Lived in Glass House, Threw Stones

How Philip Johnson lost his way.

Master inventor
Master inventor

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. Soon he was drifting away from the severe and rigorous steel-and-glass boxes of his mentor and experimenting with more plastic shapes. In the process, he pushed Modernism in a new direction. Like other architects, Johnson was responding to the American public’s desire for pomp and circumstance, but the result was a clumsy sort of stripped-down neoclassicism, best represented by the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. Monumentality for the masses.

In the mid-1960s, Johnson veered again. Architects like Eero Saarinen worked for corporate clients, but Johnson took on the challenging task of working with commercial real-estate developers. Over the next two decades, working often for the developer Gerald Hines, Johnson popularized the signature office building. The idea was that striking architecture was good for business. Across the country, he built increasingly theatrical skyscrapers, culminating in the AT&T Building in New York City, a Chippendale-topped high-rise that got its architect on the cover of Time magazine.

Johnson ushered in, although he did not invent, what became known as architectural Postmodernism. Always generous, he promoted the careers of such notable practitioners of the genre as Michael Graves and Robert Venturi. But in less capable hands, Postmodernism quickly degenerated into a facile and repetitive pastiche of old and new.

Johnson’s work became increasingly historicist, often slapdash, definitely interesting rather than good. He seemed to sense that Postmodernism might be a dead end and switched gears again. This time it was Deconstructivism that caught his eye. He took architects such as Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry under his wing, and hoping to repeat his earlier success, promoted a 1972 exhibit at MoMA. While lacking the impact of his earlier show, his imprimatur helped to propel Eisenman and Gehry, as well as Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas, into the limelight. Johnson himself, who had continued his practice, also embraced the new style. The ungainly Canadian Broadcasting Corp. headquarters in Toronto, was one result.

The celebrity culture of contemporary architecture is a Johnson legacy, as is a somewhat cynical aestheticism that seeks to divorce architectural design from the real world. On the other hand, Johnson’s enthusiastic involvement in architecture certainly served as a stimulus to several generations of what he called “my kids.” Yet, in turning away from the principle of Modernism and embracing the shaky terrain of the eclectic, Johnson ultimately lost his way. Perhaps that’s why the elegant and evocative Glass House, which he built in 1949, remains his most enduring achievement.