Philip Johnson dead at 98
January 26, 2005 12:10 PM   Subscribe

Architect Philip Johnson -- first winner of the first Pritzker Prize, and builder of glass houses, is dead at 98. He outlived his rival Frank Lloyd Wright by 47 years. He helped bring modernism to America but would later leave it behind.
posted by gwint (31 comments total)
And I'll pre-Godwin this thread with this essay about Johnson's perported sympathy for Nazism.

Oh, and what the hell: Here's a shot of his Water Garden in the movie Logan's Run.
posted by gwint at 12:20 PM on January 26, 2005

Gosh, does this mean we can officially bury post modernism, too? And as long as we're at it, twee little round glasses?
posted by DenOfSizer at 12:24 PM on January 26, 2005

You last link is not working.

Very nice post, BTW
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 12:28 PM on January 26, 2005

Now that's a funeral I'll be happy to attend. But regarding Philip Johnson's sympathy for Nazism ... Johnson supported fascism (and it doesn't necessarily follow that he was necessarily anti-semitic) in the 30s, a fact he himself made public later in his life. But keep in mind, how, in 1930, could anyone imagine what Hitler would become? By 1940 he had separated himself from that movement.

From Great Buildings Online,

"Toward the end of his life, Johnson went public with some private matters -- his homosexuality and his past as a disciple of Hitler-style fascism. On the latter, he said he spent much time in Berlin in the 1930s and became "fascinated with power," but added he did not consider that an excuse.

""I have no excuse (for) such utter, unbelievable stupidity. ... I don't know how you expiate guilt," he says.

"He blamed his homosexuality for causing a nervous breakdown while he was a student at Harvard and said that in 1977 he asked the New Yorker magazine to omit references to it in a profile, fearing he might lose the AT&T commission, which he called "the job of my life."

— Associated Press story at CNN, 2005.0126

posted by Lady Penelope at 12:40 PM on January 26, 2005

Oops. By funeral, I meant the funeral for post-modernism, by the way ... I'm new at this.
posted by Lady Penelope at 12:41 PM on January 26, 2005

I think calling Johnson Wright's rival in that essay was a bit of a stretch--their careers overlapped but they weren't really of the same era.

Johnson was around for too many styles to really peg him to just one (such as post-modernism, although he was one of its largest proponents). RIP.
posted by LionIndex at 12:43 PM on January 26, 2005

You're not missing, much, Steve. That building at 560 Madison Avenue is absolutely foul. Looks like a branch of Ethan Allen would on some heavy fungi. Post-modernism is not only a contradiction in terms, but it produces buildings that are less stylistically pleasing than one of those jackalope things.
posted by The Salaryman at 12:44 PM on January 26, 2005

Johnson designed the best building in Minneapolis; it's really impossible to drive through town without being impressed by his work.
posted by COBRA! at 12:56 PM on January 26, 2005

LionIndex, I do think Johnson and Wright were rivals, especially during the time when Johnson was pushing modernism to the exlusion of everything else. Wright was too much of a genius (and had too much of an ego) to be boxed into a particular genre of architecture. I think there's no doubt at this point that Wright was ten times the architect that Johnson was, but as the Times obit talks about, Johnson played many rolls in art and architecture, and being an architect was just one of them.
posted by gwint at 12:59 PM on January 26, 2005

"Great technologies breed great architecture. There are no visionary utopias in the minds of philosophers that do not enter the realm of architecture.
It is also the most difficult of all the arts. How often I have envied my colleagues who write, paint, or compose music. They live where they like, they work when they want — no recalcitrant materials, no leaky roofs, no stopped-up sewers. They tear up their mistakes.
And yet, and yet, what thrill can be as great as a design carried through, a building created in three dimensions, partaking of painting in color and detail, partaking of sculpture in shape and mass. A building for people, people other than oneself, who can rejoice together over the creation ".
-- Philip Johnson
The Pritzker Architecture Prize was established in 1979 for the purpose of encouraging greater awareness of the way people perceive and interact with their surroundings.
The first award is being given to Philip Johnson, whose work demonstrates a combination of the qualities of talent, vision and commitment that has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the environment. As a critic and historian, he championed the cause of modern architecture and then went on to design some of his greatest buildings. Philip Johnson is being honored for 50 years of imagination and vitality embodied in a myriad of museums, theaters, libraries, houses, gardens and corporate structures.

