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Philip Johnson Biography

Philip Cortelyou Johnson
July 8, 1906 – January 25, 2005

Philip Johnson’s career spanned nearly 75 years. From his initial work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, which began in 1930, as the then-new institution’s inaugural curator of architecture and design, to his prominence in architecture as a practitioner, which included being awarded the American Institute of Architects (AIA)’s Gold Medal in 1978 and the first Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1979, Johnson’s influence is hard to ignore. An early proponent of modern architecture who later went in various design directions, from postmodernism to later explorations of non-Euclidean geometry, Johnson was not easy to pigeonhole stylistically. What is undeniable is that Johnson would go on to build substantial projects worldwide and also became one of the central powerbrokers of architecture in America for much of the 20th Century.

Johnson was born in 1906 to a wealthy and highly educated family in Cleveland, Ohio. He would go on to Harvard for an undergraduate degree in philosophy and classics (1923-30) and then graduate studies in architecture (1940-43). In 1942 he built a house for himself in Cambridge, Massachusetts based on the ideas of Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and upon graduation in 1943 served in the US Army during WWII (1943-45).

During those undergraduate years, he took off substantial time to travel throughout Europe (1925-30). Those early trips, especially to Berlin and the new school of architecture and design in Dessau, the Bauhaus, were especially influential on him and led to his early work at The Museum of Modern Art. In particular, Johnson would develop a relationship with Mies that would lead to not only Mies designing an interior for Johnson’s 1930 home in New York but also a collaboration between both men on Manhattan’s Seagram Building in the 1950s.

At MoMA, Johnson worked with its founding director Alfred H. Barr Jr. and also with architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock. He was co-curator with Hitchcock on the seminal 1932 show of modern architecture and book, The International Style, and later with Barr on Machine Art (1934) as well as retrospectives on Frank Lloyd Wright (1947) and Mies van der Rohe (1949), among many other exhibitions. As a museum trustee he continued to advise the Department of Architecture and Design for many decades. Throughout his career in architecture he continued to support The Museum of Modern Art, supplying so many works of art he was widely considered the second largest donor to the museum in terms of number of works during his lifetime.

Johnson became a lightning rod for criticism, not only for his stylistic inconsistency, architectural formalism and his oft brash statements, but also for his embrace of fascist politics early in his life. While he did not appear to maintain these attitudes lifelong, he espoused pro-Nazi and American fascist sympathies during 1934-1940, which his biographer Franz Schulze referred to as the “inglorious detour.” This period was bookended by Johnson’s early work at MoMA and his return to Harvard for graduate studies in architecture. Briefly working as a journalist at that time, he made statements that included not only pro-fascist attitudes but also anti-Semitic commentary. Although Johnson would attempt to distance himself from these early beliefs and statements from the 1940s on, these activities brought condemnation and criticism throughout his life.

Following his time in the military, Johnson elected to come to New York rather than return to Cambridge, Massachusetts and began looking at property as early as late 1945, purchasing his initial five acres of property in New Canaan in 1946. He would spend the next few years developing the design of the Glass House, completing the two main structures in 1949. Exactly at this time Johnson would become familiar with Mies’s design for the Farnsworth House, a weekend home outside of Chicago for Dr. Edith Farnsworth. There is a clear relationship between the design of Farnsworth and that of the Glass House, albeit with significant differences, and today both the Farnsworth House and the Glass House are historic sites owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

For a person of his generation, Johnson lived relatively openly as a gay man. While Johnson was linked with a number of partners it was not until he met David Grainger Whitney that he found a life partner. They met in 1960 and Whitney would go on to play a critical role in shaping the landscape and collections at the Glass House. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Whitney would work as a studio assistant to Jasper Johns, open a gallery in New York and serve as an art advisor, developing many deep friendships with significant figures in the American post-war art world.

Along with the Glass House, which was designed during 1947-1948 and completed in 1949, Johnson (and his various associated firms) would create such notable works as: the Pre-Columbian Pavilion at Dumbarton Oaks (1963), the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (1964), the New York State Pavilion for the World’s Fair of 1964-65, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at The Museum of Modern Art (1953) and a whole host of civic, museum, commercial and residential projects over the ensuing decades.

Johnson continued to work until he turned 97 in 2003. By then he had been considered one of the posterboys of Postmodernism, especially for his AT&T Building (1978-84), and yet also was seen as one of the biggest promoters of modernism, especially that of Mies van der Rohe. After all, he had served under Mies as co-architect of the Seagram Building in New York (1954-58) and had the opportunity to design its famed Four Seasons Restaurant in 1959, done very much in the style of Mies.

Johnson was also an avowed promoter of new work in architecture, supporting the efforts of many younger figures and firms with financial support, publicity or introductions to MoMA. but he was also very much a committed preservationist. He marched publicly — with others from MoMA — to object to the pending destruction of New York’s Pennsylvania Station and successfully joined other prominent New Yorkers in fending off efforts to build on top of Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. It is hardly surprising that Johnson elected to give his personal property, the Glass House, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This bequest was arranged in 1986, nearly two decades before he died. He and Whitney maintained a life estate on the property; both men died in 2005.

It is often asked why the Glass House is in New Canaan, Connecticut, a suburb in Fairfield County, located only about one hour from New York. The town became a magnet in the 1940s for several figures in architecture at Harvard. Marcel Breuer, Eliot Noyes, John Johansen and Landis Gores all came to New Canaan to build homes for their own use as well as for clients. Johnson was part of this group that became known as the Harvard Five. Since his early days visiting the Bauhaus, Johnson had been an admirer of Breuer’s with whom Johnson also studied while at Harvard. Breuer had joined a number of his former Bauhaus colleagues under Walter Gropius’s leadership at Harvard following their departures from Germany in the late 1930s.

Therefore, what Johnson, along with his partner Whitney, created in Connecticut is an environment that stems from not only Johnson’s early years witnessing new architecture at the Bauhaus, but also from Johnson’s experience at Harvard and from their very rich life in the arts. Today the property has many structures beyond the original two of 1949, including two galleries for painting and sculpture, a library, a pavilion in a pond and series of other built works, all generated by Johnson’s ongoing interest in architecture and the way in which it changed from the 1920s. The art on site is all from their combined collection and for the most part was produced by artists they knew well. The property was not only their home it was a frequent salon for figures in the arts.

This property, which is now nearly 50 acres in size due to additional purchases by Johnson, is also an elaborate landscape. Johnson and Whitney both shared a fascination with the grounds and its design, a project that lasted for decades. In particular, Johnson understood the relationship between architecture and landscape as an essential one. Any visitor to the Glass House will understand more fully that passion for the land both men shared.

Johnson had a dynamic life that spanned the earliest days of modernism to the brink of the 21st Century. He was greatly committed to the inevitability of change, not only in architecture but in all things. He infused this mentality within his architecture, restlessly embracing new ideas as developed by those around him. His record of accomplishments is both uneven and prodigious but the highlights alone are quite significant. For much of his adult life he wielded great influence on the field of architecture and maintained his interest in the work of others until the end of his life. Originally a curator, he never lost that desire to present new and evolving ideas in architecture, design and art. Today, the Glass House carries on that mindset by presenting innovative programming in the arts within the framework of 21st-century culture, which is far more diverse and inclusive than in Johnson’s time.

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