Philip Johnson was initially a curator, who worked on the International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The term ‘International Style’ has been credited to him, earning him an important role in the Modernism movement.
“All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” These words said by architect Philip Johnson, ring true even today. Known for his modernist and postmodernist architectural works like the Glass House and the Seagram building along with Mies Van der Rohe, he initially studied history and philosophy at Harvard. Only after visiting Europe a few times, did he come across the modernist works of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius which completely changed him.
Philip Johnson was initially a curator, who worked on the International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The term ‘International Style’ has been credited to him, earning him an important role in the Modernism movement. Also, a Nazi sympathizer and a fascist, he did receive a lot of backlash for his ideologies maintaining ani-Semitic stances. Though these political interests were short-lived, and he returned to Harvard School of Design to study with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.
Initially a proponent of the Modernist movement, his earlier works pay homage to this simplistic and minimalistic style. The Glass House was one of his earlier projects – a house for himself. Influenced by the design of the Farnsworth House by Mies, the house was a 56 by 32-foot glass rectangle, sitting at the edge of a crest on Johnson’s estate overlooking a pond. Built-in 1949, with its symmetrical design and dark colors of the steel, it was a true manifestation of his design philosophies – made personal and his own.
The Seagram building – an iconic bronze and glass tower in New York City, was an amalgamation of both Mies and Johnson’s modernist principles and philosophies. Built-in 1956, Philip Johnson was commissioned to do the interiors of the building, in close association with his longtime friend and mentor. His work truly was about the hidden – behind the glass and bronze and in the columns, beams, and floors. His work is often referred to as the ‘theatricality of presentation’ for the aesthetic clarity and artistic lucidity his structures presented the viewer with.
He was able to influence the American built environment, with his legacy still apparent today. Stylistically, he moved from many different styles to adopt others. From ‘pure’ modernism aesthetics and ideals to neoclassicism to postmodernism ideology, Philip Johnson’s works presented his design sensibility in many different lights. The AT&T building was a clear representation of his postmodern leanings. His political past and fascist ideals never truly left him – even though he engaged in antifascist clubs during his education at Harvard. His work was highly influenced by his military service during the war, and his disaffection with stability and thus, the modernism movement.
Johnson’s postmodern style caught the people’s imagination, with the completion of the AT&T building in 1982, with its eight-storey split pediment tops. Though not the first postmodernist structure, it was certainly the largest and grandest, built almost two after Michael Graves’ Portland Building. It was a historical landmark of the Postmodern movement and became infamous for its ornamental style.
“Doing a house is so much harder than doing a skyscraper” – these words were said by the architect on being asked about designing residential spaces. During the latter half of his career, Philip Johnson engaged more in designing residential spaces, after moving away from building large scale structures like the Lipstick Building and the Crystal Cathedral.
The film “Philip Johnson: Diary of an eccentric architect” best describes his philosophies of design and his perpetration of various styles according to his eccentric thought processes and ideologies. Described as an unabashedly capitalist architect, he was a designer of consistent approaches to design, not in style but the method – conforming deeply to his philosophies and ideals of a society. Philip Johnson, though having left a great legacy of architectural thought and design, was a true proponent of a capitalist architecture, bereft of a socialist direction.
Philip Johnson’s constantly evolving style and his association with numerous architectural and design movements were a clear depiction of his eclectic thoughts and ideologies – far removed from the current notions of that time. His ability to design and create a wide range of structures is visible in his contributions to the built environment throughout his life. His career as an architect was not just influenced by stylistic movements, but also due to his provisions in the field of criticism and his work as a curator and collector. His is an enduring legacy.