Philip Johnson. The unpredictable dean of American architects: He introduced the `glass box' -- then broke it

On a warm day last May, Philip Johnson was walking down a street in Beverly Hills, Calif., with Frank Gehry, a fellow architect and friend. On their way to visit a new condominium designed by Mr. Gehry, the two -- Mr. Johnson, as usual, tailored resplendently and Gehry with longish hair and perennially rumpled -- passed an apartment building. A stranger, sitting on a third-floor balcony reading, looked down on the sartorially disparate pair and exclaimed, ``Philip Johnson! I love your work, especially AT&T.'' A brief conversation followed, in which the stranger also expressed admiration for Gehry's designs, and then the two architects went on. Johnson, astounded, said to Gehry, ``Can you believe that?''

Somehow, such an incident seems singularly appropriate in Beverly Hills, for America, now more than ever, is into celebrities, whether they be movie actors, television news personalities, rock musicians, or architects. And with more than half a century in and around the profession, there is no bigger star in the nation's architectural firmament than Philip Johnson.

Today, in his late 70s, he has never been busier or more controversial. Because of the vast power and influence he wields, this dean of American architects is sometimes referred to, behind his back, as the godfather of American architects. The elegant bachelor has a rapier-sharp tongue with a wit to match, and he never hesitates to speak his mind. Johnson, whose profile and close-cropped gray hair resemble an image on an ancient Roman coin, is his profession's elder statesman and still its enfant terrible.

In several wide-ranging conversations recently with this writer, the architect talked about himself and his work, combining the outrageous with the profound and insightful. One moment he will boast that he can design anything he wants, adding: ``I'm the only one who doesn't have to think. Writers have to do that. I don't have to explain my buildings.'' Next he worries that ``architecture is in danger of becoming fashion, not a style.'' He talks about the cities where he has worked, describing Houston, for example, as ``a sort of World's Fair of skyscrapers.'' Washington ``has always been my favorite city,'' he notes, despite the fact it ``is one of the worst planned cities in the world.''

He later waxes rhapsodic about America's only architect/president: ``There's so much that is so wonderful about Jefferson'' -- but then adds, ``Monticello isn't one of them.'' Those are fighting words to Virginians, but ones that are bound to get him media attention, which he seems to relish.

How does he pick and choose what to do? ``It's not much fun at my age to go around doing time on buildings that can't add to my oeuvre, that can't make a statement beyond what we made before.'' Johnson says he has always dreamed of designing an entire community, and later, with a sly, secretive look, he reveals the firm's next major commission, a $500 million-plus new town within spitting distance of the nation's capital. Situated on the banks of the Potomac River in Prince George's County, Md., across from Alexandria, Va., the Bay of the Americas, as the project is now called, will feature high-rise office buildings, a marina, hotel, and residential units.

Johnson comments that joining forces with a architect 27 years his junior, John Burgee, in 1967 was his best move. He realized ``architecture was too important to be just artistic'' and sought a partner experienced in design and in business.

Today, their 60-member firm has major high-rise office buildings worth well over a billion dollars under design or construction all across the country. It is altering city skylines with unique, imagemaking structures in Boston (two separate towers); New York (six towers, including a four-building complex that is to transform Times Square -- to what, no one is certain); Los Angeles; Chicago; Atlanta; Dallas; San Francisco; suburban Washington; and New Orleans. In the past year, work has been completed on the Cleveland Playhouse, a new theater complex for Johnson's Ohio hometown; the PPG Industries corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh; two office towers in Houston; one each in Denver and San Francisco; and a cultural center in Miami. And then there is perhaps the partners' best-known work to date: the $200 million American Telephone & Telegraph Company corporate headquarters on Madison Avenue in New York, with its Chippendale-style pediment, which was officially dedicated in December.

