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Remembering Their Godfather

What were Philip Johnson’s greatest contributions to architecture? Thirteen architects respond.

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Clockwise from top left, Johnson with a model of his AT&T (now Sony) building; the Penzoil towers in Houston; and the Glass House in New Canaan.  

Aaron Betsky: His acerbic wit. Popularizing modernism in corporate America. Popularizing postmodernism in corporate America. Showing that you don’t have to be able to design to be a great architect. Every single one of these is also his worst crime against architecture, which is the great contradiction inherent in what he did. Philip Johnson was the perfect example of the architect as entrepreneurial critic: a businessman who could coordinate a large team of designers, and find a position within the world of architecture that would give an identity to his work. He did not invent. He did not have a tortured process of arriving at just the right form. He just gave a twist and flip, flourished a column or a grid, and voilà, the rabbit of architecture appeared out of the hat of the elegant Park Avenue gentleman.

Daniel Libeskind: He was able to say to the public, “Wake up! There’s something new coming. There are other things besides function.” He had an edge for a man of his age. Usually older people don’t like what’s coming. He told me that what defined architecture was a feeling in the stomach.

Elizabeth Diller, Rick Scofidio, and Charles Renfro [via e-mail]: Johnson was the Andy Warhol of architecture: He was instrumental in transforming dogmatic modern practice into an issue of style, and the status of the architect into celebrity.

Cesar Pelli: His exhibition in 1932 on International Style at the Museum of Modern Art and the book that he wrote with Henry-Russell Hitchcock. They sold modernism to America. He made it understandable by concentrating on the formal aspects of modernism, which is what interested the public at large—different from the social aspects that were important in the European version. The building of his that I like the most is the pre-Columbian art pavilion in Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. I never cared for the AT&T building. I thought it was an excess of postmodernism. But on the other hand, he hit it right on the head at that time. That building’s name was not made by Philip, it was made by the media. And this was another way he influenced architecture. Philip loved the media.

Bernard Tschumi: His 1932 exhibition placed architecture in the museum, making it a discipline as important as painting or sculpture. That had a major effect on the way Americans looked at it, and I don’t know of any other equivalent in another country, putting architecture in museums that early. The Tate Modern doesn't have an architecture section. The Pompidou only added one recently. The attitude toward architecture, the way it’s reported in the media even today, is not unrelated to that exhibition in 1932.

I’ve always been amazed at how accepted Johnson was by American architects as “the dean” of architecture. If a similar persona had existed in Europe, I think there would have been a tremendous opposition: pro-Johnsons and anti-Johnsons. Here he was always considered the godfather. That’s an interesting phenomenon in a profession that loves opposition. Maybe he was smart enough to organize his own opposition before anyone else by changing constantly. Also, he introduced humor into a profession that is normally deadly serious.

Henry Smith-Miller: Johnson was the Thomas Jefferson of the twentieth century. By that I mean he recombined design ideas he found in Europe and brought them to the United States. It was a combination of what he knew and who he knew. Italo Calvino wrote about how to go from the twentieth to the 21st century, and that lightness of touch was a way of surviving the millennium, and Johnson had that. He didn’t make it to 100 years (he wanted to), but I think his longevity was due to his ability to move lightly across water like a water bug.

Terence Riley: The way that he noticed Mies van der Rohe at around age 25—his efforts got Mies into the International Style show. Whether you like Mies or not, it’s amazing to think such a young person had so much influence. Philip was an unbelievable conduit between the people with money and the younger people who design things.

Zaha Hadid: His Four Seasons became one of the greatest rooms in New York. I enjoyed many occasions with him there. People would go to him if they wanted projects or advice. The reason Philip was so powerful was that he was so accessible.

Charles Gwathmey: He was responsible for helping so many of us to launch our careers. Each building in his Glass House complex in New Canaan was an exploration of a new interest, and he was able to leave them as a historic collage of his interests. The Pennzoil towers in Houston changed the anonymity of the typical office tower into a more sculptural object.

Peter Eisenman: His Glass House opened up living to nature. Pennzoil broke the skyscraper apart.

Rafael Vinoly: He was influential in terms of how architecture positioned itself to clients and to the public. Not too long ago, he went all the way to Tokyo to give a lecture. I went to see him there. This was a man that was practically handicapped at that point. All of a sudden, he was given the floor, and this incredible theatrical event occurred. The man took a room with 3,000 Japanese and transformed them into people that were enthusiastic. Philip had this thing, which is that he was history and he knew history. It’s a very strange position to be in, a unique one.


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