Roofless Church

Haus am Checkpoint Charlie


posted by matteo at 1:00 PM on January 26, 2005

It should also be pointed out that Johnson's glass house was not original. He borrowed heavily from Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House (a truly great house), which had not been built (was completed two years after the glass house).

FLW was an asshole and derided the International Style, so, yes, I would say they were rivals at one time.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 1:01 PM on January 26, 2005

It should also be pointed out that Johnson's choice of glasses was not original. He borrowed heavily from Le Corbusier.

posted by Smart Dalek at 1:10 PM on January 26, 2005

Regarding the Johnson/Wright rivalry, FLW fathered American modernism but opposed the International Style practiced by Mies, Corbusier and early Philip Johnson works. That's not to say he felt a personal rivalry--he and Mies were good friends--but I think he got to being old guard when he liked being front and center. This may have been the impetus to lead him to reinvent himself with Fallingwater, the Guggenheim and the Johnson Wax Building.

Personally, asshole or not, I think that FLW is possibly the greatest American artist, much less the greatest American architect. Sui generis and inimitable. Compared to Wright, Johnson was hack. But don't hold that against Johnson, he's just a tough act to follow.
posted by Lady Penelope at 1:19 PM on January 26, 2005

Wright's and Mies friendship was short-lived. It started to fall apart when Wright made rude comments at Mies 1947 MoMA show and further devolved until 1953 when Wright tried to link Mies (and the International Style) to totalitarianism in a House Beautiful article. They never talked after that.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 1:25 PM on January 26, 2005

I work across the street from PPG Place and still think that it's one of the cooler buildings of the last twenty-five or so years. I love the way that it looks very different in different light and weather, changing color from silver to gold to black. And it's got the Tomb of the Unknown Bowler which even made a Zippy the Pinhead strip a couple of years ago.

I like the idea of a glass company making a glass tower for their headquarters. It's sort of a theme here in Pittsburgh: the US Steel tower is clad in steel and the Alcoa building in aluminum.
posted by octothorpe at 1:42 PM on January 26, 2005

Thanks, strangeleftydoublethink. I stand corrected. I knew about that show and Wright getting all huffy but I somehow thought they'd patched it up. Still, I think it was less a rivalry than Wright's just always-needing-that-spotlight, even as he aged. I'm thinking to Johnson and folks, he must have seemed more or less a brilliant-but-old-geezer nuisance, until he reached behind him and handily pulled out another genius idea.
posted by Lady Penelope at 2:16 PM on January 26, 2005

Johnson's house is right near my mother's house. I remember watching a PBS show about him, and they toured his property. There are 4 or 5 very impressive, unique buildings there. If anyone is in New Canaan or nearby you should drive past and check out the property. I don't think they're very keen on people jumping the stone wall but you can see the buildings from the road. It's address is 798-856 Ponus Ridge Rd. New Canaan Ct.

Yahoo Map
posted by splatta at 2:31 PM on January 26, 2005

He had some buildings I really like, and I always grooved on just how cool it was for anyone to be in their late nineties and still be recognized and admired, but I'll never forgive him for the brutish Boston Public Library Extension.
posted by jalexei at 2:34 PM on January 26, 2005

Wow. I had no idea PJ did all those funky buildings! 80 years is a long time to be doin' archkytecksure.
Those glasses would make a pretty boss tattoo, too.
posted by DenOfSizer at 5:53 PM on January 26, 2005

Wright was too much of a genius (and had too much of an ego) to be boxed into a particular genre of architecture.

I find this kind of funny, and I think we're just going to have to disagree on your point here. However....

