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American architect Philip Johnson was instantly recognizable with his thick, black-framed glasses and witty pronouncements. He began his career as a writer, curator, and critic, and was particularly influential in the 1930s through his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where he championed the International Style of architecture (a term he coined). Later trained as an architect, his structures ranged from earlier "glass boxes" in all shapes and sizes to later postmodern fanciful skyscrapers. During his prodigiously long life - he died in 2005, aged 98 - he was an outspoken arbiter of culture, architecture, and design.

Philip Cortelyou Johnson was born in 1906, in Cleveland, the only offspring of a wealthy attorney, Homer Johnson, and his wife, Louise. As a young man he attended Harvard, studying history and philosphy; he graduated with honours in 1927, then toured Europe, where he met the Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Johnson was fascinated by van der Rohe's aesthetic minimalism, at that time crystalizing in the magnificent Barcelona Pavilion, and the two men became life-long collaborators and competitors.

Back in the US, Johnson was appointed the founding chair of the department of architecture at MoMA; that same year, 1932, he and his friends, Alfred Barr, Jr. and Henry-Russell Hitchcock mounted an exhibition, "The International Style." The show was profoundly influential and introduced the American public to modernist architects Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and van der Rohe. (Frank Lloyd Wright, piqued that he was not featured prominently enough, withdrew his entries in a snit.) Johnson and Hitchcock co-authored the accompanying book, basically defining modern architecture as a formal style emphasizing volume over mass and solidity, and rejecting symmetry and applied decoration.

For some years Johnson continued to preach the gospel of modernism, and brought Le Corbusier as a visitor, and van der Rohe as an immigrant, to the US. In 1936 he resigned from MoMA to dabble in radical journalism, feeling that the Great Depression was evidence of the failure of the liberal welfare state. He had already conceived an admiration of Naziism during his earlier trips to Europe; back there again as a reporter, he covered the Nuremberg rallies and the invasion of Poland. This latter event cured him of his interest in political writing, and he returned to the US in 1940 and entered the graduate school of design at Harvard. During his tenure there he took time out to enlist in the army, and to return to MoMA in 1946, where he designed the west wing and the sculpture garden. He graduated from Harvard in the late 1940s and left MoMA for the second and last time in 1954 to start his own firm. In 1967 he formed a partnership with John Burgee that would last till 1991 and see the creation of many important buildings.

For his graduate thesis, Johnson had designed and built one of his most enduring and influential buildings, a glass house in New Canaan, Connecticut. This gorgeous jewel had an exposed steel frame; the only solid structure was the bathroom, the rest of the house transparent, with nature serving as its walls. Built in 1949, Johnson lived much of his time in this house until his death; it has just opened as a museum.

After completing several more houses in this idiom, he collaborated with van der Rohe on the acclaimed Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York, completed in 1959. But by the 1960s he had broken with stark modernism, attempting to create a more individual style that included historical elements and experimented with colour and texture. Notable are the pink granite AT&T Building (now the Sony building) on Madison Avenue, which has classical elements and an ornamented pediment; the Republic Bank tower (now NCNB Center) in Houston, which paid homage to Flemish Renaissance architecture; and the PPG Place in Pittsburg, a reflective glass tower with a Gothic form echoing the tower of the Houses of Parliament in London. Other notable commissions include the Sheldon Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska, the New York State Theater in New York City, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, and the New York State Pavilion at the World’s Fair.

In 1978 he was awarded the American Institute of Architects's Gold Medal and the following year received the first Pritzer Architecture Prize.

Johnson was a New York fixture, a witty and elegant socialite who lunched daily amongst other powerful New Yorkers at a special table in Grill Room of the Four Seasons. Late in his life he publicly declared what most who knew him already knew: that he was a homosexual. His longtime companion, David Whitney, died just a few months after Johnson himself had passed away. Always outspoken, Johnson also came clean late in life with a more suprising secret: his early flirtation with fascism, an act of "utter, unbelievable stupidity" for which he said there was "no excuse".


kthejoker also pointed books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,885724,00.html out to me; it has an interesting anecdote about Johnson.

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