Johnson, Philip Cortelyou

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Johnson, Philip Cortelyou

(b. 8 July 1906 in Cleveland, Ohio; d. 25 January 2005 in New Canaan, Connecticut), architect whose body of work includes dozens of residential, institutional, commercial, and religious buildings in the United States, France, Germany, Israel, and India and whose designs earned him a major place in the history of the twentieth-century modernist and postmodernist movements.

Johnson was one of four children of Homer Johnson, a lawyer, and Louise Pope Johnson, an arts patron. He was educated in various private schools in Cleveland, New York, and Switzerland before attending Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York. At Harvard University he studied classics and philosophy, graduating with a BA in 1930. That same year, he met Alfred Barr, Jr., the new director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which had opened in 1929. Through this friendship Johnson found an interest in art and architecture, which he pursued with the historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock. In 1930 Johnson and Hitchcock made a study of the modern styles of architecture on a tour of Holland, France, and Germany.

Johnson was soon made a nonsalaried staff member of the Museum of Modern Art. In 1932, at age twenty-six, Johnson, along with Barr and Hitchcock, staged the epochal Modern Architecture: International Exhibition at the museum, which introduced the pioneer European modernist architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Cor-busier, J. J. P. Oud, and Walter Gropius to the American public. Frank Lloyd Wright was the sole American granted a starring role in the show. Johnson and Hitchcock wrote The International Style: Architecture Since 1922, published concurrently with the show and similar in its message. Also in 1932, Johnson became the first director of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1934 Johnson was solely responsible for an exhibition the likes of which had never been mounted in an American fine arts museum. The show, Machine Art, consisted of commonplace objects, all manufactured by machines and most of anonymous authorship. Included were test tubes, paper cups, wood screws, a motorboat propeller, a circular saw, and a porcelain insulator. The motive of the event was to demonstrate the beauty and precision of form of the utensils shown, independent of their function.

Johnson left the museum in 1934 to pursue a different and decidedly bizarre muse, one that held him in thrall for nearly a decade. The Great Depression had raised serious questions about the ability of capitalism and democracy to endure in a world where the latter-day totalitarian regimes of Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union seemed to be making more effective political and economic progress. Although Marxism appealed to many young Americans of the period, Johnson chose to move in an opposite, right-wing direction. He spent time in Nazi Germany, impressed partly by the principles of the regime, including anti-Semitism (he even wrote an affirmative review of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf) and partly by the visual drama—the swagger of the marching soldiers and the spectacular nocturnal light displays—at which the Nazis were masters.

Barr deplored the extraordinary shift in outlook of his friend, but Johnson clung to his position. He wrote a number of articles for rightist periodicals in these years. In 1939 he followed the German army into Poland on assignment as a correspondent for the populist journal Social Justice, published by the radical (and anti-Semitic) radio evangelist Father Charles Coughlin. While he was at the front, he shared quarters with another American correspondent, William Shirer of the Columbia Broadcasting System, who in 1941, recording his own war experience in the best-selling, widely read Berlin Diary, identified Johnson as an American fascist. The indictment, together with the American public’s lack of enthusiasm for the German cause and impending entry into World War II, persuaded Johnson to give up politics for good.

Johnson returned to architecture in 1940, enrolling as a student of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, where he had earlier spent his undergraduate years. Johnson’s personal wealth figured in the construction of his first building. In 1924 his father had given his teenage son issues of stock in the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). In the boom of the late 1920s, the stock soared, and the son became richer than his father. With this fortune, Johnson had the means with which to design and construct a house—in lieu of writing a senior thesis—that still stands near the university campus, on Ash Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts; it later became one model for his famous Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. Johnson graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1943.

The house he built in Cambridge was largely modeled after the work of Mies van der Rohe, who had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1938. Johnson revered van der Rohe, and his example was evident in most of Johnson’s designs once he began his own private practice. That career had to wait until he finished a stint as a draftee in the U.S. Army and was discharged in 1944. By 1945 Johnson had set up an architectural practice in New York City and acquired a partner, a fellow Harvard graduate, Landis Gores. By the end of the year he had also once again become the de facto head of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art.

Among his first efforts was the organization of another major exhibition, a retrospective of the work of Mies van der Rohe, held in 1947. The motive was as resourceful as the result proved to be impressive. As the first full-scale review of Mies’s work following his assumption of the chair at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, the show had the twofold effect of resurrecting a highly accomplished architect whose career had been nearly destroyed by the Nazi antimodernists and of restoring Johnson’s own position of importance on the international artistic scene. Johnson wrote the catalogue, the first scholarly coverage of Mies van der Rohe’s oeuvre and a document that remains foundational.

