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.

These projects are of minor significance, however, compared with the high-profile buildings--mainly office buildings--that Johnson subsequently designed for New York, Houston, Dallas, Boston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Denver, Chicago, Miami, St. Louis, Washington, and a considerable number of smaller cities besides.

Until he took on an ambitious young Chicago architect named John Burgee as his professional partner in 1967, Johnson was not a player in the office building niche. Nevertheless, it was mainly thanks to him that Mies, his original mentor, got the commission for the Seagram Building on Manhattan's Park Avenue--perhaps the International Style's supreme achievement. Johnson worked on the Seagram project as junior partner, designing the sumptuous interior of the Four Seasons restaurant that was lodged behind Mies's tower. Completed in 1959, the tower was meticulously detailed, but its rectilinear geometries, like those of Gordon Bunshaft's nearby Lever House, proved an unfortunate model for office-building architecture, leading to a veritable plague of tall, stark, glassy boxes in America's downtowns.

Around 1960 Johnson was still producing some more or less Miesian work, while searching for a more emotionally charged alternative to the minimalist International Style that somehow related to the classical tradition. Johnson thus forged a postmodern idiom, derisively dubbed "ballet classicism." The highest-profile project in this vein is his New York State Theater at Manhattan's Lincoln Center, completed in 1964. Its dumbed-down travertine portico boasts big paired posts with chunky flanges supporting a roof slab with a little attic-slab recessed above--basically a diluted rendition of Schinkel's magisterial Altes Museum in Berlin (1828).

Inside, the ceiling of Johnson's vast foyer is lined with gold leaf, while the ceiling of the theater itself offers a glitzy rendition of Michelangelo's intricate geometric pavement pattern for the Campidoglio in Rome. (This pattern also was used on the pavement of the Lincoln Center plaza at Johnson's behest.) Plastic "headlights," faceted like crystals, are embossed in balconies in the foyer and theater, and a globe encrusted with them hangs down from the theater ceiling like a giant Christmas tree bauble.

Johnson's eclecticism played a conspicuous role in his most important architectural accomplishment--redefining American skyscraper design during his partnership with Burgee. This he did first by distorting the Miesian box and then forsaking it altogether for a more traditionally oriented postmodernism. In downtown Houston, where he made his stylistically-variegated mark on the skyline as in no other city, Johnson provided a distinctive corporate image with the Pennzoil Place project, completed in 1976 for developer Gerald Hines, his number-one client. Pennzoil Place consists of two mirror image towers with trapezoidal footprints. The towers are clad in dark reflective glass and sheared off at 45-degree angles at the top. Between the towers he and Burgee inserted two bisected entrance pyramids of clear glass, one on each side of the complex, with metal trusswork painted white inside. Though much smaller than the towers, these greenhouse-like semi-pyramids are giant forms, and, like the towers, completely devoid of human scale.

Though not a skyscraper, the famous Crystal Cathedral, built in a Southern California suburb a few years later, is similarly scaleless. Commissioned by the Rev. Robert Schuller, and designed to accommodate 3,000 worshippers, its exterior is entirely covered with mirror-coated glass. Its symmetrical plan takes the form of a modified diamond, with the main aisle--lined by rows of water fountains!--set on the diamond's minor axis. The interior walls and ceiling are buttressed with an inconceivable profusion of white trusswork, a bravura exercise in modernist structural pyrotechnics.

By the late 1970s, however, Johnson was making more literal use of historic motifs than in his "ballet-classical" work. This course change came to the fore with the AT&T Building, conceived as a monumental structure sheathed in a rather dark, brownish granite, with the broken-pediment flourish at its summit. How could one of the International Style's American midwives have come to this?

Nietzsche instilled a reverence for monumentality in Johnson, who attributed a religious impulse to great traditional buildings, including secular ones like New York's Grand Central Terminal, precisely because their beauty was not a matter of "form follows function" but, rather, the fruit of a sense of life that embraced the exquisitely useless--the vast, majestically vaulted space or the gorgeous sculptural detail. Even as a student at Harvard's newly modernist Graduate School of Design, Johnson professed admiration for the traditional American architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And he routinely incorporated big entrance halls and conspicuous stairways and balconies into his museum buildings, libraries, and theaters--including his "ballet classical" New York State Theater--as a means of introducing a "processional" element he associated with the grand tradition.