I think there's no doubt at this point that Wright was ten times the architect that Johnson was

I actually agree with you here. Johnson was more of a follower with influential friends who happened to be around long enough to be able to get in on a lot of different periods of architecture. Some of my friends have called him the real Ellsworth Toohey. Wright, on the other hand, has a lot of popular appeal, but not much rigor to his work. Personally, I think he's the greatest American architect of the 19th century. That's not a typo.
posted by LionIndex at 6:49 PM on January 26, 2005

My own personal embarassing Phillip Johnson brush-with-greatness story: About 15 years ago the old IBM Gallery was doing a retrospective of various Bauhaus artworks. While attending a gallery tour, my younger brash self, asked the lecturer what I thought was insightful question. At that moment, super-architect Johnson himself appears from nowhere and offers me a technical response and a follow-up question. I was quite flummoxed and obviously out of my league. Johnson smiled and laughed to himself and patted me on the shoulder saying, "I see, I see."
posted by Duck_Lips at 8:09 PM on January 26, 2005

Have some respect for the dead, people.

If only for the fact that he survived for 98 years, Johson was 10 times as great as any of us here will ever be.
posted by crunchland at 8:15 PM on January 26, 2005

The very first comment in this thread, posted by Gwint to an article he obviously didn't read should probably be revised from, "...Johnson's perported (sic) sympathy with Naziism."
to "...Johnson's active role as a Nazi propagandist and possible spy."

Lady Penelope, you and gwint are, choose one: a) really fucking stupid, b) sadly misinformed, c) out and out historical revisionists, or d) all of the above. I hope that the answer is b. Johnson was an antisemite. Johnson knew what Hitler was doing because he saw it with his own eyes in Poland both before and after the invasion as a guest of the Nazis. He then returned to America and lied about what he had seen because he was an open supporter of the Nazis. He was a willing spreader of Nazi propaganda and lies. This did not end until 1940, when the U.S. government began to investigate him. Johnson still has not apologized for what he did. From Gwint's stupidly titled link:

"On January 26, 1940, Johnson gave a speech at a Springfield, Massachusetts Turn Verien (Germanic gymnastics hall) for the American Fellowship Forum. According to a Springfield Evening Union account, his theme was a warning that on account of British interests, the United States was ready to go to war with Germany. Calling himself a foreign correspondent, Johnson explained that the American newspapers were deceiving the public about the European war. Of the New York Times, he declared that it had only British correspondents in Europe, who would send back only articles favoring their country’s positions. Johnson went on to cite a picture that appeared in the Springfield Evening Union the previous month depicting victims of the war and said that it was taken in Brooklyn. Johnson continued to cite instances of purported anti-German propaganda in the American papers, according to the account "The newspapers lied about the war in Poland, he [Johnson] said, averring that the countryside was not made destitute as reported. He said only one town actually was destroyed and the half of another. The first town had been used as a fort, he said."

But Johnson knew what was going on. Schulze cites a letter sent by Johnson to Viola Bodenschatz after he had visited post-invasion Poland and had driven through the same town he described in the Social Justice article as being full of Jews:

I was lucky enough to get to be [invited by the German government to be] a correspondent so that I could go to the front when I wanted to and so it was that I came again to the country that we had motored through, the towns north of Warsaw. Do you remember Markow [sic }? I went through that same square where we got gas and it was unrecognizable. The German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.

Johnson’s letter is in conflict with his public lectures on the topic. It would appear that Johnson knowingly erased the fate of the Jews for what can only have been propaganda purposes. The no-doubt-violent purge of the Jews from the village was doubled in this erasure of memory that Johnson produced in his speeches and writings.

Johnson’s antisemitism and dishonesty about the plight of the Jews fit in with the publications he wrote for. Coughlin’s Social Justice played a key role in spreading antisemitism in the prewar United States. Indeed, during the period of Nazi rule, it was very difficult for European Jews to immigrate to this country because of the Roosevelt administration’s fear of offending established Americans. Hitler himself used the American position to justify his antisemitic policies, asking if the United States refused the Jews, why should Germany accept them? That Coughlin, Social Justice, and Johnson had a role in spreading this antisemitic attitude, gives them a very real role in the history of the Holocaust.