The connection provided Johnson with another benefit. One of the exhibits in the show was a model of the Farnsworth House, a design notable for its unpartitioned interior, which was walled completely in glass. Johnson admired it greatly and studied plans for it on his frequent trips to Chicago. Thus inspired, he designed his own “glass house,” which in 1949 went up on property he owned in New Canaan. Although he freely admitted that it was based on Mies’s model, it is regarded by many critics as Johnson’s masterpiece. While the Mies house is built five feet above grade to protect it from the spring floodwaters of the Fox River close to Plano, Illinois, the Johnson house is located on a hill with a valley well below and thus sits directly on the ground.

The Glass House set Johnson on the road to success in his own architectural practice, which he followed while simultaneously directing the fortunes of the Department of Architecture and Design. The connection between the two careers was manifest in several designs he undertook for the museum. A western annex to the main building was completed in 1950, three years before an outdoor sculpture garden that proved over the years to be another of Johnson’s most felicitous works. The addition of an east wing and a garden wing in 1964 signaled his continued involvement in the affairs of the museum, but by that time he had given up his post as director.

For the remainder of his life, Johnson worked primarily as a practicing architect. Among his most admired works is the jewel-like, exquisitely planned Pre-Columbian Gallery at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C. (1963), notable for its sensitively chosen materials. In 1967 Johnson brought a much younger architect, John Burgee, into his firm; the partnership lasted for the next twenty years. Among the buildings the two architects designed is the well-proportioned Crystal Cathedral, in Garden Grove, California (1980), whose space frame achieves an impressively large interior area. During the 1980s Johnson joined the ranks of the post-modernist architects who sought to restore to design the historical references that the modernists had largely dismissed. His most publicized effort in this idiom was the AT&T Building of New York (1984), a work that aroused as much criticism as praise for its mix of modern and classical styles. Considered to be one of the first postmodern skyscrapers, it features a thirty-foot pediment that resembles the design of a Chippendale highboy.

Johnson was never considered to have an authentically original architectural mind. His admiration for Mies van der Rohe was followed by work derivative of other designers, which made postmodernism’s return to traditional forms and materials especially attractive to him. Many of his endeavors in that idiom have earned him well-deserved contempt. The Hines College of Architecture of the University of Houston (1986) is an inelegant imitation of an unfinished neoclassical project for a House of Education designed by the eighteenth-century French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Likewise, the corporate headquarters of Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, now known as PPG Industries (1984), is a postmodernist Gothic caricature of Britain’s Victoria Tower, one of the two towers that frame the Houses of Parliament in London. Worst of all is the Crescent in Dallas (1985), a complex of office towers, shopping mall, hotel, and garage—a mongrel assortment of architectural inspirations, from the curved facade mimicking the eighteenth-century Royal Crescent of Bath, England, to the Mogul-style tracery of the balconies.

The partnership of Johnson and Burgee began to sour in the mid-1980s, when Burgee moved to take center stage in the company. As chief executive, Burgee pushed Johnson into a lesser role in the company, and Johnson finally left in 1991 to branch out again on his own. One of his last designs was for the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, the largest gay-and-lesbian church in the world. Johnson’s tendency to follow someone else’s lead induced him to return to the Museum of Modern Art as guest curator of the exhibit Deconstructivist Architecture (1988), in which vanguard designs by such figures as Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, and Daniel Libeskind were gathered under the stylistic umbrella of “the diagonal overlapping of rectangular or trapezoidal bars,” in Johnson’s own words written in the catalogue preface. However inconsistent he was in his allegiances, Johnson was unfailingly true to one aesthetic precept: he was the ultimate formalist, who cared not at all for iconographical meaning or the social or political dimensions of artworks but only for how well the parts of those works were brought together, formally, into a whole. In 1978 Johnson was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects, the highest honor of his profession, and the following year received the first Pritzker Architecture Prize for lifetime achievement.

Johnson was a homosexual who had a number of relationships throughout his early life. For the last four decades of his life, he lived with David Whitney, a connoisseur of contemporary international art who urged Johnson to expand his interest in collecting art. Whitney persuaded him to design a gallery on his New Canaan estate that would house what became a substantial collection of paintings. A gallery for sculpture followed. The buildings on his estate, all designed by Johnson, include a guest-house, a library, a pavilion house on the pond that lies at the base of the hill, and a structure that is part building and part geometric sculpture, called the Lincoln Kirstein tower, after the writer and art connoisseur who cofounded the New York City Ballet. The estate was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Johnson died at age ninety-eight.