Having reached his seventies, Johnson appears to have sensed a cultural climate conducive to a full reengagement with a traditional aesthetic of monumentality. And in fact, the AT&T Building, completed in 1984 (just in time for the company's court-ordered breakup), was a hit with a public tired of flat roofs and glass façades. With Beaux-Arts sculptor Evelyn Beatrice Longman's gilt male figure, Genius of Electricity, beckoning from its lobby until it was removed in 1992, the building evoked a bygone elegance. Nor was it conceived as a photogenic send-up, as some commentators have assumed. Johnson did not design the building's broken pediment tongue-in-cheek; he employed that motif in the design of the gravestones of two of his most deeply cherished friends, MoMA's first director, Alfred Barr, and Barr's wife Margaret.

The fact remains that the AT&T Building's exterior is rather stark. Its wildly overscaled 116-foot-tall entrance arch serves as a picturesque crutch for a debilitating shortage of exterior detail. And viewed from a distance, the building reads as a flat postmodern signboard--basically because its granite cladding consists of skimpy panels tacked onto a steel frame. This is the "curtain-wall" construction normally employed on "dematerialized" (i.e., cheaply built) modernist structures, as opposed to traditional architecture designed to convey a monumental impression of mass. Such depth of relief and play of light and shade as the AT&T offers are mainly a matter of the piers and vertical window mullions protruding from the recessed horizontal spandrels between floors.

This is woefully inadequate, and certainly ornamental motifs providing additional relief were essential. On the other hand, Steven W. Semes, a Notre Dame architecture professor who once labored in Johnson's shop, notes that Johnson did what he could to disguise the panelized cladding system closer to ground level by manipulating the arrangement of the stone at the corners. All to the good.

But once the cognoscenti were cracking jokes about the Chippendale pediment, Johnson just chortled along. Why complain? The project had landed him on the cover of Time. But even though the AT&T Building wound up serving as corporate logo, signature image of the original celebrity architect and icon of postmodern irony, it's a safe bet Johnson originally aspired to a loftier achievement. And for all its faults, the building is a glass half-full. What a pity Johnson didn't focus on trying to resolve the problems this project raised in his subsequent skyscraper work. Instead, the chortling continued through the 1980s, with Johnson producing jokes in poor taste such as a Lower Manhattan office tower, 33 Maiden Lane, with hyper-fenestrated, crenellated turrets of buff brick (which at least provided the developer with more corner offices).

The PPG Place complex in downtown Pittsburgh is more entertaining. It consists of a half-dozen ersatz Gothic buildings of different sizes clad in mirror glass. (PPG stands for Pittsburgh Plate Glass.) The dominant building in the complex is a Houses of Parliament knockoff whose tower figures prominently on the city's skyline. The PPG ensemble is decked out with a profusion of pinnacled ribs, of the same glass, resembling pyramidion-topped cubic pencils of different sizes, many of them cranked at 45-degree angles for added picturesque effect. (A bell tower Johnson added to the Crystal Cathedral is composed of such pencils, except that they're clad in shiny stainless steel.)

By all accounts, PPG Place is popular. Like Johnson himself, Pittsburghers don't take it too seriously, and surely they don't compare it to their impressive stock of prewar office buildings. They share the near-universal assumption that an unbridgeable chasm lies between those old edifices and the contemporary practice of architecture. The foil to PPG Place is thus postwar architecture like Pittsburgh's 64-story, Darth Vader-style U.S. Steel headquarters, a profoundly anti-urban monstrosity clad in oxidizing Cor-Ten steel. Much the same applies to Johnson/Burgee's Lipstick Building on Manhattan's Third Avenue, whose curvaceous, elliptical set-backs, with their bands of reddish granite, stainless steel, and gray-tinted ribbon windows, provide welcome relief from the rectilinear monotony of the neighboring architecture.

The Lipstick Building is one of several 1980s projects in which Johnson/Burgee opted for a more abstract office-tower design without sacrificing the postmodern glitz. In contrast, the 900-foot-tall, mirror-glass-paneled Transco Tower in Houston, Johnson/Burgee's tallest building, rigidifies the moderne geometries of Bertram Goodhue's Nebraska state capitol tower into a tapering, relentlessly rectilinear form, with a little pyramidion perched on top and an incongruous granite entrance arch tacked on at the bottom.

