The Magazine

Philip Johnson

Fashion as architecture, and vice versa.

Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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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?