Information on Johnson is found in Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson: Architecture 1949–1965 (1966); Franz Schulze, Philip Johnson: Life and Work (1994); and Hilary Lewis and John O’Connor, Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words (1994). Obituaries are in the New York Times (27 Jan. 2005) and Washington Post (27 Jan. and 5 Feb. 2005).

Franz Schulze

Johnson, Philip Cortelyou

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Johnson, Philip Cortelyou (1906–2005;). American architect with an aloof disdain for the opinions of the masses, his independence of mind, flair for publicity, and political skills established his powerful position in the architectural world, both as designer and critic. While a student of philosophy at Harvard he met Alfred Hamilton Barr (1902–81), who pointed him towards an architectural career. In 1928 Barr was approached to create the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), NYC (of which he was Director 1929–67), and called in several gifted young men to assist. Johnson was one of them, but Barr asked him first to travel in Europe to learn about trends in modern architecture. Joining forces with H. -R. Hitchcock, Johnson met leading members of the European avant-garde, including Mies van der Rohe (Who was invited to design Johnson's Manhattan apartment). When Johnson returned to NYC, he worked at MoMA while also completing his degree at Harvard in 1930 before officially taking up his post as head of the Department of Architecture at MoMA (1932). There, Johnson, Hitchcock, and Barr created the important exhibition Modern Architecture: International Style which publicized work by Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies, Oud, and others. The term International style was accepted into the general vocabulary of architecture from the publication (1932) of Johnson and Hitchcock's The International Style: Architecture since 1922.

In 1934 Johnson gave up his MoMA post to begin a short-lived career in right-wing politics, assisting those opposed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945—32nd President of the USA, 1933–45). In 1933 Johnson had heard Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) speak, and thereafter increasingly joined in the widespread adulation accorded to Nazi Germany (1933–45). He supported Mies in attempts to get the Nazis to embrace the International style: after all, both Gropius and Mies entered the competition to design the Reichsbank, one of many suppressed facts about them. Recognizing the close connection between Power and Modernism, Johnson himself said that Speer would have made a great architect of skyscrapers. In late 1940 he returned to Harvard to study architecture under Breuer and Gropius, and in 1945 resumed his position at MoMA, organizing in 1947 an influential exhibition and publishing a monograph on Mies's work (which he admired for its monumentality, purity, and tenuous connections with Classicism), although he managed to avoid discussion of Mies's attempted rapprochement with the Hitler régime.

Johnson had opened his own office in partnership (1946–51) with Landes Gores (1919–91), and soon made his name with the Glass House, New Canaan, CT (1949), clearly influenced by Mies's work: with Mies's Farnsworth House, Plano, IL (1946–51), the Glass House was seen as a paradigm of Modernism at the time, although Johnson claimed he had been influenced by Le Corbusier, Ledoux, Malevich, Schinkel, and De Stijl when designing it. Johnson was associated with Mies and others during the design of the Seagram Building, NYC (1954–8), but once the International style became commonplace in America, he turned away from it, revealing something of his iconoclasm. About this time, Johnson's position became complex, for he seemed to be interpreting Modernism while at the same time stripping it of its supposed Functionalism, its claims to ‘social responsibility’, and its fraudulent morality. Johnson had no fears about exposing the shallow hypocrisy of the architectural profession, and, rejecting all the claims that Modernism was a social, cultural, and economic movement, labelled it firmly what it was: a style. For a time, however, he became the impresario of the International style before he began to twist its tail, sending up the puritanical European Modernists and (especially) their British followers (his views on some of them were scathing). He loathed his former teacher Gropius, who, in turn, detested him.

