In the wake of his recent death, Philip Johnson has been lauded for his curatorial acumen, his social grace, and his collegiality, especially to the young. But he has not been praised for another attribute—that of being a very talented architect. Johnson deserves to be remembered for his architecture, which should be foremost in any assessment of his life.
Johnson was one of the commanding talents of the postwar generation of American architects. He built beautifully. Very many of his buildings challenged accepted formal tropes. Was he the greatest architect of the 20th century? Ifll leave that assessment to others. What I will say is that not one building by Johnson has failed to give me pride in being an architect, in knowing what an architect can accomplish. I have learned something from every one of his buildings—and they have given me a great deal of pleasure.
Johnson was a master of planning. Indeed, I would say he was one of the few genuine functionalists among a generation that professed utility but seldom achieved it. He was also a master of siting and landscape, one of the very few in our time. Take the Glass House and its outbuildings as a case in point. Over many years, I was lucky enough to frequently visit that consummate 20th-century estate park, as new buildings were added and the landscape evolved. Each building opened up a new architectural direction; even more remarkable was the placement of the buildings and the paths of gprocession,h to use Johnsonfs term, which connected them.
The Glass House as well as the Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York are acknowledged masterworks. But I would like to praise some other Johnson designs that embrace the landscape. For example, the Fort Worth Water Garden, where, in the center of a busy city, extraordinary geometries are cut into the earth to evoke the sounds and shapes of naturefs aqueous crevasses without indulging in obvious representationalism. Another superb Johnson building-in-landscape, though of a completely different scale and character, is the Museum for Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Nestled into greenery, its exquisitely detailed, bijoulike, shallow-domed galleries carried on round columns framing curved glass panels bring the spatial magic of late Roman architecture to life in a wholly modern way.
Philip Johnson and John Burgeefs IDS Center, Minneapolis, propelled Johnson into the forefront of commercial architecture. Yet he also confronted the important issues of center-city urbanism, for he made a positive feature of Minneapolisfs existing, vitality-draining, two-level pedestrian circulation system. Reimagining the central glass-covered light courts of 19th-century office buildings and hotels, he created one of the few convincing, lively, wholly enclosed urban public places of the postwar era.
After IDS, Johnson, working with Burgee, designed some of Americafs best skyscrapers. With the two Pennzoil towers in Houston (1976), he came closest of any architect to adapting the Minimalist sculpture of the 1960s and 1970s—such as the work of the architect-turned-sculptor Tony Smith—to the skyscraper type. But Johnsonfs greatest accomplishment as a skyscraper architect was returning the romantic dimension of the 1920s to that building type. In the wake of post-Miesian revisionism, the skyscraper had become diagrammatic, perfunctory, and dull. Johnsonfs skyscrapers of the 1980s showed he was the new Raymond Hood, finding poetry in the adaptation of past forms to new technologies and a new scale of enclosure.
With AT&T, Johnson picked up where McKim, Mead and White had left off. The loggia at the buildingfs base was decidedly monumental, a place for pedestrians to crisscross under a soaring canopy. I wish it hadnft been filled in with stores and showrooms. In contrast to AT&T, the gLipstickh Building, also in Manhattan, is sheer fun and games. Its telescoping mass is a very New York design, highly reminiscent of the setback towers of the 1920s. More specifically, the gLipstickh Building evokes an unrealized proposal of Raymond Hoodfs for Rockefeller Center in 1931. PPG Place in Pittsburgh (1984) may be a bit thick-waisted, but its glassy Gothicisms do bring sparkle and a sense of wonder to that cityfs skyline. The Bank of America Center (formerly Republic Bank) in Houston (1984) revived the fanciful skyscraper massing of 1920s setback skyscrapers; and Transco Tower in Houston (1983), following the example of Bertram Goodhuefs various late towers, shoots skyward with iconic clarity.
Johnson was one of the few architects of his generation who could create convincing monumental form (Louis Kahn was another, and on occasion, Eero Saarinen). The Roofless Church in New Harmony, Indiana (1960), with its walled temenos setting off the astonishingly complex geometry of the shingle-clad pumpkin dome that shelters Jacques Lipschitzfs sculpture, is unforgettable, a great place of quiet, opening on one side to frame a heartbreakingly beautiful view of corn fields stretching to the horizon. His unrealized proposal for Ellis Island (1966) would certainly have rivaled the Statue of Liberty and Wrightfs Guggenheim Museum as a New York City icon. What a bold project it is, with its dynamic coil of ramps ringing a truncated cone! His New York State Pavilion for the 1964 Worldfs Fair, even in its present state of dereliction, is one helluva marker on the flat landscape of Queens, New York.
