Working the Angles

Philip Johnson has been working overtime at the Xerox machine lately. In the fall of 1999, the New York architect completed a see-through garden folly composed of distorted pyramids set at precarious angles. But six months ago, the identical idea popped up at the groundbreaking of a mixed-use project in Guadalajara, where he has designed a children’s museum. New Yorkers needn’t venture out of town to see Johnson replicate himself. Final touches are now being put on the Chrysler Trylons on 42nd Street, next to the Chrysler Building. Bookended by granite-clad cubes, three phantasmagoric triangles from 57 to 73 feet tall spike their way into our consciousness. Developer Tishman Speyer first anticipated that the 22,000-square-foot structure would attract a restaurant, but no one has yet signed up for the attention-grabbing glass shards.

Johnson’s official biographer, Franz Schulze, has said that anyone ready to accuse Johnson of lacking originality has to wait his turn in line. Ambitious beyond his talent (or, as Frank Lloyd Wright said, educated beyond his capacity), Johnson is one of the century’s most gifted copyists. But now the New York architect is outdoing even himself, paying his career the final compliment of cloning. For Johnson’s true gift, what really sets him apart from other architects, is mimetic genius. He has long been able to spot talents and scratch their backs even as he picks through their portfolios, re-creating designs nearly as good as the originals. Then he smooths over the whole transaction with panache over low-cholesterol lunches at The Four Seasons.

The pattern started back in the forties, when he cribbed from the Mies van der Rohe archives, left in his trust when he was architecture curator at MoMA. In 1949, he completed the Glass House before Mies could build one himself, and even if Johnson got the corners wrong and sneaked wood ceiling joists into a supposedly all-steel structure, he established a wildly successful modus operandi for a career constructed on ideas plucked from the greater talents he cultivated. In a recent lecture, Frank Welch – author of Philip Johnson & Texas – cited the probable source for each of the buildings that Johnson designed there. The habit came to a titillating head at the College of Architecture, University of Houston, when, in a succès de scandale, he shamelessly copied plans by eighteenth-century architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux. Harold Bloom wrote that poets suffer “the anxiety of influence,” but Johnson’s gift was to take the influence without the anxiety. As the philandering Prince admitted in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, “I was trained to be charming, not sincere.”

Untouchable because of his long-standing association with MoMA, the Teflon don of American architecture emerged by the eighties a full-fledged Warhol creature, famous for his fame. His Chippendale top for the AT&T headquarters on Madison Avenue was, indeed, a classy variant of the soup can. Developers loved the attitude behind the image-oriented architecture and hired him because his celebrity guaranteed press. Three weeks ago at the Guggenheim, during one of Johnson’s perennial Last Suppers (to fête his 95th birthday), all the speakers skirted the delicate matter of his very uneven work. In a private remark, one prominent architect noted that the models of his buildings for developer Gerald Hines, carved in ice and displayed on pedestals, improved as they melted.

At the risk of praising faintly, let’s admit that the Trylons ranks with the Glass House among Johnson’s best buildings. It is a good and, to a point, interesting design that harbors the germs of a provocative architecture. What has changed between the Mies-derived glass pavilion and the auto-plagiarized glass pavilion on 42nd Street is that intimations of irrationality have bent the solid Euclidean geometries out of shape. Johnson has crossed from Plato to Heraclitus, from immutable ideals to flux. After flirting all these years with Apollo, Johnson has run off with Dionysus.

Johnson’s mentor Mies realized that glass buildings lend themselves to plays of reflection, and here on 42nd Street, with angled pyramids, Johnson delights us with a semi-reflective glass-curtain wall that throws the surrounding buildings into kaleidoscopic frenzy.

Johnson, however, does not develop the ideas of disruption and chaos much beyond the initial Expressionist distortion, but leaves them diagrammatic, even idealized. The building looks explosive, but in its polite elegance it doesn’t disturb the cubic masses that police either side. Johnson may have brought the tiara of the Chrysler Building down to street level, but the idea remains a thin one-liner that shortchanges its premise of complexity. Johnson came of age with the emergence of advertising as a social force, and long ago he mastered the art of the sound bite. In this vertiginous skyscraper canyon, he has built the kind of visual slogan on which 30-second commercials thrive – the catchy image essential to branding. He has made a complex idea simplistic, digestible at a glance.

Like most of his designs, this building has little interior life. The pyramids that, on the outside, seem to have been summoned to an otherworldly gravitational state reveal themselves to be overcontrolled inside. The poststructuralist façade that advertises its instabilities is heavily girdered with ten-inch tubular-steel supports. Had the structure been integrated into the edges of the pyramids, or had the planes of the pyramids been made into a space frame, the interior space might have flowed up into the tapering volumes. But a V-shaped column crowds the central area, and the heavy structure oppresses the space. There are redeeming moments in a couple of corners that offer shooting views to adjacent façades, but you have to find them. For all the kerfuffle outside, there is little spatial payoff inside.

In a letter to his mother, cited in Schulze’s biography, Johnson writes, “I was stinging under Raphael’s” – his philosophy teacher’s – “reproach that I was a lazy thinker and never criticized my thoughts, so I got busy and thought for five minutes.” Some 75 years later, the self-advertising Johnson may have extended his fifteen minutes of fame to a full hour: He is his own best construction. But he still has difficulty mustering five minutes of concentration on any other subject, and it shows on 42nd Street. He continues to be unable to sustain ideas and make them his own. A long career has been wasted on an architect with a short attention span.

Philip Johnson
Chrysler Trylons building on East 42nd Street.

Working the Angles