In the guest-house at New Canaan (1952) he introduced vaults with a hint of Soane about them, and thereafter (in partnership in the 1960s with Richard Foster (1919–2002) ) he turned to a feeble monumentality (e.g. New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, NYC (1962–4), and the extension to the Boston Public Library (1964–73) ). From 1967 to 1991 Johnson was in partnership with John Henry Burgee (1933– ): they sent shock-waves through the cosy world of orthodox Modernism with their American Telephone and Telegraph skyscraper, NYC (1978–83—now the Sony Building—a masonry-clad structure with powerful mullions set on a stripped variation of a serliana-cum-triumphal arch, and capped by a paraphrase of an open-topped pediment), described variously as the first Post-Modern building, as ‘flippant’, as an ‘inflated and simplistic reference to history’ (Huxtable), or (ignorantly) as ‘pseudo-classical’. Later works (sometimes in collaboration with other architects) included the Investors Diversified Services Building, Minneapolis, MN (1970–3), and Pennzoil Place, Houston, TX (1970–6). Then followed the Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, CA (1976–80), the Republic Bank Center, Houston, TX (1980–4—with reminiscences of crow-stepped Gothic gables from Northern Europe), the Transco Tower, also in Houston (1981–5—with a hint of the Classicism of Goodhue), the Pittsburgh Plate Glass HQ, Pittsburgh, PA (1983–4—also with quirky allusions to history), and the School of Architecture, Houston, TX (1983–6).

In 1988 Johnson again confounded critics by returning to MoMA as guest curator of the exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture, billed as ‘development post-dating post-modernism’: it brought architects such as Hadid and Libeskind to the attention of the media, and demonstrated again his capabilities in knowing (and even creating) celebrity culture. In fact, his career demonstrates he was a taste-former, insisting that architecture is not about social engineering or ‘making life better’, but should be viewed as an aesthetic experience. He himself designed the Gate House, New Canaan (1994–5—), a pavilion without any right angles, his own homage to Deconstructivism), experimented with developing ideas from German Expressionism, and designed (1996) the Cathedral of Hope, Dallas, TX, for the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (still to be realized). It seems as though, having shocked, Johnson then went on to do something else, almost gleefully, leaving critics floundering in his wake: he promoted, then subverted the International style, did the same to Post-Modernism, and repeated the feat with Deconstructivism, all of which adds up to quite a comment on his times. He often described himself as a ‘whore’, as he exposed pretence and exercised his influence with cynicism and puckish disregard for what might be thought of his stance (which changed so much nobody could actually pin him down (to the intense annoyance of (especially) British critics) ). Amazingly, he admitted he was ‘not a good architect’, and indeed some of his work (e.g., in Dallas, TX) would bear out his admission: it is often superficial, lacks depth, and could be considered unusually brittle, suggesting he could not think architecturally (he could not draw either). However, he was as successful in creating new trends and forming opinions as he was in deflating the pretensions of adherents of once-fashionable (and frequently untenable) orthodoxies: his greatest achievement was to expose the false morality of Modernism, and indeed the bogusness of major trends in C20 and C21 architecture.


Blake (1966);
Fox et al. (2002);
Goldberger (ed.) (2002);
Hitchcock (1996a);
Hitchcock & and Johnson (1995);
Jacobus (1962);
Jenkins & and Mohney (2001);
Jodidio (1997);
Johnson & and Wigley (1988);
Kipnis (1996);
Lewis & and O'Connor (1994);
Nory Miller (1979);
Nakamura (ed.)(2000);
Salingaros et al. (2004);
Schulze (1994);
Stern (ed.) (1979)
The Times (28 Jan. 2005), 70;
Welch (2000);
Whitney & and Kipnis (1994);

Johnson, Philip Cortelyou

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JOHNSON, Philip Cortelyou

(b. 8 July 1906 in Cleveland, Ohio), architect who coined the term "International Style" to describe European architecture of the 1920s, and who reached the height of his fame in the 1960s when he worked to make American architecture more "monumental."

Johnson grew up in Cleveland, the son of Homer M. Johnson, a lawyer, and Louise Pope, a homemaker. Although Johnson would later become famous for designing buildings, his early interest was in architectural history. It was an interest that informed his most important buildings of the 1950s and 1960s, during which time he attempted to imbue buildings as diverse as nuclear reactors and churches with classical elegance. Johnson attended Harvard University in 1923 to study classics and graduated with a B.A. degree in philosophy in 1930. The following year, while touring Europe, he met the celebrated German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Johnson's enthusiasm for the new European architecture was fired by his meeting with Mies van der Rohe, and on his return to the United States he became the founding director of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Working with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, in 1932 Johnson published The International Style: Architecture Since 1922, the book that gave the name "International Style" to European architecture of the time.

