Feb/Mar 2009

Drawing Attention

A renowned American architect weighs in on his life and a century of design

Terence Riley


The Philip Johnson Tapes, edited transcripts of ten conversations conducted in 1985, provides portraits of both interviewer (Robert A. M. Stern) and interviewee (Johnson) as no less than besotted with architecture, the history thereof, and, not inappropriately, their respective roles in shaping its discourse. As someone who, beginning in the 1980s, spent many hours in conversation with both Stern and Johnson, I found that the voices captured in these transcripts sounded amazingly familiar. While the presence of a tape recorder can often result in a deadening sense of historical self-awareness, Stern and Johnson display an intense familiarity—and comfort—with the mechanics of history. As they both so clearly understood, one of history’s most important tools in its own creation is talk—not chatter or gossip, but serious talk.

As an example that proves the point, I recall a dinner shortly after I joined New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1991, when, after a long day, I simply could not keep up with Johnson’s take-no-prisoners repartee. Defaulting to a damning assessment by way of faint praise, I referred to the architect under discussion as “interesting.” Johnson responded, “Interesting? What the hell does that mean?” Johnson’s sheer pugnacity—even in advanced age—might come as a bit of a surprise to those accustomed to his courtly public persona. Even those acquainted with architectural partisanship might be taken aback by his reference in this book to Dutch architect Michel de Klerk (who had been dead for half a century at the time of the interviews) as “my greatest enemy, intellectually.” Whether or not “intellectual enemy” is a term that makes any sense, de Klerk was not the only notable architect who got Johnson’s dukes up. To varying degrees, Walter Gropius, Hugh Ferriss, Philip Goodwin, Hugh Stubbins, Renzo Piano, the American Institute of Architects, and many others are given sharp knocks here. In some instances, the nature of Johnson’s ideological position is fairly evident. His antipathy to Gropius and Goodwin, for instance, has everything to do with his critical support for Mies van der Rohe. His highly negative characterization of Piano’s design for the widely admired Menil Collection in Houston needs a little more reading between the lines. In fact, Johnson was instrumental in getting Piano the commission, with Richard Rogers, for the Centre Pompidou in Paris more than a decade earlier. In the case of the Houston project, it is not Johnson’s critical faculties alone at play but his professional jealousy as well. Dominique de Menil had been a client, apparently one he expected to keep.

The intertwining of Johnson’s careers as critic, historian, power broker, and architect is a complicated matter and comes up repeatedly here. Inevitably, Johnson’s thoughts on architecture and architects are pushed and pulled in different directions, reflecting the contingencies of his many irons in the fire rather than any consistent point of view. The interviews also underscore Johnson’s competitiveness not only as an architect but as a critic, a fact most evident in his relationship with the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, who was just a few years his senior. Johnson’s vilification of de Klerk is the inverse of his admiration for J. J. P. Oud’s rationalist work, which he learned of through Hitchcock’s writings. In Sweden, Johnson changes sides of the fence, finding much to like in Gunnar Asplund’s work even as Hitchcock refers to it as “romantic nonsense.” At Taliesin, roles switch again, with Hitchcock enamored of Frank Lloyd Wright’s plainly picturesque Hillside School, which, according to Johnson, went against his own self-described “dogmatic” position.

Clearly, Stern knew his subject well and was prepared to steer the conversation toward the more salient moments in Johnson’s long life and career. The sections of the book are arranged thematically and chronologically, from “Upbringing” to “Patronage, Competition, and the New Generation.” Reflecting the men’s abilities as great talkers—as well as some fine editing by Kazys Varnelis—the transcripts read quite well. There are times, however, when they do little to make Johnson more accessible, underscoring instead how impossibly distant his life experience was from most of ours. The first such instance is in a description of his gilded youth, in which he recalls asking the family chauffeur to stop a block from school so that his classmates wouldn’t see him getting out of a limousine. Later, he tells of taking a favorite boarding school teacher on an expenses-paid trip through England during summer break.