This volume of prominent work alone would make Philip Johnson singularly important, but there are other, perhaps more lasting, reasons for his significance. Born in 1906 to a wealthy lawyer and his wife, an art history graduate of Wellesley College who took her son and two daughters on grand tours of Europe during the summers, Johnson has said he had the equivalent of a ``religious call'' after first seeing the Parthenon in 1928.

Graduated from Harvard in 1930 with a degree in philosophy and Greek, he took off immediately for Europe to examine the then-developing modern architecture espoused by such progenitors as Le Corbusier in France and Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany. Johnson became an instant convert and a self-proclaimed propagandist for the ``International Style,'' a term he and co-author Henry-Russell Hitchcock used as the title of a book published in 1932. It served as the catalog for an exhibit at the fledgling Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Johnson had become director of the Department of Architecture. That show introduced the country to modern architecture.

Johnson's interest in his subject eventually grew so strong that in 1940 at the age of 34 -- after a somewhat bizarre fling at politics -- he enrolled in architecture school at Harvard. He had a tour of duty with the United States Army, then nearly decided to move to Washington, D.C., to open his practice. But Harvard's architecture dean, Joseph Hudnut, told him simply, ``You can become a Washington architect or you can become a world architect, but you can't become a world architect from anywhere except New York City.'' Thus he moved back there and opened a small, mostly residential practice.

He soon began work on the design of his own home, a glass-walled structure that has become perhaps the most famous modern house in America. The design started out as a sort of contest of wills between Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, who, Johnson recalls, ``said you could design an entire house in glass.'' Johnson disagreed, but nonetheless decided to give it a try. The Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., completed in 1949, has gained several Johnson-designed neighbors over the years, including a solid, brick-walled guesthouse that stands in apposition to the transparent main house.

Until well into the 1950s, Johnson was a devout follower of Mies, whom he had helped emigrate to America to escape Nazi Germany. He once quipped, ``I have always been delighted to be called Mies van der Johnson.'' The German architect asked Johnson to collaborate in the design of the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York; Johnson did the interiors, and since the building opened in 1959 he has maintained his office there on the 37th floor. The building was widely recognized as the apogee of the International Style and last year received the American Institute of Architects' 25-year award.

Around the time of its completion, however, Johnson began to see increasing public dissatisfaction with modern architecture as manifested in the International Style. Boring glass boxes had sprouted everywhere. While orthodox modernists eschewed any kind of historical reference -- believing with Henry Ford that ``history is more or less bunk'' -- Johnson, who is proud to remind people that he was an architectural historian before he was an architect, told students at Yale's architecture school, ``You cannot not know history.''

This form of architectural apostasy was not out of character for Johnson, who has said that he always likes ``to go against the grain.'' He began to design modern buildings with precedents in history. The 1963 Museum for Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., which he still describes as ``my most elegant building,'' is based on Ottoman Empire architecture.

Other, younger architects became even more radical in their approach, overtly using historical references, brighter colors, and even decorative moldings, which the International Style disdained. By the early 1970s, this more picturesque approach acquired a name, Post-Modernism, although it was still limited in scope. And, significantly, it was considered child's folly by much of the architectural profession.

Johnson and Burgee were to alter that attitude momentously in March 1978 when their design for AT&T was unveiled. Philip Johnson, self-described as ``the man who introduced the glass box,'' became the man who broke it. The pictorial design featured a 90-foot-high loggia surrounding the base, a glass-roofed galleria at the rear, and an unusual, to say the least, top. It had been years since buildings had pediments, but the Johnson/Burgee design, which has been likened to a Chippendale highboy, brought them back with a flourish.

It was one thing for America's most famous architect to alter totally his approach to design and quite another for what was then the world's largest corporation to build this apparently radical design. But he did and it did, thus giving respectability to an entire movement.

