Monday, January 31, 2005

More on Mr. Johnson 

His life and his work evoked strong feelings. He was a complicated character. Drawn to fascism in his early adulthood, he was later publicly apologetic. Was designing a synagogue for free atonement enough, and of the proper sort? Closeted until late in life, after coming out he coyly referred to his succession of partners as "the four Mrs. Johnsons." The last, David Whitney, was his companion for 45 years, considerably longer than most marriages endure. How does one take the full measure of a man's life? And his work... what to say about the built artifacts of a 50-year architectural career? Some were great, some were laughable, some were even - perhaps his worst fear - dull. Much is being written at his passing about the man and his architecture; here are a few interesting assessments.

Form Follows Fascism
By Mark Stevens, January 31, 2005 in the New York Times

The death last week of Philip Johnson, the nonagenarian enfant terrible, brought 20th-century architecture to a symbolic close. Even Mr. Johnson's friends sometimes doubted that he was an architect of the first rank, but friend and foe alike agreed that he was an emblematic figure of his time.

But emblematic of what? In death, his role in American culture will come into sharper focus, and it's a darker picture than many have thought. Read More

Lived in Glass House, Threw Stones:
How Philip Johnson lost his way

By Witold Rybczynski, Friday, Jan. 28, 2005 on Slate.com

Many of Philip Johnson's obituaries describe him as the dean of American architects. He was undoubtedly a force in American architecture and exercised a major influence on the profession, but "dean" implies benevolent leadership. Johnson's influence was not altogether benign.

At the beginning of his involvement with architecture, he was simply a spokesman and promoter of the new Modern (at that point chiefly European) architecture. In 1932, with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, he organized an influential exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and published The International Style. He put his money where his mouth was and built himself a house—the so-called Glass House—that became one of the most famous symbols of the new style. In the mid-1950s, he was at the side of Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, helping him to design what many consider the greatest building of the postwar period, the Seagram Building.

"I don't want to be interesting, I want to be good," Mies is supposed to have said. But the mercurial Johnson, who seemed to get easily bored, definitely preferred interesting. Read More

A Tastemaker Propelled by Curiosity
By Nicolai Ouroussof, January 27, 2005 in the New York Times

At the height of his power, Philip Johnson's tentacles seemed to reach into every corner of his profession. As the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art's department of architecture and design, he almost single-handedly introduced American audiences to European Modernist buildings; he was a tireless promoter of emerging architectural talents, from Mies van der Rohe to Frank Gehry. And although he often played down his creative talent, he produced a number of 20th-century landmarks in his long, eclectic career, among them the 1949 Glass House, rightly considered a masterpiece of American design.

Yet his greatest talent of all may have been his unquenchable curiosity, which prevented him, and by extension, his audience, from becoming mired in any specific architectural style or movement. Read More