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An Architect On Many Levels

Philip Johnson, Blueprinter of Change

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2005; Page C01

Gifted, good-looking, independently wealthy, generous, sociable, intelligent -- and smart, too -- Philip Johnson cut a giant figure in the world of 20th-century architecture and design. Rather, he cut several figures.

As a producer of architecture for half a century, Johnson, who died Tuesday at 98, designed some wonderful buildings and some awful ones. He transformed his architecture dramatically several times during a long career.

Philip Johnson with a model of a proposed addition to New York's Museum of Broadcasting. (Ed Bailey - AP)

Though this willingness to change sometimes seemed flighty, ultimately it had a liberating effect on American architecture. And certain constants remained: Regardless of stylistic trim, Johnson's buildings are notable for their regulated geometry and spatial order. A certain theatricality was never far from the surface.

Johnson himself often would admit -- though not always with conviction -- that he was not a great architect. But at his best he definitely was extremely good. (He'd admit that, too, at a drop of a hat.) We are lucky in Washington to have solid evidence of Johnson's sizable talents. Two of his buildings here -- the jewel-like Museum for Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, and the elegant Kreeger Museum -- are among the best he ever designed.

We also have evidence of Johnson's weakness for grandiosity. In 1986 he and then-partner John Burgee designed a crystalline, 52-story skyscraper for a sensitive site in Prince George's County, just six miles from the center of low-rise Washington. Fortunately the uproar was great enough that it didn't get built. And though it's far better than the postmodernist pastiches the Johnson-Burgee team was turning out all over the nation in the 1980s, the Tycon Tower in Tysons Corner basically is a disappointing conceit, a skyscraper supposedly based on Jeffersonian architectural principles.

But Johnson's architecture is only part of his story. He was an innovative museum curator and an architectural historian of great breadth. He was a perceptive art collector. He was a maker of taste on a worldwide scale. He was a maker of careers, too. For decades, being publicly recognized with a Johnsonian bon mot was seen as a necessary steppingstone by many an ambitious American architect.

Johnson also was a failed fascist. As a disenchanted young intellectual in the '30s, Johnson embraced right-wing populist politics after dropping out of the New York art world. Some of his political episodes had the quality of bad comic opera -- he traipsed after Louisiana's "Kingfish," Huey Long, a leader who disdained him; and, in his own Lincoln-Zephyr he traveled back and forth across his native Ohio, trying unsuccessfully to drum up support for a third-party movement led by Michigan's "radio priest," Father Charles Coughlin.

But Johnson's political career also revealed a seriously flawed morality. A Nietzschean romantic, Johnson became attracted to European fascism, in particular to Adolf Hitler. Among the worst things that Johnson did was to accept a Nazi invitation to travel to the Polish front with the Wehrmacht in 1939 so that he could write a series of apologistic, anti-Semitic reports for one of Father Coughlin's journals.

Johnson remained doggedly involved with politics for six years, from 1934 to 1940, but he had no talent for it and enjoyed only seamy little successes, such as the trip through conquered Poland. In his 1995 Johnson biography (the best and most complete to date), Franze Schulze notes the irony: In politics, "the amount of power [Johnson] yearned for was inversely proportional to the amount he actually attained."

In the cosmopolitan world of art and architecture, though, it was altogether the reverse. It was as if Johnson had been born for that world. He succeeded in it -- indeed, he reveled in it before and after his misguided, ineffective political career. (Johnson apologized publicly, from time to time; he also, not incidentally, served a stint in the Army during World War II.) Throughout his later life, Johnson's interest in power was confined mainly to the fact that power and money were what got buildings built.

Johnson's love of architecture, particularly its aesthetics, was one of his great traits. He loved to talk about it, with style and wit and erudition. He adored the gossip of the architecture world, hosting lunches at the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan (which he designed, of course) that became famous for their spirited who's-in, who's-out conversations. And Johnson loved making architecture. While at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1942, the wealthy young man (then in his mid-thirties) built a modernist house that served not only as his senior thesis but also as a gathering place for the most brilliant of his teachers and fellow students.

Born in 1906 to a prosperous family in Cleveland, Johnson was a bright kid who turned into a brilliant if moody and sometimes unpredictable student. The most notable thing about Johnson's undergraduate years in the 1920s at Harvard, where he majored in philosophy, was his life-altering encounter there with Alfred H. Barr, the pioneer historian of modern art and architecture.

Barr was to become, in 1929, the first director of the brand new Museum of Modern Art in New York. Together with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, another Harvard graduate noted for his studies of modern architecture, Johnson and Barr were to make history in quite short order.

In but two years of constant traveling and furious research, the trio put together the new museum's first architecture exhibition. Titled "Modern Architecture -- International Exhibition," the show was devoted primarily to the new architecture of Europe after World War I, and though it didn't exactly take the United States by storm, it did, as things turned out, greatly influence the future course of American architecture. Without this exhibition, and the intense, long-term dialogues it stimulated, it would be hard to imagine the dramatic changes that overtook architecture in this country after World War II, when modernism became the favored style of governments, corporations and even, for a brief while, some suburban developers.

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