Monday, September 26, 2011

Philip Johnson - Professional Enigma of Architectural Practice

I've been reading The Philip Johnson Tapes, conducted by Robert A.M. Stern in 1995, when Johnson was at the height of his fame [New York: Monacelli Press, 2008]. These interviews, or discussions, comprise a brilliant picture of Johnson's personal history, as well as a partial account of architectural movements during the 20th Century. In early middle age, I became interested in design, and read widely in architectural criticism; Johnson's presence, in the middle of many of the era's debates and disagreements, drew me to his work.

I've written about Philip Johnson before--specifically in reference to his Glass House [of 1949, in New Canaan, Connecticut]. The significance of Johnson's professional career has always been somewhat truncated by the importance of this early project--early, that is, in his professional career. Johnson was already 43 when the house was completed, and had only recently managed to complete his architectural degree at Harvard, in his late 30's. He didn't even yet have a professional architect's license. Historically, the Glass House occurs about in the late middle of the romantic phase of Modernism's International Style period. Modernism in architecture began dramatically in the 1920's, with sharp departures in form and feeling, engineered by a handful of European innovators, filled with radical notions of social and political change. The names are well-known, and don't require a recitation here. Johnson was one of their early champions, strategically from his position as curator of the Architecture and Design Department of New York MOMA.

For years it was fashionable among critics to remark Mr. Johnson's betrayal of his early International Style preferences, since by the mid-1960's, he had walked away from those first loves to more abstract and ambiguous designs, less obviously functional and translucently pragmatic. Of
course, Johnson had never been a functionalist; he had, from the beginning, been a l'art pour l'art guy, willing to throw any expedient principle under the bus for the sake of an iconic facade, or a startling turn.

What Johnson's biography, writings and commissions demonstrate is the power of an individual vision to prevail against the historical forces and resistances of changing aesthetic milieus and prejudices. Never content to let himself be pigeon-holed into a single, fixed artistic position, he transformed himself over and over, in a Protean process of renewal (which could be fairly called opportunistic), in order express his evolving vision of urban and rural purity. A self-proclaimed "elitist" such as Johnson has an unashamed excuse for every sin against taste, and history has proven--at least in his case--that elitism could not have been better scripted or designed: Each of his new incarnations has been accompanied by a public relations campaign as sophisticated as any from Madison Avenue.

Precisely because Johnson understood the relationship between money, power and taste, was he able to rationalize his own wavering loyalties and abandoned commitments, and manipulate his intentions into important commissions and projects. Architecture, after all, is a rich man's game. Whether the funding is private, or public, there is always an entity to be maneuvered, a client to be seduced, a builder to be prodded, a commission to be influenced. Every structure has a foundation, and every project has a budget, which rests, securely or gingerly, on a balance of forces.

My Father, John Calef, who was an architect by training and profession, decided in his early 60's that he no longer wanted to practice. An idealist by persuasion, I was surprised to hear this. "Why," I wondered, "if you were so entranced by it from your earliest youth?" "Because the whole thing is a rat-race, from beginning to end," he replied. "You have to con the client, you have to con the contractor, you have to con the planning and permits divisions," and "in the end, you feel like a con man." Philip Johnson once notoriously referred to himself as a "whore," capturing in a single word that combination of cunning and shame which have been the hallmarks of the patronage system since ancient times. The greatest names in painting, sculpture, architecture, even in theater, have functioned under it. Though the names have changed, and the arguments are a little different, it still exists, particularly in the architectural profession. The bigger the project, the bigger the stakes. For buildings funded through public money, the guardians of taste and suitability are ranked like militia.

Everyone is restless to some degree. In a fast changing world, the less baggage we carry the more portable we may be. That portability may be the ultimate expediency. Johnson's clear-cut fascistic tendencies during the 1930's; Man Ray's or Balthus's sexual peccadilloes. Johnson's mercurial, sparkling intelligence, wittily side-stepping charges designed to emasculate his ego and creative impulse, became a specific kind of charm which he wielded with aplomb. Artists have always known that whatever the changing winds of circumstance, their first duty is to their skill and talent, and whatever compromises they have to make to get the work done, and out into the world, are probably worth whatever indignities this may entail. Posterity does not often forgive obscurity. In our epoch, the willingness of artists to make bargains with necessity has come under severe scrutiny. Can we forgive the impulse to submit to unreasonable demands as pretext for the appreciation of any artifact? Prevailing trends may be regarded simply as the cost of doing business--in no other field are such factors as these so demanding as in architecture. Virtually every aspect of the business may be dictated by external circumstances. The lack of the availability of wood, to take one very potent aspect, may completely deny a designer the freedom to design structures of certain kinds.

As Johnson makes clear in the early biographical filling-in, he was Gay from an early age, and his sense of frustration at not being able to express his feelings led to his symptomatic difficulties in school, and later in life. Growing up in a well-to-do family in Cleveland, Ohio, he attended Harvard, intending to major in classics, but dropped out. As he reveals here, he suffered what we would now call a "nervous breakdown"--largely as a result of his suppressed homosexuality. As a consequence of his inheritance (shares of appreciating Alcoa stock worth millions), he didn't need to work to support himself, and spent the next ten years promoting his interest in architecture and various fascist causes in America (Huey Long, Father Coughlin). Largely through his efforts, a department of Architecture and Design was established at the Museum of Modern Art (which he would head), the beginning of a long history of his involvement there, as well as expansions of his interest in modern art, both as a collector and advocate. Johnson's early efforts, with Henry Russell Hitchcock, to bring awareness of the International Style to American audiences, coincided with his embrace of architectural modernism, with which he and his work would be associated for the next two decades.

