Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Philip Johnson

So Philip Johnson has died. What an interesting character: An architect whose work rarely rose above the mediocre, and yet who managed to become one of the most famous practitioners in the world and the first winner of the Pritzker prize.
I have long felt that Johnson's buildings are, for the most part, crudely conceived and executed. I will make an exception for his glass house, which appears in pictures to be quite elegant (I have not seen it in person).
So what was Johnson famous for?
Reducing architectural theory to a matter "style," perhaps. What was conceived in intellectual terms by Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and others could be neatly classified as the "International Style," as his famous 1932 exhibition of their work at the Museum of Modern Art was called.
Decades later, the diverse work of Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Coop Himmelblau, John Hejduk, Frank Gehry and others was bizarrely grouped together and labeled "Deconstructivism," a nasty portmanteau word that combined notions of literary deconstruction, Russian constructivism, destruction and perhaps others. What it really meant -- as Catherine Ingraham so incisively put it in a review of the exhibition in Inland Architect -- is that all of these architects use a lot of diagonal lines.
If all was exteriors, surfaces, the burden of the architect to think and to act with integrity is removed. That appears to be how Johnson operated. He seems to have had a curious mind, but one that was content to skim the surfaces and regurgitate that superficial understanding in his own designs.
Thus he moved from modernism to postmodernism (in his case, the use of inappropriate historical allusion to decorate contemporary structures) to, in his last works, something that tried to incorporate the non-rectilinear (I won't call it by his term, which I find ridiculous).
I was disturbed recently when I received the Time-Life book of Great Buildings of the World, and found in it more pictures of Johnson's work than that of Wright, Sullivan, Palladio, Wren, Kahn, Le Corbusier or any other architect of note.
I suppose there is no accounting for taste.