The United Bank Center Tower in Denver is crowned by a slipped barrel-vault that creates a truncated "69" silhouette. Talk about iconic! The International Place complex near Boston's waterfront, in turn, takes panelized cladding to its logical extreme: The complex is partly wrapped in a rose-granite wallpaper to which Johnson took a Palladian cookie-cutter, punching out scads of the familiar tripartite windows (whose lunettes, or arched portions, are fake). Elaborate classical lighting fixtures on the latter complex's exterior, plus a classically detailed lobby, contribute to the aura of pastiche that envelops so much of Johnson's postmodern work.

Johnson did hone closer to the AT&T Building in a few subsequent projects. The granite-clad, klunkily detailed Bank of America Center in Houston, located across the street from Pennzoil Place and completed in 1983, boasts three stupendously picturesque receding tower-setbacks, each with stepped, steeply pitched Dutch-gable configurations. One-Ninety-One Peachtree Tower in Atlanta is crowned by a winsome pair of openwork pavilions--square in plan and baroque in design, with big globe-finials at the corners. Perhaps his best project with Burgee, however, is the IBM Tower at Atlantic Center in Atlanta's Midtown section--a nicely proportioned, 50-story structure that wears its stylistic eclecticism pretty well.

After parting ways with Burgee in 1991, the octogenarian Johnson dabbled in deconstructionism. For the University of St. Thomas in Houston, whose campus he had designed in a Miesian idiom during the 1950s, he produced a chapel consisting of a distorted white stucco cube with a flared "tent-flap" entrance and a gold-leaf dome. A great dark granite slab not only flanks the chapel, with voids for bells, "doors," and "windows," but slashes right through the cube and the dome at an oblique angle. Johnson also designed a little decon blob, dubbed "Da Monsta," as a visitors' pavilion for his New Canaan estate, which he bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He even stuck a ditzy decon sculpture with clocks in a little plaza across the street from Lincoln Center.

Self-deprecation was always part of Johnson's public relations strategy. "None of us postmodernists were really any good," he belatedly averred. And certainly he never hid the fact that he was an egotist. But Schulze's account of Johnson's Nazi activities at the time of the German attack on Poland suggests that this egotist was rather too adept at insulating himself from unpleasant realities. Motoring through Germany and Poland in his Lincoln Zephyr shortly before the German invasion, Johnson stopped in Brno, now part of the Czech Republic, to call on Otto Eisler, a modernist architect. The Gestapo had just been working on Eisler, who was not only a Jew but also, like Johnson, a homosexual.

During their encounter, Eisler could only hold his head up, with painful effort, at a crooked angle. Oh, sure, the encounter "shook" Johnson, as Schulze recounts, but it didn't stop him from filing pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic stories for Father Coughlin's Social Justice, or thrilling--from a safe distance--to the spectacle of Polish cities being destroyed during the blitzkrieg. Nor does it seem Johnson abandoned his Nazi enthusiasms for any other reason than fear of getting into trouble. (Later on, Johnson made numerous efforts to atone for his transgressions, such as designing a synagogue in Port Chester, New York, for free.)

Johnson had a prolific career. Unfortunately, it would take a book, not just a critical essay, to survey the many meretricious or just plain awful buildings he designed--including civic centers, cultural facilities, and university buildings, as well as office and retail buildings. He seems to have bobbed back and forth between ephemeral conceptual enthusiasms and a cynical bread-and-circuses attitude towards his art. And much of his work--such as his cultural complex in downtown Miami, a sorry attempt at a Spanish Mediterranean-style acropolis completed in 1982--was totally ill-conceived in urbanistic terms. Of course, Johnson disapproved of Jane Jacobs and her insights into the spatial and functional order that allows cities to thrive.

Such was the curious career that provides a depressing overview of postwar American architecture. Philip Johnson epitomizes the modernist adventure precisely because no set of abiding norms emerges from his oeuvre. He justified his lack of consistency as an ethos; but, in fact, modernism's ongoing tendency to negate not just tradition but its own theoretical conceits lies closer to the heart of the matter. Modernism has given us a very limited number of engaging buildings and even a persistent doctrine or two, but no keys to the creation of a meaningful city.

In other words, modernism has turned out to be hollow at the core--a statement that appears to apply, to a lamentable degree, to Johnson himself.

Catesby Leigh is author of the forthcoming Monumental America.