The life and architectural career of Philip Johnson

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Introduction

Philip Johnson was an American Architect and critic who is best known for promoting the International Style. He is one of architecture’s most influential architects, having played a major role in defining postmodernist architecture. He was the first person to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Quick facts about philip johnson

  • Born: Philip Cortelyou Johnson, July 8, 1906, Cleveland, Ohio, United States

  • Died: January 25, 2005 (98 years old), New Canaan, Connecticut, United States

  • Nationality: American

  • Occupation: Architect

  • Parent(s): Homer Hosea Johnson (father), Louisa Osborn Pope (mother)   

  • Practice: Philip Johnson>Alan Ritchie Architects

  • Website: www.pjararchitects.com

Philip Cortelyou Johnson was a well-known American postmodern architect, with many of his works revolutionizing modern American architecture. Some of his best works include the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, 550 Madison Avenue in New York, and 190 South La Salle Street in Chicago.

Philip Johnson was born on 8 July 1906 in Cleveland, Ohio, United States to Homer Hosea Johnson and Louisa Osborn Pope. Before becoming an architect, Johnson had been a critic, museum director, and author. He was also the Museum of Modern Art’s first curator of architecture. His architectural career spanned more than half a century.

Here are a few more interesting facts about his life:

  1. Philip Johnson was a Harvard graduate. He first took an undergraduate course in Classics, studying philosophy and history, specializing in philology and Greek.

  2. When modernists Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer were forced to leave Germany by the Nazis, Philip Johnson arranged for them to come work in the U.S.

  3. While working in the architecture department of the Museum of Modern Art, he negotiated the first American commission for Mies van der Rohe.

  4. Philip Johnson was an openly gay architect. He came out to the world in 1993 and was regarded as “the best known openly gay architect in America”.

  5. Philip Johnson was pushed out of his own company by his partner John Burgee, the other half of Johnson/Burgee Architects after 24 years of partnership.

  6. Philip Johnson was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. He was reported to express “more than passing admiration for Hitler”. He later apologized for his “stupid views”.

  7. Philip Johnson worked as a correspondent for Father Charles Coughlin’s often anti-Semitic and radically populist newspaper Social Justice.

  8. Philip Johnson was commissioned by Donald Trump to design several residential Skyscrapers in New York, including the Trump Place in Riverside South, Manhattan.

  9. Philip Johnson enlisted in the Army after the United States joined World War II. He was however investigated by the FBI for his contacts with the German government.

  10. David Bowie sang about Philip Johnson. He was mentioned in one of David Bowie’s songs, Thru These Architect's Eyes, from his concept album “Outside”.

Philip Johnson’s family

Philip Johnson was the son of Homer Hosea Johnson (1862-1960), who was a lawyer in Cleveland, and Louisa Osborn Pope (1869-1957). His mother was the niece of Alfred Atmore Pope and the first cousin of Theodate Pope Riddle, who was among the first female architects. He had an older sister, Jeanette, and a younger sister, Theodate.

Johnson was a descendant of the Jansen Family of New Amsterdam. Among his ancestors was Huguenot Jacques Cortelyou, who laid out New Amsterdam’s first town plan for Peter Stuyvesant.

Glass House, Connecticut, US

Glass House, Connecticut, US

His early life and education

Philip Johnson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 8, 1906. He grew up in New London, Ohio.

He attended the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York. He then went to Havard University for his undergraduate studies. There, he focused on learning philology, Greek, history, and philosophy. He particularly focused on the work of pre-socratic philosophers. He completed his studies in 1927.

In 1941, at the age of 35, Philip Johnson enrolled in the Havard School of Design where he studied with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. He designed his first building while still in school, which he submitted as his graduate thesis

His personal life

Johnson met Jimmie Daniels in 1934. Jimmy Daniels, who was a cabaret singer, and Johnson’s first serious relationship. Their relationship lasted only one year. Johnson would later recall that, “a terrible man stole him away- who had better sex with him, I gather. But I was naughty. I went to Europe and I would never think of taking Jimmy along.”

