July 8, 1906– Phillip Johnson is one of my favorite figures in the exalted field of Architecture, one of my passions. 20th century American architecture is my focus. I write that as I realize that my favorite structure on our pretty planet is the 13th century Duomo in Sienna in Tuscany. We are each filled with contradiction, right?
Not all that long ago, any young man who was gay & loved design was expected to become a “decorator”. Brick, steel & concrete were for straight dudes. Homos were supposed to stick to antique furniture & fabric swatches. For most of the 20th century, there was a brilliant exception. Philip Cortelyou Johnson built skyscrapers of steel in nearly every major USA city, mentored 3 generations of mostly straight mostly male architects, & lived his life with a man he met when Ike was the President.
Idiosyncratic in his manner & dress, with his trademark thick round glasses, Johnson caught my interest when I lived in NYC in the mid-1070s & fell in love with the Seagram Building, designed by Johnson & Mies van der Rohe, which has a mention in the musical Company, making me curious about the reference.
After graduating from Harvard with a degree in History & Philosophy & a graduate degree is design. Johnson would take entire semesters off to travel in Europe, visiting the great structures in the company of gay Architectural Historian, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, a Harvard pal. The pair, along with Alfred Barr, a noted Art Historian, put together a landmark show The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 at the MOMA in 1932. The show had a profound influence with its introduction of Modern Architecture on the surprised American public.
In 1928, Johnson met architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was designing the German Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition Of 1929. The meeting was a revelation for Johnson & was the seed for a lifelong relationship with the famed designer as a collaborator & as competition.
Ohio born Johnson founded the Department Of Architecture & Design at the Museum Of Modern Art in NYC. He arranged for the first showings of the works Le Corbusier & Marcel Breuer in 1932. He didn’t actually practice architecture for another decade.
From 1932 to 1940, Johnson was out of the closet as a Nazi sympathizer, & was suspected by the US military of being a spy. He was active in right-wing political movements. He later stated:
“I have no excuse for such unbelievable stupidity… I don’t know how you expiate guilt.”
In 1956, Johnson did try to exorcise that guilt & he donated his design for a building a synagogue for the USA’s oldest Jewish congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, NY.
His most iconic work is his Glass House, which I have actually checked out in person. Built on a beautiful site in New Canaan, Connecticut & completed in 1949, the serene Glass House is a 5 ft. x 32 ft. rectangle. It is considered to be one of the 20th century’s greatest residential structures with pure symmetry, dark colors & closeness to the earth that brings calm & order. It is rather perfect.
His other important structures include: New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center, JFK Memorial Plaza in Dallas, 101 California Street in San Francisco, 191 Peachtree Tower in Atlanta, Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, Tata Theatre in Mombai, & the gorgeous Cathedral Of Hope in Dallas, a gay congregation. Johnson not only lived & dined in places of his own design, he also worked in them. For many years his office was in the Seagram Building.
“We still have a monumental architecture. To me, the drive for monumentality is as inbred as the desire for food & sex, regardless of how we denigrate it. Monuments differ in different periods. Each age has its own. Maybe, just maybe, we shall at last come to care for the most important, most challenging, surely the most satisfying of all architectural creations: building cities for people to live in.”
Throughout his career he was as well-known for his quips as he was for his buildings. He famously called Frank Lloyd Wright whose career lasted from the 1890s to the 1950s: “the greatest architect of the 19th century.”
Johnson lived with his partner, curator David Whitney from 1960 until his death in January 2005. His life was long enough that he can be considered both The Elder Statesman & The Enfant terrible of American architecture. Johnson took his last breath in this incarnation at The Glass House in New Canaan. He was 98 years old. Whitney joined him less than 6 months later just before their 46th anniversary.