“I am a whore and I am paid very well for high-rise buildings.” — Philip Johnson
Harvard graduate, Yale man, Ohio-born and raised, New York socialite, iconic architect, and dilettantish esthete, the late Philip Johnson, a sheaf of contradictions and a singular embodiment of 20th-century shifts in architectural style, was the subject of a three-day symposium last weekend at the Yale School of Architecture. Most Yale students are familiar with Johnson, even if they haven’t encountered his name — he designed the test-tube-rack Kline Biology Tower that crowns Science Hill. But to say Kline is indicative of Johnson’s oeuvre would be misleading; Johnson’s life and architecture were typified in the symposium’s subtitle, “the constancy of change.”
Born in 1906 in Maryland, Johnson was the son of a wealthy lawyer and a house maker. His father, not particularly fond of Johnson, gave him the farewell gift of stockholdings in the Aluminum Company of America, shares that would unexpectedly make Johnson’s fortune and allow him to wield the influence he eventually would in artistic, architectural and social circles. As a young man, however, Johnson was severely conflicted, taking seven years to finish his bachelor’s in Greek at Harvard, after which he became infatuated with architecture, immediately catapulting himself to the head of the profession as the director of the Architecture Department at the then-nascent Museum of Modern Art.
The shows he oversaw defined the beginnings of architectural modernism in the United States, but his term at the museum was cut short when he left in 1936, taken with emerging right-wing radical politics in post-depression Europe. The most controversial time of his life, and the most contentious topic at last week’s symposium, Johnson’s experiences with fascism extended far beyond a casual dabbling: Johnson was witness to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Johnson would soon turn away from this as well, however, always claiming deep regret towards the racist aspects of the movements in which we was involved. He enrolled in architecture school at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1941, thereafter devoting his life to architecture.
As an architect, Johnson’s shifting allegiances were manifested once again. After tutelage under Mies van der Rohe in the 1950s, Johnson soon rejected his teacher and became a follower of Robert Venturi’s “Post-Modern” movement, which tried to exploit and belie what they saw as the fallacies of modernist works. Finally, in the late 1980s, he reversed once more toward the fragmented modernism of architects like Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. Johnson’s built works became a catalog of these changing loyalties, and few architects have been as autobiographical in their oeuvre, but, then again, few were as distinctive in life. Constantly noted for his sharp wit and social affectations, Johnson’s game was as much about himself as it was about his architecture, and the buildings he leaves us are a testament to that. This essential inconsistency was the central theme of the symposium: accepting Johnson’s not always impressive work, and accepting Johnson’s not always commendable personal life.
These insistent deviations of oeuvre and character were first brought up by eminent architectural historian and author Charles Jencks, who, always a critic of Johnson, discussed his “insouciant shamelessness.” Per Jencks, Johnson was always willing to do whatever it took to attain a job, to flatter, all in his vain grasps towards architectural immortality. Ultimately, Jencks asserted, those obsessed with change never actually change things and this was Johnson’s tragic flaw, “falling in love with Gods that nod at you from a safe distance,” always subject to “fashion’s melancholic transience.” Indeed, Johnson’s approach to architecture can be said to be analogous to that of the pursuit of fashion, and his divorce of aesthetic beauty from social meaning is another saliently controversial aspect of his legacy.
The next day, Mark Wigley, dean of Columbia’s school of architecture, gave an incisive and revealing indirect answer to Jencks’ comments. The symposium as a whole, Wigley said, was much more about “us” (the architectural profession) than it was about Johnson, and in this way, it could be seen as an atmosphere of “collective therapy,” the entire audience trying to make peace with Johnson’s legacy. What does it say about the architectural profession, Wigley proffers, that we hold Johnson more accountable for his shifting architectural styles than we do for his experiments in fascism? How do we resolve Johnson’s slick persona with the best of his work, which are arguably masterpieces of architectural experience? According to Wigley, the masterpieces are the most vexing part of all, and the crowning contradiction of Johnson’s paradoxical story. How can we resolve the Johnson of “I am a whore” and the Johnson of his epoch-defining Glass House of 1949, a canonical work of modernism?
The speaker who went furthest towards answering these questions was none other than professor emeritus Vincent Scully. The man who knew Johnson best was able to encapsulate Johnson best, never rationalizing Johnson’s glaring inconsistencies and errors, but reading Johnson’s life as a singular and multi-dimensional text. This empathetic reading, which some would say is Scully’s hallmark, was the closest the symposium came to a comprehensive understanding of Johnson, his life then understood on its own terms; that of the rich kid, the lifelong esthete and the unapologetic flatterer. Johnson’s nebulous architectural legacy, then, is a legacy inextricable from his personal legacy, and his autobiographical oeuvre is most potent in his Connecticut estate, where remnants of Johnson’s shifting styles are manifested in a collection of buildings that express the arc of architecture as well as the arc of Johnson’s life. Here, Scully said, Johnson’s memory will be best served when the estate becomes a public museum where its visitors will be able to “Leave their myths around the place, misreading it at will.”