An Architect With a Taste for Change

The Kreeger exhibition "Philip Johnson: Architecture as Art" showcases late designs, including a Mexican children's museum, above, whose strange forms recall 1920s German expressionism, one of Johnson's important early influences.
The Kreeger exhibition "Philip Johnson: Architecture as Art" showcases late designs, including a Mexican children's museum, above, whose strange forms recall 1920s German expressionism, one of Johnson's important early influences. (By Robert Walker -- Kreeger Museum)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008

The new exhibition of models, photographs, drawings and sculpture by Philip Johnson at the Kreeger Museum will leave you with the uncanny sense that this powerful American architect must have spent his last years in front of the VCR, watching old films by Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. The only overriding aesthetic sense that comes from this eclectic display -- which focuses on the late works of Johnson, who died in 2005 -- is that he was, "Citizen Kane" style, returning to the ideas and images he knew as a young man when visiting Germany in the 1920s. German expressionism, which was an important early influence, is everywhere in Johnson's last chapter.

How else to explain the fascination with strange, biomorphic shapes, with forests of razor-edged pyramids, with the sheer staginess and theatricality of it all?

Hilary Lewis, curator of "Philip Johnson: Architecture as Art," says the answer lies in the same, sponge-like absorption of the zeitgeist that Johnson practiced all his life. He borrowed the twisted, torqued, curvaceous spaces from Frank Gehry. He was inspired by ideas about architecture proposed by the painter Frank Stella in the 1990s. And yes, he was drawing upon his fascination with German expressionism.

But movies? He was never terribly interested in that sort of thing, says Lewis.

Johnson was the consummate cultural mandarin. To explain the twists and turns of his long and productive flirtation with many seemingly contradictory styles, he cited the ancient Greek philosopher of flux, Heraclitus.

"Once you acknowledge with Heraclitus that there are no absolutes except change, you can get beyond Platonic solids," he said, dropping two names in one sentence. "Then things like choice, taste, shapes get back into design."

The Platonic solids he refers to are the basic, classical shapes that are at the core of much of his earlier work, including the interlocking cubes of the Kreeger Museum, which he designed in 1963. The references to choice, taste, shapes and design are markers of Johnson's cultural privilege. He was born to wealth, lived in wealth and had the unassailable social status that is required to believe that cultural hierarchies are real hierarchies, and that beauty is more important than function.

Heraclitus -- a kind of cultural brand name for change and malleability -- gives a nice philosophical sheen to a career that was a study in opportunism. The current exhibition is focused on the last 15 years of Johnson's career (and features three projects that are still in the works). Left out are many of the dispiriting works that Johnson, in the grip of whatever cultural moment or selectively adopted ideology, built over his astonishingly long career.

There is no mention of his ghastly academic architecture, the oppressive laboratories he built at Yale in the mid-1960s, or the faceless and dour buildings he designed for NYU in the early 1970s. Nor do we learn anything about how easily he sailed with the Reaganesque winds of cultural conservatism, producing his famous, grandiloquent parodies of Victorian styles in the mid-1980s. Those buildings fall outside of the scope of this exhibition.

But the ugly towers he built for Donald Trump in New York, from 1999 to 2001, might be included for some sense of perspective. So, too, the bland corporate architecture of First Union Plaza, in Boca Raton, Fla., from 2000.

Rather, the focus is on Johnson's more creative and intellectual forays into the styles aswirl in his final years. It is impressive, perhaps, to see an old man so continuously engaged with younger practitioners. In videos of Johnson shown as part of the exhibition, he was sharp as a tack into his 90s. In an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose, you can tell he is thinking what so many other Charlie Rose victims must think: Who is this guy and why is he asking me such moronic questions?

But despite his intellectual energy and his enduring and robust snobbery, Johnson was losing steam. His designs for a children's museum in Guadalajara, Mexico (which might yet be built), feel like a collection of incoherent architectural vignettes, with nothing particularly distinctive connecting them. A model of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas (which may also be built) suggests a hulking, heavy, almost bunkerlike building, more defensive than hopeful.

It's a rendering of an apartment complex in New York City, however, that suggests the degree to which he was just coasting on his old ability to mimic. Known as the Habitable Sculpture, the unbuilt tower proposed for the SoHo neighborhood is a Gehry knockoff, a slightly torqued collection of towerlike shapes that would have soared above the low-rise, historic neighborhood. With its use of a brick skin, and the comical regularity of its windows set into a crazy arrangement of planes, it resembles Gehry's Stata Center at MIT (finished in 2004). Johnson's design is dated 2000, but it's clear who was borrowing from whom. Johnson's imitation is slick, yet dull, compared to what Gehry accomplished.

Lewis, the curator, says that Johnson's most direct point of contact with the German expressionists was with the relatively obscure designer Hermann Finsterlin, who produced drawings of architectural shapes that seemed fantastical until Gehry came along. Gehry, however, has acknowledged the influence of expressionistic film on his own vision, and perhaps Johnson absorbed his Fritz Lang secondhand.

No matter how he came by his sense of expressionist style, the elderly architect was engaged in an extended, not terribly passionate but persistent reverie on ideas he had discovered when he was in his 20s. If his late-chapter exploration of expressionism feels cinematic, that's another way of saying that it feels bland, denuded of original power, an exercise in polishing rather than delving.

Yet even when his work seems derivative and superficial, the same mastery of tasteful presentation is still there. Taste, which he championed, is about confidence, not ideas. Taste is authoritarian, a code of aesthetics derived from the power of people who possess it to lord it over people who don't.

Johnson's worst architecture was nakedly about the power of the architect to impose his ideas on a place. His best, his most tasteful, skillfully hides that willfulness. But you feel it nonetheless. Looking at Johnson's late work, you sense his diminishing power, but you also feel great relief that much of this diminished architecture was never built. Because even a lesser Johnson has this in common with a great Johnson: It is flawless, cold, and is not be argued with.

Philip Johnson: Architecture as Art is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and by reservation (202-338-3552) Tuesdays through Fridays. The Kreeger Museum is at 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW. For more information, call 202-337-3050, Ext. 10.

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