Philip Johnson

From Academic Kids


Philip Cortelyou Johnson (July 8, 1906 (Cleveland, Ohio) – January 25, 2005 (New Canaan, Connecticut)) was an influential American architect. The first director of the architecture department at the Museum of Modern Art (New York) in 1946, and later a trustee, he was awarded an American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1978 and the first Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1979.



Through his long career Johnson was more influential for his criticism and intellectual guidance of the profession than the buildings directly credited to him. Financially independent as a result of his father's gift of Alcoa stock, he both founded and funded his directorship at MOMA. As co-author (with Henry-Russell Hitchcock Jr.) of the MOMA exhibition catalog "The International Style: Architecture Since 1922" (1932), Johnson is credited with recognizing and popularizing European modernism, and with introducing Mies van der Rohe to America. As mentor of the New York Five, power-broker, socialite, and MOMA trustee, Johnson put himself in an ideal position to promote his stance that architecture is an aesthetic pursuit equal to other fine arts, with little responsibility to clients or users. It has been said that he was weak at sketching and drawing, but regardless Phillip Johnson had a very skilled graphic and design sense. The most recognizable figure in American architecture for decades, part icon, part oracle, part stand-up comic, Johnson was a reliable source of wit and provocation.

His firm, Philip Johnson Alan Ritchie (PJAR), is located in Midtown Mahattan under now the guidance of Alan Ritchie, his long time partner from England. Another branch is located in Shanghai, China.

Involvement with Fascism

One controversial aspect of Johnson's career was his active promotion of fascism in the 1930s (his late 20s and early 30s). He wrote essays in support of Louisiana governor Huey Long and Detroit broadcaster Father Coughlin, prominent political figures involved in fascism, and Johnson tried to start an American fascist party himself. He traveled to Nuremberg for Adolf Hitler's 1938 rally, and to Poland after Germany invaded it in 1939, where he wrote:

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.

After an FBI investigation and the pending involvement of the United States in World War II, Johnson abandoned politics and later renounced fascism. A focus on the aesthetic to the exclusion of all other concerns became a characteristic of his philosophy; in a 1973 interview, he said:

The only thing I really regret about dictatorships isn't the dictatorship, because I recognize that in Julius's time and in Justinian's time and Caesar's time they had to have dictators. I mean I'm not interested in politics at all. I don't see any sense to it. About Hitler—if he'd only been a good architect!


Johnson's most famous work is the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, a transparent open-plan frame structure initially designed as his own home for his Harvard master's thesis in 1949, and in which he resided until his death. The Glass House is remarkably similar to Mies' Farnsworth House. The New Canaan estate continued to grow and now boasts a number of unique designs, including a building made out of chain-link fencing, a sculpture gallery with a glass ceiling, a house of brick mirroring his glass house, and a building with no conventionally shaped walls (having only two corners).

Johnson produced most of his work in collaboration. As the New Canaan estate demonstrates, his work is not conspicuous for its stylistic consistency or practicality. From 1967 to 1991 Johnson collaborated with John Burgee, his most productive period.

The AT&T Building in Manhattan, now the Sony Building, was completed in 1984 and was immediately controversial for its outrageous pink granite neo-Georgian pediment (Chippendale top). This was provocation on a grand scale. At the time, crowning a Manhattan skyscraper with an outsized chair-top defied every precept of the modernist aesthetic: ornament had been effectively outlawed among serious architects for years. In retrospect other critics have seen the AT&T Building as the first Postmodernist statement, necessary in the context of modernism's aesthetic cul-de-sac.

Johnson's other notable works include:


"Architecture is the art of how to waste space."

"The job of the architect today is to create beautiful buildings. That's all."

Johnson wrote (Heyer, 1966):

The painters have every advantage over us today...Besides being able to tear up their failures—we never can seem to grow ivy fast enough—their materials cost them nothing. They have no committees of laymen telling them what to do. They have no deadlines, no budgets. We are all sickeningly familiar with the final cuts to our plans at the last moment. Why not take out the landscaping, the retaining walls, the colonnades? The building would be just as useful and much cheaper. True, an architect leads a hard life—for an artist.
...Comfort is not a function of beauty... purpose is not necessary to make a building beautiful...sooner or later we will fit our buildings so that they can be used...where form comes from I don't know, but it has nothing at all to do with the functional or sociological aspects of our architecture.



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