The Magazine

Philip Johnson

Fashion as architecture, and vice versa.

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