By 1940 pressure on Johnson to end his political activities was mounting. According to Schulze, that May the FBI began to assemble its dossier against him and by June internal documents in the Office of Naval Intelligence marked him as suspected of being a spy. That fall the American Fellowship Forum would undergo Congressional scrutiny by the House Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities. Roosevelt himself, in his fireside chat of May 26 pointed to a danger within: "The Trojan Horse. The Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery." With the Wehrmacht rolling through the Low Countries and Roosevelt asking congress to nearly double the military budget in preparation for possible war, being an activist for subversive groups under government suspicion must have begun to seem like a bad idea to Johnson. He was also beginning to get bad press: the September issue of Harper’s described his activities as one of "The American Fascists."

"Johnson’s position on race was carried over in his role as European correspondent for Social Justice and Today’s Challenge. In his writings, Johnson consistently promoted an antisemitic, pro-German political stance that went far beyond what Paul de Man wrote in his articles for Le Soir. Over and over Johnson explicitly attacked the Jews, depicting them as malicious invaders, comparing them to an plague, and finally lying about their condition in 1939 Germany and Poland."

"At the invitation of the German Propaganda Ministry, Johnson accompanied the German army into Poland to see the invasion first-hand. In his Berlin Diary, journalist William Shirer recounted his encounter with Johnson:

"Dr. Boehmer, press chief of the Propaganda Ministry in charge of this trip, insisted that I share a double room in the hotel with Philip Johnson, an American fascist who says he represents Father Coughlin’s Social Justice. None of us can stand the fellow and suspect he is spying on us for the Nazis. For the last hour in our room here he has been posing as an anti-Nazi and trying to pump me for my attitude, I have given him no more than a few bored grunts."

He sure made neato buildings! His ahistoricism as expressed in his architecture couldn't possibly be related to any of this bad stuff. Oh yeah, he never really owned up to any of it:

"In recent years, Johnson has maintained a public ambivalence on the issue. For example, in an article in the May 1993 issue of Vanity Fair Johnson stated that "I have no excuse [for] such utter, unbelievable stupidity. … I don’t know how you expiate guilt," when asked if he would have built for Hitler in 1936, he replied "Who’s to say? That would have tempted anyone." He says that the he went to Germany "to see what a country at war was really like," as well as because he "had always been interested in the German language," and "brought up with the prejudices of my class and background and all that. I was fascinated with power." But Johnson doesn’t mention his antisemitic writings, his subsequent erasure of history, or examine the repercussions of his actions.

Further, when told that the Schulze biography might attract a lot of attention, Johnson flipply replied "Well, sex and Nazism can do that," referring to the book’s discussions of his homosexuality as well as his Nazi past. Johnson would appear to believe that one is just as "bad" as the other, equating the homosexual population condemned by the Nazis with the action of its condemnation and conversely domesticating Nazism as something that "bad boys" do."

In the above cited article mentions of Schulze are references to his book, Philip Johnson: Life and Work. Sometimes it is helpful to actually read things.
posted by mokujin at 8:42 PM on January 26, 2005

I've read Schulze's book. His conclusion, as I remember it, was that Johnson had a fascination with the Nazis, but was not one himself, nor was he an anti-semite. The FBI investigated him as a possible spy, but was later drafted into the army, as I recall. That's why I said "purported" and why I took that article with a grain of salt. I had also seen an interview of Johnson on Charlie Rose a few years back in which he made a very clear apology for his actions during that time. But maybe I'm just "really fucking stupid."
posted by gwint at 9:53 PM on January 26, 2005

Johnson on Poland and Jews:

When I first drove into Poland, the countryside was a shock to me. Like most Americans who learned their geography since the World War, I was brought up to think of Poland as a country which looked much like the other countries of Europe. … Once on the Polish side [of the Polish-German border], I thought I must be in the region of some awful plague. The fields were nothing but stone, there were no trees, mere paths instead of roads. In the towns there were no shops, no automobiles, no pavements and again no trees. There were not even any Poles to be seen in the streets, only Jews!
posted by mokujin at 10:49 PM on January 26, 2005

Johnson on Poland and Jews after the invasion:

