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An Architect On Many Levels

After the war, Johnson resumed his close association with the Museum of Modern Art, serving (again) as the head of its pace-setting department of architecture and design. With his penetrating eye for quality and originality, he was the perfect man for the job. And from this position, of course, he could promote his favorite enthusiasms, most notably the architecture of the great Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

But even after an increasing load of architectural work forced Johnson to resign the position, his connection to the institution remained intense. In the 1950s and '60s he designed expansions of the museum and also laid out the justifiably world-famous outdoor sculpture garden. He also donated many splendid artworks from his private collection to the museum. Barr and even later directors knew that if they really needed help for a particular acquisition, Johnson most likely would provide it.

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

Johnson initially met Mies (as the German-born architect is universally known) during his travels for the International Exhibition, and his admiration for the modernist master greatly affected his own work for more than a decade. That Cambridge senior thesis house, for instance, was wholly Miesian in conception, with its glass wall looking out to an enclosed courtyard. More famous, and of much higher quality, is the house Johnson built for himself in New Canaan, Conn., in 1949.

Appropriately called the Glass House, because each of its four walls is made entirely of glass panels with but thin piers of steel, the work immediately established Johnson's reputation as a leading modern architect (though it did not immediately lead to much new work). Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, rightly refers to the house as "an icon of modernism." Moe has thought long and hard on the house, for Johnson, in yet another sign of his generosity, donated it to the National Trust in 1986. Including a collection of additional buildings Johnson designed there over the years, the estate is a history of Johnson's architectural enthusiasms. (Moe said yesterday that it was uncertain when it would be ready for public visitation.)

A visitor at Johnson's famed Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., built in 1949. (Tom Ryan - The Advocate via AP)
Johnson worked with Mies on New York's 1958 Seagram Building, one of the century's great skyscrapers, and much of his work around that time strongly reflected Miesian influence. But in the late 1950s and early '60s, Johnson's thinking about architecture began to change, and, naturally, so did the character of the work. Johnson was always more interested in architectural history than Mies (or, for that matter, most modernists), and his new work began to strongly show signs of that influence.

The results were mixed. The 1963 Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, Neb., for instance, seemed a bit thin in its "modernizing" of the classical column. But Johnson's eclecticism of the time could bear significant dividends, as the 1963 Dumbarton Oaks museum triumphantly demonstrates. With its unusual arrangement of domed circles, glass walls and thick, rounded stone pillars, it is a magical pavilion in the woods. Likewise, the Kreeger Museum, designed initially as a private home for David and Carmen Kreeger, is an unusual, powerfully elegant arrangement of a geometric module (in this case, a 22-foot cube). Johnson often said he was influenced by Islamic architecture at the Kreeger, with its multiple domes, but much Miesian rigor remains, and also a bit of Rome.

Johnson's most famous building, even more so than the Glass House, is the former AT&T skyscraper (now owned by Sony) completed in 1978 in midtown Manhattan. Aptly dubbed the "Chippendale" skyscraper because of its cabinet-like top, it remains a startling apparition on the skyline. But it initiated a spate of Johnson-Burgee "historic" commercial skyscrapers across the land. A few, such as the Gothic glass PPG Place in Pittsburgh, retain a certain urbanistic strength. And the Franklin Square office building in Washington, with its stately piers and polychrome Greek lobby, is one of the best of a bad breed. But basically these buildings -- exaggerated Victorian, Second Empire or whatnot -- became a sort of kitschy shtick.

In his later years, whether teamed with architect Alan Ritchie or on his own, Johnson tended to experiment with new trends -- bold geometric shapes, unconventional bending ones, computerized blobs and so on. The results generally were not that great, with the major exception of his always witty, quotation-like buildings on the New Canaan estate. But the efforts did conclusively demonstrate Johnson's career-long interest in the new, as well as the old. This combination is unusual, but valuable, and it is altogether characteristic of a man who really, really loved architecture.

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