It was once said of Philip Johnson that he had “the same quality Walt Disney had — the enthusiasm of a boy who’s never grown up.”
Perhaps that is why for 98 years, until his death Tuesday night, the perpetually reinvigorated architect quenched his insatiable thirst for progress by dotting the American landscape, including the city of New Haven, with his work. Distinguished buildings to Johnson’s credit include the Seagram Building (1958) in New York City, Pennzoil Place (1973-75) in Houston, the AT&T Building (1978-84) in New York City and Yale’s Kline Biology Tower (1966) on Science Hill. For the diverse and wildly successful works of his career, Johnson was awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s version of the Nobel Prize, in 1979.
Johnson’s passion for work was unremitting, working five days a week until 2004. His style — characterized by immaculate suits and thick, black, round-rimmed glasses he designed himself — was unblemished and, especially, his wit unending.
On Thomas Jefferson: “There’s so much that is so wonderful about Jefferson — Monticello isn’t one of them.”
On himself: “I’m better than my detractors, but not as good as Stern thinks,” referring to Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, dean of the School of Architecture.
It is nearly impossible to find new adjectives for Johnson. Indeed, he was so dynamic and written-about that even his dynamism has been written about. He was a fan and student of architecture before he was a practitioner — a fact of which he was quick to remind his audiences. Once, fed up with what he saw as modernist architects’ smug detachment from the past, Johnson told a group of Yale students in a lecture at the architecture school that “you cannot not know history.”
Sterling professor emeritus of the history of art, Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49 revered Johnson with a tone he usually saves for Polykleitos or Praxiteles.
“He had been called a ‘restless intellect,’ and indeed he was,” said Scully, who had Johnson guest lecture numerous times in his Introduction to Modern Architecture course. “He was one of the best-educated of the modern architects. He studied with [Alfred North] Whitehead at Harvard and studied the classics and philosophy, so he had a view of life with an incredible classical pessimism.”
It might seem that Johnson, born in Cleveland in 1906, looked east and west and determined he would leave his mark on everything up to the shores. However, he said it was not until his studies at Harvard in the 1920s that his interest in architecture was first piqued. After graduating from Harvard in 1930 with a degree in philosophy and Greek, Johnson immediately left for Europe where the modern architecture movement, led by Le Corbusier of France and Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius of Germany, was in its infancy.
With his 1932 book, “International Style” — co-written by Henry-Russell Hitchcock — and as director of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Johnson introduced America to modern architecture. In 1940, Johnson graduated from the Harvard School of Architecture and then began a colossal body of work that would last into the 21st century.
One of his earliest projects, the Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., has often been called the greatest structure any architect ever built for himself. The Glass House, a squat, transparent wonder that sits atop an incline on Johnson’s 40-acre estate, is perhaps Johnson’s crowning achievement. At a time when modernist structures were largely commercial and high-rising, Johnson built residential and short. Johnson completed the work on his compound, which included an all-brick guest house to serve as an opaque counterpoint to the transparent glass box, in 1949. In addition to being a frequent guest lecturer at Yale, Johnson long held a seminar in the Glass House that was open to members of the Yale and surrounding Connecticut community.
In 1958, Johnson teamed with van der Rohe to build the Seagram Building in Manhattan. A 38-story box of bronze and glass, Seagram is largely considered unparalleled in the modernist era.
Eventually, however, Johnson grew tired of modernism. A fickle man by nature whose resume, personality and quotebook are all rife with contradictions, Johnson would emerge, ironically, as a leader in the post-modern movement. It has often been said that he introduced the glass box — then broke it.
“He was the only existentialist I ever knew,” Scully said. “Whatever was real was real. That’s why he catered to youth. He felt that the young were always what mattered. He kept changing his style according to what the young were doing. Of course he was criticized for that.”
In response to that criticism, Johnson defended his perceived flip-flopping shrewdly.
“We never copy ourselves,” he quipped.
Over the years, Johnson not only changed his architectural style but also his personal ideologies. During a bizarre foray into right-wing politics in his thirties, Johnson made a number of statements perceived to be pro-Hitler. After another change of heart, Johnson sought service in the U.S. military (he saw no combat), which he was granted by the FBI after an investigation found him to be sufficiently patriotic. In the 1950s, as a sort of public apology to Jews, Johnson designed a synagogue in Port Chester, N.Y., for no fee.
In 1966 Johnson completed his greatest contribution to Yale, the Kline Biology Tower on Science Hill. Blair Kamin MED ’84, the renowned architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune explained Kline’s aesthetic power.
“One of the things about Kline that’s important is the idea of procession,” Kamin said. “Johnson designed that building to be experienced not from one single point but rather in motion. As you come, it changes in perspective, rises up. The idea was that architecture really had a fourth dimension, which was time. As you moved around the building from different perspectives it took on different guises. It was almost like looking at a sculpture from around.”
Professor Alexander Garvin ’62 ARC ’67, who worked for Johnson for a year and a half at the beginning of his career, laughed as he remembered Johnson fondly.
“When I was a graduate student, Scully was the master of Morse College and he invited graduates and fellows to the master’s house to sit and talk to Johnson,” Garvin said.
Garvin said Johnson spent much time talking about the economics of architecture, explaining why a university building — so ostensibly concerned with function — might not want excessive affectations.
“So I said, ‘I don’t understand the Kline Towers then,'” Garvin recalled.
“‘You mean those round columns?,'” Garvin remembered Johnson responding. “‘Well, I didn’t think anyone would notice that.’