The nurturing of Post-Modernism is one of Johnson's lasting achievements, although, ever the mischievous iconoclast, he disdains the style now that it has been accepted. He says he is not a Post-Modernist. ``I'm a modernist,'' he states, noting that he uses various historical styles and buildings as referents, while all the time using contemporary materials and construction techniques. Johnson does admit, however, that ``the words get all mixed up.''

Johnson and Burgee, most assuredly, do not stick to one style of architecture. ``We never copy ourselves,'' Johnson quips. The range of the firm's recent work is astounding, from the mammoth, glass-walled Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., which is wider and higher than Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, to the RepublicBank Center in Houston, a 56-story pink granite tower stepped back in a series of Dutch gable roofs with Gothic pinnacles. The Romanesque-looking Cleveland Playhouse complex looks, appropriately for its use, like a fairyland stage set, while Boston's soon-to-be constructed New England Life office building on Boylston Street near Copley Square has been compared to a huge pair of art deco radios, 26 stories high.

What do Johnson's clients think of him? They all seem to love what he has wrought. Gerald D. Hines, the Houston-based developer who has built a dozen of the architects' designs, welcomes their stylistic variety, noting with masterly understatement that the work ``is not stereotyped.'' The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, who commissioned the Crystal Cathedral, has said, ``I think Philip has the same quality that Walt Disney had -- the enthusiasm of a boy who's never grown up.'' John Buck, a young Chicago developer who has commissioned a 40-story building in the heart of the city's financial district, points out that Johnson's involvement in high-rise building ``has brought more attention to architecture in general.''

And that, even more than his individual designs, may be what Johnson will be most remembered for in the future. He has popularized architecture as a whole, almost, in a way, becoming the personification of the profession.

Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of the New York Times, notes that while Johnson may not necessarily be the greatest architect in America today, ``he is the most important.'' To Mr. Goldberger, Johnson ``is the liveliest architectural presence we have.'' Architect and critic Peter Blake points out, ``Johnson has lots to say and says it amusingly.'' He notes that in these days of media hype, ``to succeed you must be a master of the media and your craft. Johnson understands how the media work and how to make an impact.''

While some of his fellow practitioners are concerned about the hype and image Johnson has created, saying they make it difficult to sort out the architect's serious work, many seem to agree that he has changed architecture. Says Robert A. M. Stern, a New York City architect who is doing an oral history project with Johnson for Columbia University's archives, ``He wants architecture to be more than just a string of buildings. Beyond all others, he has an endlessly energetic commitment to ideas in architecture. He knows everything in architecture. As a catalyst, he is unequaled.'' Hugh Hardy, another New York architect, believes Johnson will be remembered ``for the air he has blown through the profession.''

John Burgee sums up his partner's contribution to architecture this way: ``He has an ever-searching mind and intellect, looking into and accepting so many directions. His judgments in architecture are made on an art and intellectual basis, not on a dogmatic set of rules. He accepts and encourages pluralism in architecture.'' Frank Gehry, an unabashed fan of Johnson's even though they are polar opposites in their style of design, adds: ``[Johnson] is an incredible role model who supports architecture at many levels. He's a real patron. It's wonderful at his age to see him having so much fun. He's getting better and better.''

What does Johnson himself think? ``I don't know how good an architect I am,'' he says with unusual modesty. ``I'm better than my detractors, but not as good as Stern thinks.'' He does not believe he belongs in the same league with such past masters as Le Corbusier, Mies, and Frank Lloyd Wright. ``I'm not a form-giver, but we're not in an age of form-giving. My contribution has been working with younger architects.''

Johnson intends to keep on practicing architecture for many years to come. He works six days a week, taking only Fridays off and spending his weekends designing in his study at the Glass House.

There can be no doubt that he enjoys immensely what he does. ``What's fun is change,'' he says. Johnson finds ``life more satisfying every year'' and does not intend to shed his controversial Peck's Bad Boy image, which, he notes, with a smile, ``hasn't hurt entirely.''

Carleton Knight III is currently working on a book on the relationship between architects and their clients.

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