Johnson died in his sleep at the age of ninety-eight at his Glass House retreat on January 25, 2005. He was survived by David Whitney, his partner of 45 years. David Whitney died later that year at the age of 66. In his will, Philip Johnson left the National Trust for Historic Preservation his residential compound.

Early training and influences

After completing his studies in 1927, Philip Johnson made a series of travels to Europe where he visited landmarks of classical and gothic architecture. In 1928, he met Mies van der Rohe, who played a big role and majorly influenced his architectural career.

Architecture career

In 1930, Philip Johnson joined the architecture department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He organized the first Modern Architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Hitchcock in 1932. The exhibition played a major role in introducing modern architecture to the American public.

Philip Johnson then joined Harvard Graduate School of Design to study architecture in 1941. That same year, he designed his first building, a house that still exists in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The style of his design was greatly influenced by Mies van der Rohe.

In 1946, while working as a curator and writer at the Museum of Modern Art, Philip Johnson began working to establish his architectural practice. He built his residence, the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, which was completed in 1949. The building established itself as a landmark of modern architecture.

Philip Johnson got his first international commission in 1968. The project was to design the modern art museum in Bielefeld, Germany. The building’s design had a modernist facade which was clad in dark red stone.

In 1967, Philip Johnson founded a partnership with architect John Burgee. This introduced Philip Johnson to a new phase of his career. While working together, Johnson and Burgee won several commissions for the construction of new skyscrapers.

In 1991, Philip Johnson split with John Burgee and opened up his own practice. He worked as a solo practitioner for 4 years. In 1994, he invited Alan Ritchie to join him as a partner. Initially, Allan Ritchie worked in the Johnson-Burgee practice and was the partner in charge of the AT&T building.

In 1994, they formed the practice of Philip Johnson>Alan Ritchie Architects. For ten years Philip Johnson and Alan Ritchie worked closely together exploring new paths in architecture, designing buildings as sculptural objects. This was evident in their designs of the Chapel of St. Basil at the University of St. Thomas, and the Habitable Sculpture in lower Manhattan.

One of the last buildings that Philip Johnson designed with Alan Ritchie before his death was the Urban Glass House. The condominium building was an urban expression from his own earlier work, the famous Glass House. Construction of the Urban Glass House was completed after Philip Johnson’s death.

The last building that Philip Johnson designed with Alan Ritchie was the Pennsylvania Academy of Music building in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Construction of the building was completed in 2008.

Peace Chapel, Dallas, US

Peace Chapel, Dallas, US

Philip Johnson’s Early Projects

Johnson House (Ash Street House), Cambridge, Massachusetts (1941)

This was the first building that Philip Johnson designed. It was designed in 1941 while Philip Johnson was still in Harvard Graduate School of Design. He submitted the house in his graduate thesis.

The Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut (1949)

The Glass House was one of Philip Johnson’s first projects. He designed it to be his private residence. The Glass House is situated on a 49-acre property which includes 14 structures which were built between 1949 and 1955. The building was designed to be open to the surrounding landscape. Its style is similar to Farnsworth house by Mies van der Rohe.

Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas (1961; also an expansion in 2001)

Philip Johnson was first commissioned by the Amon G. Carter Foundation in 1958 to design a museum that would showcase a collection of western art and serve as a memorial of the founder of the Museum. Philip Johnson won the commission while he was also overseeing the construction of the new Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art in Utica.

The spectacular view from the site where the building was supposed to be was particularly inspiring for Philip Johnson. The site of the museum was on a gently sloping hillside overlooking downtown Fort Worth. Johnson decided to place the Museum as far up the slope as possible in order to maximize the panoramic view.

In 1998, it was announced that there were plans to expand the museum. Philip Johnson proposed that the previous additions be demolished, to create a new much larger structure behind the original building. Construction of the current museum was completed in 2001 and was reopened to the public.

New York State Theater (renamed David H. Koch Theater), Lincoln Center, New York City, New York (1964)

The New York State Theater was designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. It was renamed the David H. Koch Theater. It is located at Manhattan,s Lincoln center. It was initially built as part of the 1964-1965 World’s Fair. It has served as the home of the New York City Ballet for over 50 years.

