The Magazine

Philip Johnson

Fashion as architecture, and vice versa.

Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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The memory of Philip Johnson, who died early last year at age 98, may not linger for very long. But we shouldn't let his centennial year--he was born July 8, 1906--pass without contemplating his significance. Johnson was, after all, the original "starchitect," and perhaps no other 20th-century designer had a bigger impact on the American skyline. His career uniquely encapsulates the succession of stylistic fads that marks the history of American architecture since World War II.

While in his mid-twenties, Johnson was present at the creation of the modernist movement in the United States--not as an architect, but as the founding curator of the Museum of Modern Art's architecture department. After a dalliance with far-right politics by turns comic and sordid, Johnson belatedly took an architecture degree and designed in the high-modernist International Style for a time. But along with Edward Durell Stone of Two Columbus Circle and Kennedy Center fame, Johnson was among the first modernists to adopt the postmodern technique of incorporating loosely interpreted historical elements into his designs.

There were plenty more stylistic twists and turns along the way, including the more literal knockoffs of traditional styles--starting with the famous AT&T Building (now Sony Plaza) in Midtown Manhattan, with its "Chippendale" crest. Deconstructionism was Johnson's last exit off the highway to nowhere, taken when he was an octogenarian. Small wonder he was nicknamed "the chameleon."

During the 1970s Johnson became a celebrity. He won the first Pritzker Prize, modernist architecture's Nobel, in 1979--the year he got the AT&T commission. He had by now mastered the art of branding high-rise buildings not merely as corporate icons but as signature works of "starchitecture." Indeed, Johnson virtually branded himself with the trademark Corbusian-style round eyeglasses he was sporting by the time he took the prize. He was far from a great designer, but he was a clever one, ever alert to changes in the cultural climate. He knew much more architecture history than the vast majority of his modernist peers, and his quick wit made for good copy. In an era when architecture was chronically searching for new moorings, these assets sufficed to propel him into his profession's stratosphere.

Johnson studied philosophy as a Harvard undergraduate, and considered himself a Nietzschean, largely because Friedrich Nietzsche had convinced him that art was a matter of religious significance. And yet he seemed to forget that Nietzsche was no chameleon.

"I've never changed my aesthetic, my ethic, my Nietzschean point of view," he told Preservation magazine a decade before he died. "Change is the essence." In fact, Nietzsche sought a new, enduring foundation for culture that would put an end to the aimless, spiritually corrosive change he associated with egalitarian democracy. Putting architecture on such a foundation was a task for which the opportunistic Johnson was thoroughly ill-suited, and deep down he knew it. That's one reason he didn't take himself too seriously.

As Franz Schulze makes clear in his informative 1994 biography, Philip Johnson: Life and Work, Johnson's star power was reinforced by his status as a cultural arbiter. This he had established in the early 1930s during his MoMA curatorship (which he resumed for some years after World War II). Well after the demise of the modernist pioneers--Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright--he would emerge as the architectural power broker par excellence. He sought out younger architects whose arcane theories defined the "cutting edge." Even while he was busy mining architectural history for motifs that would liven up his skyscrapers, he saw that postmodern pastiche was losing its glitter, so he helped put deconstructionist architecture and a new "avant-garde," whose leading light was Frank Gehry, on the map. He got out the word about the younger architects to watch, invited his favorites to exclusive gatherings at the Manhattan club for cultural movers and shakers (the Century Association) and steered plum commissions their way.

Still, Johnson's architectural practice is what matters most. Critics tend to focus their praise on small buildings: the Glass House, the one-room, Miesian residential box he built on his New Canaan estate in 1949, and the multidomed, expensively appointed pavilion for the display of pre-Columbian artifacts that he completed 14 years later at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, owned by Harvard. The latter building is the more interesting of the two. It isn't much to look at on the outside, but it boasts a welcoming interior enclosed by glass and stout cylindrical marble posts, with teak floors and bronze detail on the posts and ceilings.