Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Philip Johnson: the Modernist Anti-hero

In a recent post, the Progressive Reactionary mentions a symposium taking place at Yale on the life of the late architect Philip Johnson. The man is undoubtedly a constant topic of conversation, and often a source of ambivalence and frustration to young designers full of idealism. An heir to the Alcoa industrial fortune, Philip was a dedicated architect and critic of his profession that was partially informed by his privileged upbringing. He was the first winner of Architecture’s most prestigious prize, the Pritzker, and his buildings are ubiquitous throughout the entire U.S. Few architects have left as in pervasive a mark on American urban downtowns than has Johnson, whose high-rise office buildings are often the signature landmarks for cities as diverse as Pittsburgh, Houston, Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis and New York.

Beyond his impressive professional success Johnson has occupied a unique position in relation to the intellectual development of architecture during the past century. Whereas Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier were the Modernist movement’s pioneer philosophers and innovators, Johnson was its director of public relations, particularly in the context of its acceptance by the American cultural and commercial mainstream. He has lived a long life that ended at the age of 99 and was therefore old enough to witness the events that spurred architectural Modernism. Johnson was a young but well-connected man while working as the director of architectural exhibits at the museum of Modern Art during the early Thirties. After going on a road trip through Europe with his friend Henry Russel Hitchcock to observe built examples of the an avant-garde known only in America within its architecture academies, he curated an exhibit intent on educating the public on the new Modern Architecture. The show marked the turning point as the Art Deco style popular during the late twenties and thirties lost its luster compared to the minimalist, unornamented steel and glass boxes that would ever since become the predominant architectural mode of modern American downtowns.

Although Johnson began as a proponent of Modernism, collaborating with Mies Van Der Rohe on the seminal Seagram Building in Manhattan which established the template for almost all commercial office buildings to follow, he is best remembered as its most famous critic. Even before breaking with Modernist orthodoxy by producing overtly Post-Modern buildings in the 1970s, beginning with AT&T building in New York, Johnson was instrumental in removing Modernism’s ‘soul’; that is, its social consciousness and concern for improving the lives of the working class through technology, economy and simplicity.

The founders of the European Modernism were deeply imbued socialism, with mass housing being a constant preoccupation for Gropius’s Bauhaus School as well as for Le Corbusier, both whom strongly influenced the planning and design of the social housing blocks that are hated by almost everyone today. Johnson, who was as much a socialite and power-broker as he was an architect, managed to make the Modernist architecture acceptable to the American market by presenting it as simply a style than as an all-encompassing social and aesthetic philosophy that it had hitherto been. This enabled the new style to be embraced by corporate clients, who found Modernism’s attributes particularly attractive in the efficient development of commercial high-rises. It also mainstreamed the modernist style to a whole host of building types such as churches, schools, museums and even memorials.

Johnson’s very act of stripping a style’s social and even functional values would therefore lend the exercise of architecture as merely an arbitrary and meaningless play of forms. This particular kind of creative freedom led to Johnson’s perverse practice of picking and choosing iconic, even cartoon-like, forms for buildings regardless of context or functional needs of the site. He would select either a simplified historic archetype or some ambiguous symbolic form and then configure it to a plan that addressed the basic programmatic needs of the client. A good example of this was the United Bank Center Tower in Denver. Originally designed for a site in Houston, his client in Texas decided he had no use for it there. Another client of his had signaled that his services were needed in Denver for a similar kind of building. Johnson simply used the same plans and details, and once built Denverites were given a major landmark that would endearingly call the “cash register” building.

Such simple preoccupations on forms and the ironic use of styles complemented well with what seemed to many non-architects a refreshing candor contrary to the tendency of most Modernist architects taking themselves too seriously. Since Johnson did get to know on a personal level many of the Modernist heroes, enjoyed exposing them as nothing more than people with flaws that undermined the integrity of their work and the supposedly noble philosophies they espoused. He has always been a colorful interviewee, and has never flinched from expressing his desire to be evaluated purely on aesthetic terms rather than on socio-political ones commonly used as justifications by conscientious designers. But it is on this point that much ire is directed against him from architects who believe in the importance of combining social objectives with design. Progressive Reactionary’s posts serve as good examples of this perspective. He links to an interesting essay by Kazys Varnelis that examines Philip Johnson’s distinctive cynicism towards his profession’s socio-political relevance, as well as his involvement in Nazism. It is the view of the writer among several others that this phase in Johnson’s life before the outbreak of Word War 2 has not been given enough attention. It’s true that as he passed away, few if any of the obituaries made any mention of his unsavory political activities. From what I gather Johnson has in part atoned for this affiliation by designing a synagogue later in his career. But mostly Johnson has tried to avoid confronting too deeply with this part of his life in favor of identifying himself as an aesthete rather than a political agent.

My general view is that in the end, many pioneering architects, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, were associated with political groups of questionable repute. As a Hayek-inspired libertarian, I have an equal contempt for communism as I have for fascism since I view both sides as part of the same coin (after all, Mussolini was an active communist before creating the Fascist Party). If it’s important to reveal Johnson’s Nazi sympathies then it should be just as important to investigate the ties of the Bauhaus to the Communist Party in Germany (since the Bauhaus derived from a Marxist workers’s council on industrial arts) and Le Corbusier’s actual dealings with the radical syndicalist movement in France, as well the Italian Futurists’ lover for anarchism. I suspect that the the political rap sheet of the early Modernist pioneers would be so long and depressing that maybe it cancels itself out when it comes to evaluating the merits of the architect’s oeuvre.

At the end of his life, Johnson was celebrated for his accomplishments in mainstreaming Modernist Architecture to the consuming masses, his ability to effortless switch styles and helped usher its subsequent counter-movement by means of the Post-Modern style. His explorations in form as well as his skepticism of contemporary theories that drive modern architecture contributed to a vast quantity of work that transcend his misguided ventures in radical politics. I myself am not much of a fan of his buildings, in spite of having seen and explored so many of them in the various cities I’ve lived in. I find that his very disengagement from a deeper purpose in design lends to an architecture that is often mediocre and lacking the capacity to move me. In spite of this, there’s no doubt that Johnson was a valuable witness and participant in the changes that mark the twentieth century as the most radical in the ongoing development of architecture.

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