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Correction to This Article
The Jan. 27 obituary of architect Philip C. Johnson incorrectly described David Lloyd Kreeger as the founder of Geico. He was the insurance company's chairman; Leo Goodwin was the founder.
Philip C. Johnson, 1906-2005

With Glass and Steel, Prolific Architect Cut A Towering Figure

By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 27, 2005; Page A01

Philip C. Johnson, 98, the elder statesman of American architects who also was a leading idea man and trendsetter, critic, philosopher and historian of building design, died Tuesday at Glass House, his country home in New Canaan, Conn. No cause of death was reported, but he had undergone heart surgery when he was 90.

Few architects of the past century were so talked about as Johnson, an urbane, eloquent and wealthy eminence who built, spoke and dined very publicly.

The postmodern Manhattan tower commissioned by AT&T stirred the design world with its eclectic influences, including its Chippendale-reminiscent roof. (Bruce Gilbert -- Newsday)

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Philip Johnson: Highlights from the career of the American architect.

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Considered brilliant by some, condemned by others, his work included some of the most discussed structures in town or country. Restless, Johnson was forever changing his preferred style of design from classical to avant-garde, eluding an easy definition for his legacy. His fame was owed in part to a provocative streak -- he once called architects "high-class whores" -- and his personal history included an early admiration for fascism and anti-Semitism that he soon recanted.

However mercurial, Johnson was unforgettable and cut an enormously influential path in the field of building design. In 1978, he was awarded the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal, the group's highest prize. The following year, he was the first recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, which came with a $100,000 award.

Johnson created structures that influenced the development of architecture in America for more than half a century. His work invariably drew wide notice and attention. The AT&T skyscraper -- now the Sony building -- on Madison Avenue at 56th Street in Manhattan caused a firestorm even before its completion in the 1980s.

His other notable structures include the art gallery at Nelson A. Rockefeller's summer home in Seal Harbor, Maine; the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in New York; the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth; and the 2,890-seat Crystal Cathedral, constructed of 10,900 panes of reflective glass, for television evangelist Robert H. Schuller in Garden Grove, Calif.

He also designed buildings on the colleges campuses of Yale, Harvard, Brown and Sarah Lawrence.

In Washington, Johnson did the pre-Columbian art wing at Dumbarton Oaks and the home of the late David Lloyd Kreeger, the Geico founder. The home, now a museum, is noted for its 66-foot-long great hall with a 24-foot ceiling.

He promoted avant-garde architecture in America during the years of the Great Depression, World War II and the postwar era. Later, Johnson broke away from the starkly symmetrical and unadorned modernist style of glass and steel and became a leader in a postmodern revolution in design that included a revival of classical detail and a melange of other forms. By word and example, he urged architects to experiment with new concepts and to reinvent old ones.

He was known primarily as an architect for the rich and well-connected, designing buildings of great expense and elegance for the wealthiest of corporations and individuals, blue-chip institutions and highbrow organizations.

Johnson's critics said his work dulled the American cityscape with a profusion of uniform glass-and-steel box skyscrapers. Especially unpopular was his so-called Lipstick skyscraper building at 53rd Street and Third Avenue in New York. The tower, completed in 1986, was said by New Yorker magazine to have a "look of garish cheapness that along with its elliptical shape, instantly won it its sorry nickname."

By his own description, Johnson was an architectural traditionalist. But in his view, the best use of tradition was "to improve it, twist it and mold it to make something new of it." He once described architecture as "exuberance, like sex or taste."

"You cannot not know history," he declared in a widely quoted 1961 speech to architects in London. In the practice of their craft, he told them, "choose from history whatever forms, shapes or directions you want . . . using them as you please."

Johnson's repeated description of architects as "high-class whores" triggered a storm of controversy and resentment within the profession. "What's wrong with a high-class whore if she's high enough class?" he asked once in a Washington Post interview. "It's the oldest profession in the world. It can be the noblest profession. We're other things besides whores. But all I meant was that we are for sale."

Johnson biographer Franz Schulze wrote, "His genius was that of a singularly gifted harlequin who forever changed the masks of style on his own work."

Philip Cortelyou Johnson was born July 8, 1906, in Cleveland, where his father was a prosperous lawyer. He attended private boarding school and enrolled at Harvard University, dropping out several times before graduating in 1930.

At the time, his withdrawals from Harvard were attributed to nervous breakdowns. More than 50 years later, Johnson told Vanity Fair magazine that the breakdowns were caused by stresses related to his sexual orientation: He was gay.

He said that during the 1970s, he persuaded the New Yorker to omit all references to his homosexuality from a profile, fearing it might cost him the commission to design the AT&T building. But he later talked openly about his sexual relationships in conversations with Schulze, who described them in some detail in his book, "Philip Johnson: Life and Work" (1994).

