Monument To Lincoln Kirstein

Monument to Lincoln Kirstein, 1985

Built in 1985 and named after a close friend, the Monument to Lincoln Kirstein was intended to be an “event” on the landscape. The tower, which is 30 feet high, is to be viewed and scaled. Johnson frequently climbed the structure, which he described as “a staircase to nowhere.” There is an inscription at the summit, but Johnson refused to reveal it to visitors who did not climb. Johnson felt the design, based partly on the geometry of dominoes and the choreography of George Balanchine, was in line with his attitude towards “safe danger.” The proportion of the steps are designed to foster a sense of imbalance.

Philip Johnson’s friendship with poet Lincoln Kirstein began in the mid 1920s when the two were undergraduates at Harvard. At that time, Kirstein founded the Society for Contemporary Art, a group that exhibited works of early modern art, many years before the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art. While at Harvard, Kirstein also developed a literary magazine that celebrated writers such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and T.S. Eliot.

Kirstein would later pour his energies into the world of dance, beginning with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and later with the work of George Balanchine. Kirstein was seminal in bringing Balanchine to New York to start the School of American Ballet and later to form the New York City Ballet. Johnson designed the home of the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center in 1964.

Walking tour with Philip Johnson, 1991

“I got fascinated by blocks one day. Blocks, like a child playing with blocks, right? Do you suppose I’m in my second childhood? Anyhow, I took the concrete blocks and just piled them up in odds ways, which you’re not supposed to be able to do with concrete blocks and cantilevered them. And then I made out of the tower a stairway, a very dangerous stairway. You all should go up it. Because, again, you won’t go all the way; most people do not go all the way; I always go all the way. But there, on the top of that tower, there’s nothing to hang on and the steps are very high and the view is very nice but then you have to get down again. Have you ever climbed a mountain? You know how these ice picks are such fun because you can go straight up – then you have to come down, terrible.

But that’s also exciting. ‘Gee, I had the most awful experience yesterday.’ Who doesn’t like to go and tell his spouse the next day, ‘I had the most frightening experience yesterday.’ They mean wonderful, don’t they? So you get frightened coming down. Well, it’s all a joke, anyhow. But you get little jokes like that and that makes you enjoy an experience better. By now you’re terribly tired anyhow so you sit down. All these little things that I have added are very important optically but also experientially. They decorate my basic aim of the group, which is a park. But it also makes something really almost interesting enough to visit each one of them – it is there on purpose.

One might ask in the Kirstein Tower, why is it called the Lincoln Kirstein Tower. And why did I want to build it there and why was it so important to build this monument right at that point. Frankly, I usually build buildings because I feel like building them, not because they have a reason.

And so I was playing with these blocks. I said, well, what will I do with them? Well, I admire Lincoln Kirstein. He is a great poet and a great citizen and he’s founded a great institution and he became 80 about the same time that I did and nobody was giving him enough honors. So I said, I’ll name the tower after Lincoln and I did. And I said, ‘Now, Lincoln, you find out a nice quotation that you like and I’ll engrave it in the top step, which no one will ever read unless they go up. They’ll never know what it is.’ And he did put it there. And they never do.  And I’m not going to say what’s on it. Each person will have to go for himself and read it.”

Interview conducted on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation by Eleanor Devens, Franz Schultz, Jeffrey Shaw, and Frank Sanchis.

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