintaining only his belief in formalism and, in the mid-1990s, experimenting with ideas drawn from early German Expressionism. His contributions won him numerous awards, principally the gold medal of the American Institute of Architects (1978) and the Pritzker Prize (1979). He was, in sum and incontestably, one of the major American cultural presences of the 20th century.

Franz Schulze
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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