While traveling in Europe as a college student during the 1920s, Johnson met two men who would have a profound effect on him. They were Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school of design in Dessau, Germany, which had become the fountainhead of the modernist trend in architecture; and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a leading master of modern architecture, who would become one of Johnson's mentors.

Three decades later, Mies van der Rohe and Johnson would collaborate on the design of the Seagram Building in Manhattan, a 38-story tower of amber-color glass set in a bronze frame. Erected in 1958 at Park Avenue and 53rd Street, the building is generally recognized as a showcase example of modern architecture. Mr. Johnson designed the interiors of the building, including the famed Four Seasons restaurant, which occupies the first two floors.

Since his graduation from Harvard, Mr. Johnson had been a key player in the arena of American architecture, although he did not receive a degree in architecture for more than a decade. In the fall of 1930, as the nation's economy was collapsing into the Depression, he accepted an appointment as director of the architecture and design department of the new Museum of Modern Art in New York.

With an enormous block of Aluminum Co. of America stock given him by his father, Johnson paid not only his own salary, but also those of his staff. With art historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, he organized an exhibition of modern architecture at the museum and wrote a now-classic book about it, "The International Style: Architecture Since 1922" (1932).

The exhibition and the book portrayed the streamlined and functional architecture that was becoming the predominant form of building design in Europe, and they had a seminal effect on the development of architecture in the United States. By his own description, Mr. Johnson became a "propaganda bureau" for the style.

It was "so perfectly clear," Mr. Johnson once said, "so simple: the primary colors, the lack of overhanging roofs, the simplicity of cubic nature, the purity of surface, and lots of glass."

He returned to Germany in 1934, a year after Adolf Hitler had seized power, and he was impressed by economic recovery under the Nazis after the chaos and poverty he had witnessed in the Weimar Republic. Resigning his position at the Museum of Modern Art, he set out to organize an American political party along the lines of National Socialism but then abandoned the idea after his efforts faltered. In the late 1930s he spent much of his time on his parents' farm. Of this period he later said, "I didn't do much of anything."

In 1939, Johnson was traveling in Europe when Germany invaded Poland. He became accredited as a correspondent for Social Justice, a right-wing magazine edited by the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest and radio commentator, and he participated in a Nazi-sponsored press junket into occupied Poland.

On that trip he shared a hotel room with William L. Shirer, the CBS radio correspondent and author of the bestseller "Berlin Diary" (1941). In that book, Shirer described Johnson as "an American fascist . . . . None of us can stand the fellow and suspect he is spying on us for the Nazis." Years later, Johnson would say of the period, "I was a damned fool and I deserved what I got, but the next few years were the worst of my life."

In 1940, Johnson, then 34, returned to Harvard, where he studied under Gropius at the graduate design school, receiving a degree in architecture in 1943. After a stint in the Army during World War II, he opened a private architecture practice.

It took him several tries to pass the New York State licensing examination, but from the start, he began designing homes for wealthy clients on Long Island while continuing to work as a writer and curator.

In 1949, he built the New Canaan Glass House for his own country hideaway. It was constructed entirely of sheets of quarter-inch glass, divided and supported by black steel pillars with no interior walls. A small brick cylinder containing a bathroom, fireplace and other utilities was the only enclosed area.

Critics at the time described it as a superlative example of the international style, and it was talked about and written about for decades. The Post called it "a self portrait in architecture unequaled since Thomas Jefferson's Monticello." The architect Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have remarked on entering the dwelling that he didn't know whether to leave his hat on or off.

In his will, Johnson left the land and the building to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, with an endowment for upkeep.

By the early 1960s, he was tiring of the international style. His work began to reflect a softening of the austere orthodoxy that characterized that school. In 1967, he formed a professional partnership with Chicago architect John Burgee that would last for two decades. During the 1970s, they designed such well-publicized projects as the Investors Diversified Services Center in Minneapolis and Pennzoil Plaza in Houston, which helped establish postmodernism as the new trend in architecture.

But it was the AT&T skyscraper that came to be recognized as the centerpiece of the postmodern movement. In March 1978, the New York Times published the proposed design for the 648-foot tower on its front page, triggering a spirited discussion and debate that continued for years.

Completed in 1984, the building was sheathed in pinkish-gray granite. It was known for its enormous domed lobby entrance on Madison Avenue and its upward sloping roof pediment, with a scoop hollowed out from the center in an ornamental design pattern that resembled that found on the 18th-century English furniture of Thomas Chippendale.

Paul Gapp, the architectural critic of the Chicago Tribune, said the building "overnight transfused postmodernism from the lunatic vein into the corporate mainstream." Less enthusiastic was the Village Voice newspaper, in which Michael Sorkin described the tower as the "the Seagram building with ears."

By the late 1980s, the Johnson-Burgee partnership had dissolved, but Johnson continued to work independently well into the 1990s.

Survivors include his companion of more than 40 years, David Whitney; and a sister.

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