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Philip Johnson: On Old Age

Philip Johnson: On Old Age
by Hilary Lewis

In my first book with Johnson he said, “When I turn 100 I think I will retire to Rome. The architecture there is so wonderful.” That was 1994 — when Johnson was a mere 88 years old. By the time his 95th rolled around in 2001 he had revised this to, “When I turn 106….” When asked the reason for a delayed relocation he responded with only a bit of feigned humor, “More time to work.”

He used to joke, “I’m famous for being old.” At 89, he also kidded that it would be best to say that he was 90 since, “It sounds better.” Being from a family that benefited from extreme longevity (his older sister Jeannette even survived him briefly after he passed away in 2005 at 98), Johnson perhaps took the achievement of old age for granted. But more important, he appreciated the advantages time and experience could give. For an essay that we wrote together, he claimed “Life begins at 70.”

This concurred with his own life story. Johnson was already in his late 70s when the AT&T building was completed; by Johnson standards, he was just beyond midcareer. In 1999, when a filmmaker presented a beautifully shot short film on Johnson that we had produced as part of an exhibition to be presented that spring during the Venice Biennale, Johnson did not seem entirely pleased with his image. When asked what was wrong, the nearly 93-year old Johnson responded, “I just keep thinking I look the way I did when I was 70.”

Johnson received a rough birthday present for his 90th; he underwent major surgery in July 1996. I recall his telling me of the upcoming hospitalization at a party at The Museum of Modern Art celebrating his 90th. He noted this nonchalantly when we discussed what had been a planned lunch date for the following week. Was he concerned about the procedure that was scheduled in a few days? He advised: “I think we’ll need to reschedule that lunch.”

It would take him nearly a year to recover and, surprisingly to many, he returned to work at new offices in the Seagram building that Alan Ritchie, his architectural partner, had organized in advance of Johnson’s full recovery. From 1997 until nearly the end of his life, Johnson would regularly come to the office, take lunch at his favored Table 32, downstairs in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons Restaurant, and seriously engage in new projects into his 98th year.

I recall visiting him on a warm day in New Canaan, as we often did on weekends to record his ideas and memories on architecture and art. Now in his nineties, he was seated outside the Glass House with a book in his lap. I asked what he was reading and he held up the spine for me to see. I could barely make out the Latin: Cato Maior de Senectute. He laughed at my lack of recognition. “Cicero’s On Old Age,” he explained. “I thought it was about time.”

© 2016 Hilary Lewis

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