Philip Johnson

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Philip Johnson

Philip Johnson (born 1906) was an American architectural critic and historian and a practicing architect. His buildings are characterized by formal elegance.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 8, 1906, Philip Johnson attended Harvard College, majoring in the classics. There, in 1927, he was introduced to the modern movement in architecture through the writings of Henry-Russell Hitchcock.

Johnson began his career as an architectural critic and historian in 1931, when he became director of the architectural department at the newly formed Museum of Modern Art in New York. That year he and Hitchcock mounted the first International Exhibition of Architecture, showing the work of such major modern figures as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. With Hitchcock he published The International Style (1931), which not only defined the esthetic qualities of the new style but also gave it a name.

During the 1930s and 1940s, in his role as museum director and in his writings (he wrote the first monograph on the work of Mies van der Rohe in English in 1947), Johnson remained a leading American advocate of the International Style. But by 1940 Johnson decided to shift from propagandist to practitioner. He entered the Harvard Graduate School of Design and studied under Marcel Breuer.

In 1949 Johnson designed his own home in New Canaan, Conn., following closely Mies's principle of the glass box in which the steel skeletal structure is exposed. But while Mies's work often conveys a feeling of austerity, Johnson's glass house seems romantic—an effect achieved by placing the building in a parklike setting. His other homes of this period which have a similar quality are the Hogson House (1951) and the Wiley House (1953), both in New Caanan.

By 1954, Johnson was beginning to move away from the dictums of Mies's architectural theory, although he collaborated with his mentor on the design for the Seagram Building in New York City (1958). In his design for the Kneses Tifereth Israel Synagogue, Port Chester, N.Y., Johnson introduced certain non-International Style elements— for example, an elliptical entrance hall and butterfly vaulting on the interior ceilings. During the 1960s Johnson turned more to historical motifs as the means of individualizing his buildings. In contrast to the stark lines of his earlier Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute (1957-1960) in Utica, N.Y., he utilized clear historical allusion in the Byzantine domes which top the Art Gallery at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. (1962-1964). An interest in classical forms is evident in his use of colonnades in the Sheldon Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska (1964) and the New York State Theater in New York City (1963).

Johnson maintained his interest in the Museum of Modern Art and designed an addition to the building in 1964. The same year he exploited new technological techniques in the structure of his daring New York State Pavilion at the New York World's Fair. In some of his later designs (for example, the Kline Tower at Yale University) Johnson showed—through his use of texture and color on the exterior surfaces—how far he had come from the earlier Miesian style toward a more robust, individualized idiom.

His later more significant works include the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center (1964) as well as New York City's American Telephone and Telegraph Company Building (1978-1984). Even into his nineties, his thoughts about style continued to evolve and he continued to be a presence in the world of architecture.

Further Reading

Schulze, Franz, Philip Johnson: Life and Work (1994)

Blake, Peter, Philip Johnson (1996)

Johnson, Philip, et al, Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words Vol 1 (1994)

Kipnis, Jeffrey and Kipuis, Jeff, Philip Johnson Recent Work (1996) □

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Philip Johnson

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