As an idle patrician, Johnson was free to dabble in the arts, and his scuttled early college education was both a symptom of his sense of exclusion, and a blessing in disguise. The hiatus between the breakdown, and his resumption of studies in the 1940's (in the architecture department of Harvard), is a period of exploration and self-definition. Ultimately rejecting the politics of supreme order and domination, he realized that his intense desire to create structures of beauty and permanence would involve a d├ętente with is own wayward nature.

Most acolytes in professions begin with nothing, and are forced to compromise their creative drives through submission to a master, a limiting program, or a period of gradual acceptance through incremental advance. Johnson, however, had the means to leap over these early hurdles and proceed directly to building projects, self-funded. This prerogative, however, was limited to the residential scale. Johnson realized that in order to be involved in the mounting of monumental buildings and spaces, he would have to find an entree into the larger arenas of value and application, where the money and permission to do such projects existed. It's all very well to plop down pristine, discrete crystalline boxes in suburban New York or Connecticut; it's quite another thing to propose a witty skyscraper in Manhattan.

Johnson's route to official permission was through Mies. Mies van der Rohe had emigrated to America in 1937, concentrating his practice in the Midwest (Chicago). Johnson had done little large-scale work by the mid-Fifties. He saw, however, in the commission for the Seagram Building, a chance to insinuate himself into the big scale, by associating himself with Mies, the architect whom the client, with Johnson's influence, chose as lead architect on the project. Though Johnson's contribution to the project was minimal--he did the Four Seasons, and some other interior designs--he was credited as a collaborator. As a champion of Mies and the curtain-wall paradigm--International Style adapted to the high rise format--his contribution enabled him to realize ideas and sentiments he'd been pushing and dreaming about for 25 years. The Seagram was Johnson's pathway to serious, public commissions--that would enable him to launch his program of ambitious, large-scale artifacts. Though this process began slowly, by the 1970's, Johnson, and his various partners over the years, had begun to consummate a series of impressive structures, for instance:

Pennzoil Place

The Crystal Cathedral

Lipstick Building

AT&T Building

PPG Place - Pittsburgh PA

Such departures from the purity of the International Style signified Johnson's rejection of the ideals of his youth and early middle age. His vision of architecture as an art--rather than primarily as a functional tool--evolved over his lifetime, but the constant was always the freedom of the designer to realize a personal vision. Architectural practice, especially for anyone committed to the ideal of personal creative freedom, as Johnson was, frequently descends into the con-game I mentioned earlier. Johnson understood how money, power, influence, publicity, image, and wit converge into material fact: A building. How a building looks is an expression of all these things. Functionalism was never a part of Johnson's aesthetic--what he liked about Modernism was its formal attractions, not its utility. Johnson, seen in retrospect, was never a Modernist, but a Post-Modernist, willing to break any rule, seduce or offend any client, in the interest of husbanding his program into being.

The impression a building leaves--particularly to the general public--is much more important to the relative success and reputation of an artist or designer, than its presumed use or value. That was true of Wright and Corbusier, and it's true of Johnson. What Johnson saw in the world of the Fifties and Sixties and Seventies was a culture of shock, impudence, daring, and ephemeral charm. He understood that challenging the prevailing modes of the International Style--the very movement he had channeled into prominence beginning in 1932, and continuing right up through the late Fifties--would enable him to entice the canons of taste to further indulge his historical fantasies. Monumentality, once associated with nobility and dominance, had by the 1960's become the symbolic signpost for corporate power. Fascism had sought to control capital, just as Communism had sought to deconstruct it. In retrospect, neither system was able to succeed.

Johnson's abandonment of fascism was a practical move, an acknowledgement of the realities of history. As an early outsider--though one with complete freedom--the privileged dilletante--he perceived his destiny from the outside in. He understood that the changing tides of fashion are themselves the instigators of further modes of understanding; that the artifacts they leave in their wake perpetuate expedient formalities. He could actually influence how his buildings would be understood and appreciated, by advocating for their acceptance--laying the groundwork for his own success.

I've always liked the etymology of the word professor: as one who professes a special or unique knowledge of something. In matters of aesthetic taste, there are no rights and wrongs--and for Johnson, architecture was primarily a matter of taste, and not utility. In response to a woman's complaint about the Mies-designed chairs he put into his glass house livingroom, he replied that comfort had nothing to do with style; if women wanted to be comfortable, they would never wear high heels. And so it is. Heels flatter a woman's carriage, making her more attractive. But of course attraction itself is in the eye of the beholder. Johnson himself, being Gay, didn't find women attractive in that sense at all.

As Johnson's painting and sculpture galleries on his own property attest, he thought of art and architecture as two aspects of the same process--as beautiful objects on the land. The two were interchangeable media: You could like a thing because it was fascinating and inspiring, whether or not it made your life more comfortable. Indeed, comfort seems not to have been the point of Johnson's art--for such a mercurial gadfly, standing still was never the point of living. Five hundred years from now, when most or all of Johnson's buildings have come down and been forgotten, the irrelevance of his ephemeral conceptions will seem but a whim in the wind. But as an avatar of his time, the evidence of Johnson's genius is ubiquitous. He was a man who gave up the passivity of privilege to engage the world on its own terms, playing the great game of cultural chess, to leave monuments to himself. It's a vanity, but very much a vanity we understand, and can appreciate. Each age defines itself through its monuments, whether they're churches, or forums, or tombs, or office buildings. Johnson, the invisible man living in a glass house, understood that truth.

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