Philip C Johnson, architect, Died at 98

  Dead Famous

Philip Cortelyou Johnson died on January 25, 2005 at the age of 98; he was an influential American architect.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio on July 8, 1906, he was descended from the Jansen family of New Amsterdam, and included among his ancestors the Hugue not Jacques Cortelyou, who laid out the first town plan of New Amsterdam for Peter Stuyvesant.

He attended the Hackley School, in Tarrytown, New York, and then studied at Harvard University as an undergraduate, where he focused on history and philosophy, particularly the work of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.

Johnson interrupted his education with several extended trips to Europe. Johnson returned from Germany as a proselytizer for the new architecture.

Touring Europe more comprehensively with his friends Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and Henry-Russell Hitchcock to examine firsthand recent trends in architecture, the three assembled their discoveries as the landmark show “The International Style: Architecture Since 1922” at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1932.

The show was profoundly influential and is seen as the introduction of modern architecture to the American public. It introduced such pivotal architects as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe.

The exhibition was also notable for a controversy: architect Frank Lloyd Wright withdrew his entries in pique that he was not more prominently featured.

Johnson continued to work as a proponent of modern architecture, using the Museum of Modern Art as a bully pulpit.

He arranged for Le Corbusier’s first visit to the United States in 1935, then worked to bring Mies and Marcel Breuer to the US as emigres.

In late 1940 he returned to Harvard to study architecture under Breuer and Gropius, and in 1945 resumed his position at MoMA, organizing in 1947 an influential exhibition and publishing a monograph on Mies’s work (which he admired for its monumentality, purity, and tenuous connections with Classicism), although he managed to avoid discussion of Mies’s attempted rapprochement with the Hitler régime.

In 1988 Johnson again confounded critics by returning to MoMA as guest curator of the exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture, billed as ‘development post-dating post-modernism’: it brought architects such as Hadid and Libeskind to the attention of the media, and demonstrated again his capabilities in knowing (and even creating) celebrity culture.

In fact, his career demonstrates he was a taste-former, insisting that architecture is not about social engineering or ‘making life better’, but should be viewed as an aesthetic experience.

He himself designed the Gate House, New Canaan (1994–5—), a pavilion without any right angles, his own homage to Deconstructivism), experimented with developing ideas from German Expressionism, and designed (1996) the Cathedral of Hope, Dallas, TX, for the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (still to be realized).

He later donated the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and in 2007 it was opened to the public.)

This balance between Miesian influence and historical allusion shifted in the 1950s.

Beginning with the Temple Kneses Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, New York (1956), Johnson made fuller use of curvilinear (particularly arch) forms and historical quotation, a pattern continued in the art gallery at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. (1963), and the IDS Center, a multi-building group in Minneapolis (1973).