Johnson has been accused of being derivative. But who isnft in some way or other? Only the most naive of us pretend to uncontaminated originality. Among the postwar Modernists, Johnson was the compulsive truth-teller, not only about the work of others, but also his own: gYou cannot not know history,h he admonished Yale students in the late 1950s. Johnson may have proclaimed his dependence on sources a little too much for his own good—he could be self-deprecatory to a fault—but in roaming around history, he always transformed what he saw in the past into something of his own.
I would like to continue extolling the virtues of Johnsonfs architecture, but I think itfs important to shift emphasis and touch on another aspect of his life— sensitive topic, the handling of which in some of the obituaries and posthumous commentaries has bothered me: Johnsonfs youthful foray into politics.
Many have brought up Johnsonfs Nazi and American right-wing sympathies of the 1930s as if this were secret information. Embarrassing, yes, but not secret. In fact, the matter was long ago acknowledged and discounted by those who knew him and by others whom he reached out to in an effort to make amends. At Yale, where I studied architecture in the early 1960s, Johnson was very much on the New Haven scene. And we all knew about his 1930s Nazi sympathies. Many of us read his essays in Social Justice and the relevant pages by William Shirer in his Berlin Diary. Ulrich Franzen, who had left Germany as a teenager in the 1930s and was a popular teacher at Yale, made us aware of how Johnson had been made to suffer for his misdeeds when he studied at Harvardfs GSD in the early 1940s and when he later served in the Army during World War II. While to my knowledge, neither Yale faculty nor students confronted Johnson with the embarrassing facts of his youthful political wanderings, we did discuss them among ourselves, speculating about what had attracted him to the Nazi cause; but then, we also speculated on why others were virulent Stalinists in the same era and continued to be so well beyond the point when Stalinfs evils were common knowledge.
It was not only Johnsonfs pro-Nazism, but also his presumed anti-Semitism that we considered. As Johnson and I became friends, we talked about anti-Semitism and its consequences. For one thing, we talked about the gsocialh anti-Semitism that was a fact of American life until well after World War II. Johnson was brought up in a milieu where social anti-Semitism was acceptable. But by the time he went to Harvard College in the 1920s, as the clicheL used to have it, some of his best friends were Jewish: Eddie Warburg and Lincoln Kirstein to name two who became particularly close to him. Of course, there is a wide chasm between social anti-Semitism and Hitlerfs virulent strain of hate. But Johnson was not alone in failing to recognize the horror of Hitlerfs obsession. Many Americans, in fact, did not take in the full magnitude of Hitlerfs hatred until the late 1930s, and even some Jews in Germany clung too long to the belief that Hitlerfs talk was just that! But when Johnson did come to, seeing Hitler for the evil he was, he quickly turned away from politics. Johnsonfs misadventures of the 1930s need to be seen against a broader canvas of the times and in light of all sorts of demons that plagued him then. Many of his Jewish friends like Kirstein and Warburg, who knew of his personal agonies, remained loyal to him despite whatever misgivings they may have had about his political leanings.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Johnson and I talked about those years. Some conversations form an oral history he and I made for Columbia University. I frankly wish I had also taken the opportunity to discuss the topic with his Harvard friends. But now itfs too late; theyfre all gone. I do remember one conversation with Johnson in which he said to me, gI have paid for this in so many ways.h One way he paid was with the Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel Synagogue in Port Chester, New York, which he designed in 1956. For this project, with its limpid, light-filled, Soane-inspired sanctuary space, he gave up his fee because he was so grateful for the support the congregants of that synagogue showed him.
But why go on? In reckoning a lifefs worth, there are bound to be so very many aspects to consider, not all of them admirable—for me, Johnsonfs worth as an architect, as a mentor, and as a friend more than outweigh a stupid, repugnant misalliance he long ago repented.
The culture of architecture is vastly diminished because Johnson is no longer here to spur us along with the example of his work, his intellectual curiosity, and the eLlan of his very being. I miss him very much.
Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, is principal of Robert A.M. Stern Architects and dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University.
Essay by Franz Schulze | Essay by Robert A.M. Stern | Essay by Michael Sorkin