I was lucky enough to get to be [invited by the German government to be] a correspondent so that I could go to the front when I wanted to and so it was that I came again to the country that we had motored through, the towns north of Warsaw. Do you remember Markow [sic]? I went through that same square where we got gas and it was unrecognizable. The German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.
posted by mokujin at 10:51 PM on January 26, 2005

Gwint, your apparent inability to read and draw conclusions is a "stirring spectacle." But at least you answered the test right.
posted by mokujin at 10:56 PM on January 26, 2005

mokujin, if you believe the views expressed in those 65 year old letters makes the sum of the man, then you meter out a harsher justice than I. Maybe it's because Johnson would have burned in Auschwitz alongside the Jews he ignorantly speaks of that I can forgive him for views he clearly hadn't held for at least half a century. If the Jews who commissioned him to build a synagogue in 1955 held out an olive branch and you can't, you can kindly stick it up your ass.
posted by gwint at 7:51 AM on January 27, 2005

Sometimes it is helpful to actually read things.

to actually avoid linking stuff to massive chunks of yellow text is helpful, too
posted by matteo at 8:10 AM on January 27, 2005

Lady Penelope, you and gwint are, choose one: a) really fucking stupid

You got me there, Mokujin. I'm really fucking stupid. But at least I'm not really fucking rude.

Gwint, I'll buy the next round. You said it better than I could.
posted by Lady Penelope at 8:52 AM on January 27, 2005

Gwint said: "the jews he ignorantly speaks of"

Is that ignorance or evil? He was a wealthy American man who had graduated from Harvard ten years before. By 1940 he was in his thirties. IGNORANT? HE WAS IN POLAND BOTH BEFORE AND AFTER THE INVASION!!! Why are you still apologizing for him?

Gwint said: "if you believe the views expressed in those 65 year old letters makes the sum of the man..."

I don't believe that at all. But it really pisses me off when people go out of their way to soft-pedal and apologize for Nazism. You went out of your way to cast doubt on that article for no good reason. The word "purported," unless I am mistaken, suggests that there is room for debate. There really isn't. You and Lady Penelope went out of your way to suggest that Johnson was ignorant of things that he wasn't, and that the times were somehow an excuse. Johnson continued to support Hitler's Germany until well after Hitler had revealed everything except the death camps themselves: the Nuremburb laws, Kristallnacht, the invasion of Poland, the invasion fo Czechoslovakia. WTF? Nazism and antisemitism are really serious wrongs, and they should be addressed, rather than swept under the rug. I don't think that this is a radical proposition.

I have no particular problem with Philip Johnson's work, or even with his life after the war. But the things that you guys said, are, to me, simply unacceptable. Lots of architects and other intellectuals have been compromised by Nazism and antisemitism, Johnson, Gropius, Pound, Celine, Heidegger, de Man; It could be a long list. I don't think that you can really understand them fully without talking about that aspect of their lives. I don't simply dismiss their thought because of those associations, but I refuse, as you guys did, to simply ignore, elide, and understate.

With Johnson, you are talking about a man who was in his thirties at the time and who absolutely knew what he was doing. He never gave a full accounting of his actions, without which a genuine apology is simply not possible. I apologize for the rudeness. I wanted to get your attention. I wanted to make clear two important things that are neither purported nor to be "taken with a grain of salt": he was a Nazi, and he was an antisemite. Btw, what I remember of Schulze's conclusion was that he considered Johnson to be both an antisemite racialist and a supporter of the Nazis. As I remember it, he excuses Johnson's vile politics by painting him as a trifler and a bumbler whose actions had little effect.

Your assertion that "he would have burned in Auschwitz along with the Jews," is an interesting one. How does his homosexuality make up for his open propagandizing for Hitler? By the same token, can Jews now call for the deaths of homosexuals without fear of reproach because, as you suggest, they would have died alongside oneanother anyway?
Doubly interesting because no sooner having said that, you slur my own sexuality ("stick it up your ass"). Btw, I wonder if the Jews in 1955 were actually aware of Johnson's actions and complicity. These were not facts that he brought up, unless forced to, and the true extent of his actions didn't really become clear until the eighties.
posted by mokujin at 3:01 PM on January 27, 2005

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