January 25: architecture’s Forrest Gump

2012/01/25 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2005, Philip Johnson died.

Johnson (b. July 8, 1906) was one of the twentieth century’s great chameleons.  Perhaps that’s not quite right, since chameleons can change their colors back and forth, and Johnson never went back and forth.  His was an onward, intentional evolution through his very very long practice of over seven decades.  Also, chameleons change their colors as a defense mechanism.  Philip Johnson never wanted to not be noticed , but instead shaped himself to be spotted according to the most stunning plumage he admired in others at the time. Other ideas from the animal kingdom seem to suit him better than the idea of camouflage: the mimicry of the sparrow-hawk; the dazzle pattern of the zebra.

Born into a wealthy and established family, Johnson was treated to, and took advantage of, great educational and travel opportunities that were common to people of his station.  In his mid-twenties he developed a sudden interest in architecture that lead to his partnership with Alfred Barr and Henry-Russell Hitchcock in the 1932 book and exhibition “The International Style: Architecture since 1922” at the Museum of Modern Art.  It was only after these events that he pursued his architectural studies and practice.  Having started his career with the exhibition that coined the term “International Style,” Johnson rolled through the decades, showing up at astonishingly important moments.  He partnered with Mies on the Seagram Building.  In 1979 he was named the inaugural Pritzker laureate and in the same year was featured on the cover of Time magazine as the poster child of Post-Modernism and, as one of the country’s first celebrity architects, wore a funny hat in Vanity Fair in 1984.  He returned to MOMA to curate (with Mark Wigley) the 1988 exhibition that taught the world how to name and make sense of (or at least talk about) Deconstructivism.

Johnson’s life was a give and take: he absorbed ideas all around him and left behind a few good buildings (and a few real stinkers), some great essays, and consequential exhibitions.  In his death he has been especially generous, deeding his forty-seven acre estate to the National Trust.  Johnson lived up to his socially elite roots, having an innate ability to know who to be with, and who to be, next.  A study of twentieth-century architecture will reveal a certain amount about Johnson’s life and work; a study of Johnson’s life and work will reveal virtually everything you need to know about the twentieth century.

Johnson with his Glass House in July, 1949 in New Canaan, Connecticut (from this source)

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