Friday, January 28, 2005

Ars longa, vita brevis 

Philip Johnson was one of the first architects whose work I remember. I grew up in Houston in the 1960's and 1970's, in the period during which Philip Johnson was changing that city's skyline for the better. I might not have paid attention to Johnson's work at that time, however, had it not been for my architect father, who was always saying, "Look! Look at that."

According to the Houston Chronicle, Johnson said in a 1991 interview, "Houston is undoubtedly my showcase city. I saved all my best buildings for Houston." Here are a few of those buildings:

University of St. Thomas Campus and Chapel of St. Basil
The campus of the University of St. Thomas, a small Houston college, was Johnson's second Houston commission. (His first was the house he designed for Dominique and John de Menil. Finished in 1951, it was the first flat-roofed modern house in its wealthy River Oaks neighborhood.) Built in the mid-1950's, the campus is a modernist take on Thomas Jefferson's plan for the University of Virginia, with brick and glass academic buildings connected by black steel-framed covered walkways on either side of an open lawn. Whereas the library was the focal point of Jefferson's design, at St. Thomas the focus is the Chapel of St. Basil. Part of the original campus plan, the chapel was not built until 1997... by which time Johnson's design sensibilities had changed dramatically. The chapel was Johnson's last work in Houston.

Pennzoil Place and RepublicBank Center
Pennzoil Place, completed in 1976, was the first of Johnson's great Houston skyscrapers. It's the modernist glass box with a twist. Two mirror-image 36-story towers, trapezoidal in plan, are located on their site to create triangular atrium lobbies with sloping glass roofs. The tops of the towers are similarly sloped, but in opposite directions. The two towers are separated by a 10-foot-wide vertical slot; from some locations they appear as two towers, from others as only one. In 1983, the RepublicBank Center went up across the street from Pennzoil. Only someone who had followed Johnson's career in the intervening nine years would have believed them to be the work of the same architect. Clad in red Swedish granite, with crenelated towers reminiscent of Dutch gabled townhouses, and two large steps in its massing, the RepublicBank building was unabashedly historical in style. It's rumored RepublicBank steps back as it does so as not to hide Pennzoil Place on the skyline. The composition created by these two radically different buildings is a particular favorite of mine.

Transco Tower
Completed in 1984, Transco is my favorite skyscraper in Houston. Its 64-story form looks like a depression-era stone skyscraper cast in glass. There are no other tall buildings around it, so its skin mirrors the sky, and its color changes constantly throughout the course of the day. As Houston is a flat city, Transco is visible for a great distance; occasionally a view of the top of the tower will appear when one least expects it.

When Johnson received the first Pritzker Prize in 1979, he expressed his hope that architecture might one day again be considered fundamental to our society: "Yet ars longa vita brevis. Values can change. Art, myth, religions can bloom once again. We may, for example, want to rebuild America. We surely can if we want to. We can do anything. We have the skill, the materials, the labor force. Heaven knows, we have the need: our ugly surroundings, our inadequate housing, our sad slums are testimony. We can, if we but will; architecture, as in all the world’s history, could be the art that saves."

On Wednesday, January 25, Philip Johnson died at home in New Canaan, CT, in the Glass House that he designed and built for himself in 1949. At 98, he had a life that was longer than most. He is survived by his art - the built legacy of more than 50 years of architectural practice - and by the influence that he had on more than one generation of architects.

Update: Paul Goldberger has a fine article on Philip Johnson in the January 27 New York Times. Since it will become pay-per-view in just a few days, I've included the full text of it here.

Note: For photo credits, mouse over photo. Uncredited photos are from a Houston Chronicle article, in which no credits were given.