Philip Johnson (old interview)

Johnson was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He was descended from the Jansen family of New Amsterdam, and included among his ancestors the Huguenot Jacques Cortelyou, who laid out the first town plan of New Amsterdam for Peter Stuyvesant. He attended the Hackley School, in Tarrytown, New York, and then studied at Harvard University as an undergraduate, where he focused on history and philosophy, particularly the work of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. Johnson interrupted his education with several extended trips to Europe. These trips became the pivotal moment of his education; he visited Chartres, the Parthenon, and many other ancient monuments, becoming increasingly fascinated with architecture.

In 1928 Johnson met with architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was at the time designing the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. The meeting was a revelation for Johnson and formed the basis for a lifelong relationship of both collaboration and competition.

Johnson returned from Germany as a proselytizer for the new architecture. Touring Europe more comprehensively with his friends Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and Henry-Russell Hitchcock to examine firsthand recent trends in architecture, the three assembled their discoveries as the landmark show “The International Style: Architecture Since 1922” at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1932. The show was profoundly influential and is seen as the introduction of modern architecture to the American public. It introduced such pivotal architects as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe. The exhibition was also notable for a controversy: architect Frank Lloyd Wright withdrew his entries in pique that he was not more prominently featured.

As critic Peter Blake has stated, the importance of this show in shaping American architecture in the century “cannot be overstated.”[citation needed] In the book accompanying the show, coauthored with Hitchcock, Johnson argued that the new modern style maintained three formal principles: 1. an emphasis on architectural volume over mass (planes rather than solidity) 2. a rejection of symmetry and 3. rejection of applied decoration.[citation needed] The definition of the movement as a “style” with distinct formal characteristics has been seen by some critics as downplaying the social and political bent that many of the European practitioners shared.

Gate of Europe (Puerta de Europa) in Madrid (1989)

Johnson continued to work as a proponent of modern architecture, using the Museum of Modern Art as a bully pulpit. He arranged for Le Corbusier’s first visit to the United States in 1935, then worked to bring Mies and Marcel Breuer to the US as emigres.

From 1932 to 1940, Johnson openly sympathized with Nazism, so by June the Office of Naval Intelligence marked him as suspected of being a spy, expressed antisemitic ideas, and was involved in several right-wing and fascist political movements. Regarding this period in his life, he later said, “I have no excuse (for) such unbelievable stupidity… I don’t know how you expiate guilt.”

During the Great Depression, Johnson resigned his post at MoMA to try his hand at journalism and agrarian populist politics. His enthusiasm centered on the critique of the liberal welfare state, whose “failure” seemed to be much in evidence during the 1930s. As a correspondent, Johnson observed the Nuremberg Rallies in Germany and covered the invasion of Poland in 1939. The invasion proved the breaking point in Johnson’s interest in journalism or politics[citation needed]– he returned to enlist in the US Army. After a couple of self-admittedly undistinguished years in uniform, Johnson returned to the Harvard Graduate School of Design to finally pursue his ultimate career of architect.


Video by DukeLibDigitalColl

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Categories: ArchMemories, Interviews

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