At the time of the interviews, Johnson was almost eighty, which is not necessarily that old in the grand scheme of things (he lived another nineteen years), but, significantly, he was an octogenarian who was professionally active, perhaps even more so than he had been a decade before. In the procrustean bed of biographical sketches, many architects’ careers are characterized as having an early, a mature, and a late phase; Johnson’s, like Wright’s and Oscar Niemeyer’s, had quite a few more due as much to the unusual length of his working life as to his restless mind. Many critics have found the late work of each of these architects less than satisfying, as do I. However, researching a Wright retrospective, visiting Niemeyer’s classic and more recent work, and reading The Philip Johnson Tapes remind me that the architectural work—or any lifetime endeavorof extremely long-lived individuals can only be truly understood on its own terms, to the extent that it is even possible. For instance, many cite Johnson’s turn from modern architecture as a sign of his taste for the fashionable, yet he was a devoted disciple of Mies for more than twenty-five years. From a human perspective, it almost seems inevitable that innovation would win out over what had become tradition.

By the same token, one doesn’t have to be eighty to be an unreliable witness to one’s own life, and Johnson’s testimony must be held to a certain standard. For solid information, as well as color and nuance, this volume adds to our knowledge of Johnson’s life. However, the more rigorous of historians will have to look elsewhere to fact-check the finer details he offers. On more than one occasion, Johnson refers to past events in a fairly imprecise way. For instance, his summer of study of Friedrich Ludwig Persius is described as having happened in “1930 or 1931 or 1932.” Given Johnson’s long life and career, perhaps this is accurate enough. But when one considers the seismic shifts in German—not to mention global—politics and culture between the Depression and the rise of Nazism, a more accurate sequencing of events is critical.

While Stern lets these lapses go, as he well should, he is a bit too easy on Johnson when the interviewee tries to have it both ways, as Johnson does more than a few times. When asked whether he and Hitchcock had seen every building they featured in The International Style, Johnson replies in a fashion that only he could get away with: “Everything, but I remember one we did not see: the de Mandrot House. I didn’t see Mathes either.” Huh? On the matter of Johnson’s foray into the politics of the far right during the ’30s, Stern is evenhanded but less inclined to let matters drop. A whole chapter, titled “The Right,” is devoted to the years between 1934, when Johnson quit the Museum of Modern Art, and 1939, when he decided to pursue formal architectural studies at Harvard. While bits and pieces of Johnson’s political career are widely known, here they are laid out in detailed chronological order. From his decision to leave the museum with Alan Blackburn (whose precise relationship to Johnson is suggested but not sufficiently explained), to his flirtation with buying and publishing a magazine, to his unrealized plan to run for the Ohio legislature, a more comprehensive (if not necessarily comprehensible) portrait of his years as a political operative of the right emerges. That which seemed risible before—such as his ill-conceived scheme to make a cultural alliance with Huey Long—seems even more ridiculous with the new information. That which seemed awful before—his relations with the anti-Semitic radio priest Father Coughlin, his trips to Nazi Germany—seem more awful still.

For younger architects practicing in the 1980s and ’90s, Johnson appeared always to have been and as if he always would be. These interviews are helpful for proving that this was not so. The chapters that cover the ’50s depict an unexpectedly small-scale architectural practice devoted mainly to private houses, despite Johnson’s money and social connections. The ’60s and ’70s brought professional success, with an increasing number of public commissions. However, Johnson’s emergence in the ’80s as a celebrity architect whom many thought of as both dean and godfather of the profession transcends his commercial accomplishments. As the conversations demonstrate well, this process affected not only Johnson but the next generation of architects he favored. Stern, Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, and many others—the “kids,” as Johnson called them—engaged in a sustained, mutually beneficial dialogue that kept Johnson onstage after his peers had moved along. There came a point when he was virtually the last one of his generation standing. He not only endured to have the final word in some of the longest-running debates of the twentieth century, he also had the good fortune of being able to update and edit himself until the very end.

Terence Riley is the director of the Miami Art Museum.

Advertisement