In 1937, with the Nazis in power in Germany, Johnson arranged the arrival from Europe of Mies van der Rohe, who took up the post of director at the Armour Institute School of Architecture in Chicago. Johnson would later collaborate with Mies van der Rohe on the Seagram Building in New York City (1958), one of the most important high-rise buildings in the United States and a project that launched Johnson's career as an architect of major public buildings. Johnson graduated from Harvard with a B.Arch. degree in 1943, but it was not until the 1960s that he directly influenced American public architecture with his "monumental" designs. After serving briefly in the U.S. Army, he returned to the Museum of Modern Art as its director of architecture in 1946. For the next decade Johnson concentrated on domestic dwellings, developing his trademark "glass box" style. This style is expressed most dramatically in the house he built for himself, known as the "Glass House," in New Canaan, Connecticut (1949).

In the 1960s Johnson was instrumental in popularizing glass walls on a much larger scale. By the late 1950s he had begun to concentrate on large public buildings rather than small domestic dwellings. He took commissions for university campuses, science centers, and museums. Johnson hoped to express the wealth and power of the United States through buildings that recaptured the relative scale and authority of early American civic architecture. In the 1960s his buildings tried to emphasize the importance of American civic life through grand street frontages and impressive public spaces. In a 1964 New York Times article, Johnson described architecture as the "art of how to waste space." Many of his buildings at the time, such as the Museum of Art Building (1960), for the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute at Utica, New York, are consistent with this philosophy. The museum's central stairwell, around which runs a gallery, forms a void that would certainly be considered wasteful, or at least flamboyant, in a commercial setting. Yet the museum offers open, well-lit galleries with plenty of room for visitors to move around.

Johnson's designs at this time reflected a renewed confidence in U.S. institutions, but the expression of authority and importance through architecture required building on a huge scale. In 1965 Johnson wrote that "architecture is surely not the design of space … [but] the organization of procession. Architecture exists only in time." What he meant was that the best buildings are those that cannot be seen all at once; instead, users experience them by walking around, connecting up different spaces over time. Perhaps the finest example of this is the New York State Theater (1964), in Lincoln Center in New York City. Designed in collaboration with Richard Foster, the building includes a colossal forecourt and main entrance, complete with columns that refer back to American architecture's neoclassical past. It was the first in a series of collaborations with Foster that include the New York State Pavilion for the 1964 World's Fair at Flushing, New York, and the Kline Science Center at Yale University (1965). The Kline Science Center, in particular, includes hallmark Johnson glass walls and a spacious entrance lobby, but the weight of the supporting columns also reflects the solemnity of the work being carried out there.

That solemnity is the problem at the heart of Johnson's work in the 1960s. Critics have accused him of reducing architectural history to the addition of classical columns. And while his museums and university campus buildings were expressing the dominance of the American academy, student protests were challenging the authority of those who controlled higher education. In a sense, despite his commitment to public open spaces, Johnson's work was on the side of an establishment that was increasingly seen as bullying and corrupt. By the 1970s American "monumental" architecture was overburdened with arches and "megastructure" in the form of concrete pillars and marble cladding. It was a far cry from the sleek glass-and-aluminum structures of the International Style. Johnson's own work went in a similar direction, leading to criticism that he was more interested in style than real design. The Crystal Cathedral (1980) at Garden Grove, California, is perhaps the best example of this postmodern excess. Known as the first "megachurch," the huge building is clad in mirrored glass, and parts of the walls open out to allow members of the congregation to observe services from their cars.

After Johnson's partnership with Foster ended in 1967, he began working with John Burgee. Johnson and Burgee were one of the most prolific architectural partnerships of the 1970s and 1980s. Critics have argued that Johnson's later buildings are overly elaborate; nevertheless, his work in the 1960s was a major influence on civic and corporate architecture in the 1970s and 1980s. Working with Burgee, Johnson built museums, corporate buildings, theaters, churches, and libraries until his retirement in 1987. Since then Johnson has continued to work on projects of his own. He was awarded the American Institute of Architecture Gold Medal in 1978 and the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1979.

There are several books about Johnson and his work, including John M. Jacobus, Philip Johnson (1962); Johnson's Architecture 1949–1965 (1966), with an introduction by Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Jr.; and David Mohney and Stover Jenkins, The Houses of Philip Johnson (2001). Dennis Sharpe, ed., The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture (1991), gives a useful summary of Johnson's career. Johnson outlined his ideas about 1960s architecture in an article for the New York Times (27 Dec. 1964).

Chris Routledge

Johnson, Philip Cortelyou

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Johnson, Philip Cortelyou (1906– ) US architect. He studied under Marcel Breuer at Harvard University and became a proponent of the International style. Johnson collaborated with Mies van der Rohe on the Seagram Building, New York City, USA (1958). Other designs include the Lincoln Center, New York City (1964).

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