Philip Johnson’s Major Projects

Seagram Building, Manhattan, New York City, United States (1956)

The Seagram Building, which is located in Manhattan, New York City, was designed by both Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe. The 38 story building is sheathed in bronze and glass. The tower was designed by Mies van der Rohe. Philip Johnson designed many of the interior spaces including the Four Seasons Restaurant.

Johnson’s AT&T Building (now known as the Sony Tower), 550 Madison Avenue, Manhattan, New York City, United States

Philip Johnson also designed the Johnson’s AT&T Building which is located in 550 Madison Avenue, Manhattan, New York. The building is iconic for its postmodern design. The building was designed by Johnson and his then Partner John Burgee. The building has a pink granite exterior and a pediment inspired by Chippendale.

Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California, United States (1980)

The Crystal Cathedral which is located in Garden Grove, California, is also one of Philip Johnson’s iconic buildings. The construction of the building was completed in 1980. The building is shaped like a four-pointed star and is covered with over 10,000 glass panes. 

Lipstick Building, Manhattan, New York City, United States (1986)

The Lipstick building is located in midtown, Manhattan in New York City. The building gets its name from its shape.  It also has a shade of red on its exterior which is made of steel and red granite. The building has 34 floors and creates a sharp contrast from neighboring towers.

Dallas Thanksgiving Square, Dallas, Texas, United States (1976)

Philip Johnson also designed the Dallas Thanksgiving Square, including the spiral non denominational chapel. The building is located in Dallas, Texas, and its construction was completed in 1976. The striking interior of the chapel includes 73 panels of stained glass.

Chapel of St. Basil, the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas, United States (1977)

Another major building designed by Philip Johnson is the Chapel of St. Basil, which is located in the University of St. Thomas, Houston Texas. The construction of the chapel was completed in 1977. The building was designed using three shapes: a sphere, a plane and a cube.

PPG Place, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States (1984)

The PPG Place was designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. The building includes a 40-story tower and four six-story structures. The construction of PPG Place was completed in 1984. The materials used for construction were glass and steel.

Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas

Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas

What was Philip Johnson best known for?

Philip Johnson is best known for being a skilled architect and critic who promoted the international style of architecture and played a major role in defining postmodernist architecture.

The Modernist Period (1949-1979)

After completing his military service in 1946, Philip Johnson went back to the Museum of Modern Art as a curator and a writer. He also worked to establish his architectural practice at around the same time. In 1946, he built a small house in Sagaponack, Long Island. The architectural style for the house was greatly influenced by Mies van der Rohe.

The following project was one of his most famous buildings. He built the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. The construction of the Glass House was completed in 1949. He built the Glass House for himself. The building has become a landmark for architecture.

After completing the Glass House, constructed two more buildings in New Canaan; the Hodgson House, which was completed in 1951, and the Wiley House, which was completed in 1953. The design of both these houses, too, was very similar to Mies van der Rohe’s style. In 1953, he also created an architectural sculpture garden for the Museum of Modern Art.

The next building that Philip Johnson designed in this period was the Seagram Building. For this project, Philip Johnson joined Mies van der Rohe for the construction of the 39-story building. Philip Johnson played a major role in ensuring Mies van der Rohe got the commission for the design of the building.

Mies van der Rohe designed the Seagram Building while Philip Johnson designed the interiors of the Brasserie and the Four Seasons restaurant. 

After designing the Seagram building, Philip Johnson was involved in several smaller projects. The style he used for these projects was more personal, with ornamental touches, expressive, and with features far from the sobriety of modern architecture.  

These buildings include the Synagogue of Port Chester New York which features narrow colored windows with a ceiling which is plastered and vaulted (1954-1956); the Art Gallery of the University of Nebraska which has an array of symmetrical arcs (1963); the roofless church in New Harmony, Indiana, with a shingle-covered mushroom-shaped roof (1960).

Around the same period, Philip Johnson won commissions for the design of Lincoln Center, New York State Theater, and New York City’s new arts center. He designed them in a massive unadorned style.

 Philip Johnson also undertook his first international commission at around the same period. This was for the design of the modernist art museum in Bielefeld. The construction of the building was completed in 1968, and it features a modern colonnade of slender pillars.

In 1967, Philip Johnson formed a partnership with architect John Burgee, beginning a new phase in his career. Under the partnership, Philip Johnson and John Burgee won a series of commissions for new skyscrapers. These skyscrapers include the two towers of Pennzoil Place in Houston, Texas, and the IDS Center in Minneapolis, which was completed in 1973.

In Texas, Philip Johnson applied Landscape architecture to two major projects. This was in the late 1970s. He designed the Fort Worth Water Gardens, which opened in 1974. This project created an urban landscape where water could be experienced in different ways by visitors. The spiraling white chapel and meditation garden in Dallas was completed in 1977. 

Da Monsta, Connecticut, US

Da Monsta, Connecticut, US

The Postmodernist Period (1980-1990)

In 1980, Philip Johnson completed the construction of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. The building exhibited a startling new style by Philip Johnson. The neo-gothic megachurch became a landmark in Southern California.

The next building he designed in this period was one of his most iconic buildings. He designed the AT&T building, later known as the Sony Building, and now as 550 Madison Avenue, with his partner John Burgee. The construction of the building started in 1978 and was completed in 1982.

Around the same period that the AT&T building was being constructed, Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed and constructed the Bank of America Center, which was formerly known as the Republic Bank Center. Another building was PPG Place. Construction of both buildings utilized modern construction, materials and scale. 

Top 10 Buildings by Philip Johnson

  1. The Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut, United States (1949-1955)

  2. Seagram Building, Manhattan, New York City, United States

  3. Johnson’s AT&T Building (now known as the Sony Tower), 550 Madison Avenue, Manhattan, New York City, United States

  4. Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California, United States (1980)

  5. Lipstick Building, Manhattan, New York City, United States (1986)

  6. Dallas Thanksgiving Square, Dallas, Texas, United States (1976)

  7. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, United States (1961)

  8. Chapel of St. Basil, the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas, United States (1977)

  9. New York State Theater (now known as the David H. Koch Theater), Lincoln Center, Manhattan, New York City, United States

  10. PPG Place, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States (1984)

Philip Johnson / Alan Ritchie Architects

In 1994, Philip Johnson invited Alan Ritchie, who had initially worked with him at Johnson Burgee. They then formed a new practice of Philip Johnson>Alan Ritchie Architects. Philip Johnson and Alan Ritchie were the two principals of the firm. The firm has a staff of about twenty people. The practice explores new directions in architecture.

His Influences

When Philip Johnson met Mies van der Rohe during one of his trips to Europe, he became enthralled by the Modernist style. He drew most of his inspiration from Mies van der Rohe’s style of architecture. 

Awards

In 1975, Philip Johnson received the Twenty-five Year Award for his design of The Glass House. In 1978, Johnson was awarded an American Institute of Architects Gold Medal.

In 1979, he was the first person to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize which is the most prestigious international architectural award. In 1991, he was awarded the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement. 

Quotations

  • "I got everything from someone. Nobody can be original. As Mies van der Rohe said, 'I don't want to be original. I want to be good.'”

  • "Don't build a glass house if you're worried about saving money on heating."

  • "Everybody should design their own home. I'm against architects designing homes. How do I know that you want to live in a picture-window Colonial? It's silly, but you might want to. Who am I to say?"

  • "Architecture is the arrangement of space for excitement".

  • "Storms in this house (The Glass House) are horrendous but thrilling. Glass shatters. Danger is one of the greatest things to use in architecture."

  • "A room is only as good as you feel when you're in it".

  • "Merely that a building works is not sufficient."

  • "We still have a monumental architecture. To me, the drive for monumentality is as inbred as the desire for food and sex, regardless of how we denigrate it."

  • “Architecture is surely not the design of space, certainly not the massing or organization of volumes. These are ancillary to the main point, which is the organization of procession. Architecture exists in time.”

  • “The job of an architect today is to create beautiful buildings. That’s all.”

  • “To be in the presence of a great work of architecture is such a satisfaction that you can go hungry for days. To create such a feeling as mine in Chartres Cathedral when I was 13 is the aim of architecture.”

  • “Early unsuccesses shouldn’t bother anybody because it happens to absolutely everybody.”