Philip Johnson (1906 – 2005) was born and raised during a time when modernist architecture arose and developed. Johnson grew up to be a modernist architect himself, whose career spanned over seven decades. Not only did Johnson contribute to the modernist movement, he also went on to design in the postmodernist style. Johnson was well known for his unique talent for blending different styles and movements to create interesting new designs. Johnson was also a skilled writer and a curator for the Museum of Modern Art.
Philip Johnson’s Early Life and Education
Philip Johnson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, as the child of Homer Hosea Johnson and Louisa Osborn Pope. Johnson also had two sisters, Jeannette and Theodate. Johnson was born into a wealthy and highly educated family, who supported his education. As a result, Johnson, who seemed very clever from a young age, went on to study philosophy and the classics at Harvard University from 1923 to 1930.
Johnson took multiple periods off to travel through Europe during these years. These travels proved to be highly formative for him, shaping his vision of design and contributing significantly to the development of his later career. He spent time in Berlin and at the Bauhaus School of Design, Architecture and Applied Arts in Dessau. He learned about modern architecture and design principles here, but he also met Mies van der Rohe who would become an important friend and influence to Johnson, as well as an occasional work partner.
Johnson finally received his undergraduate degree from Harvard and started working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a curator and writer. Johnson collaborated on projects with the founder of the MoMA, Alfred H. Barr Junior, as well as architectural historian Henry-Russel Hitchcock. Together with Hitchcock, he co-curated an exhibition on modern architecture in 1932 and contributed to the book The International Style. The International Style is the name of the modern style of architecture that arose during the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and the United States.
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The exhibition on modern architecture was not the only architecture-themed exhibition that Johnson contributed to. Apart from this one, he also worked on exhibitions about Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. Inspired by what he had learned about architecture and design during his travels and his years at MoMA, Johnson decided to return to Harvard in 1940 in order to attend a graduate program in architecture. The architectural field proved to be a great fit for Johnson. He even designed and built a house for himself in 1942, while he was still a student.
In contrast to how it would normally have gone, Johnson’s studies were not directly followed by an apprenticeship or a job. Instead, Johnson was called to serve in the army from 1943 to the end of 1945, to fight Germany in World War II. Johnson was profoundly shaped by this. Between 1934 and 1940, Johnson had in fact proved to be sympathetic to Fascist politics. While working as a journalist for a brief period during these years, he made some statements that suggested a pro-fascist and an anti-Semitic attitude. Going to war made Johnson realize the reality of the Nazi’s fascist ideology and made him distance himself completely from his earlier beliefs and statements. However, once he became successful these early statements were at times used to support criticism of Johnson and his work.
When Philip Johnson returned home from the war, his career as an architect officially began. Even though the house that Johnson had built for himself was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Johnson decided to settle in New York. It was this city that functioned as Johnson’s main canvas and a city where he found love. Johnson, who was quite open about his homosexuality, had a few relationships until he met his life partner David Grainger Whitney in 1960. Whitney himself graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. He worked as an art advisor, a studio assistant to the artist Jasper Johns, and eventually as the director of his own gallery in New York. Moreover, he also used his advisory skills for Johnson’s Glass House. Together, they would go on to shape the surrounding landscape of the house as well as its art collections.
Johnson’s career spanned over seventy years. Johnson was still designing in his nineties. He received a number of awards. These include the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal that was awarded to him in 1978 and the first Pritzker Architecture Prize which he received in 1979. Now, let’s take a look at some of his designs.
1. The Glass House
In 1946, just after he had returned to the United States, Johnson decided to buy a five-acre plot of land in New Canaan. On this land, which is located very close to New York City, Johnson built a residence for himself called The Glass House. The process of designing and building took about four and a half years, and the result was a building for which the walls were made completely out of glass. The transparency of the building was possible thanks to the nature that surrounded it. This way, Johnson maintained the needed privacy, while enjoying a light space with great views of its surroundings. Although the structure itself seems simple since the interior exists as one big space, it was rather groundbreaking for its time.
Up till then, full transparency had been commonly associated with modern commercial buildings, rather than private residences. For some, the idea that glass houses would form the future of domestic architecture was quite a shocking vision. On the inside, one found some furniture designs by Mies van der Rohe, as well as a kitchenette and other basic but stylish furnishings. From 1949, Johnson lived in this house. Even after he left the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1986, he and his partner Whitney continued to live here until they both passed away in 2005.
2. The Rockefeller Guest House
The Rockefeller Guest House was built at 242 East 52nd Street in East Manhattan in 1950. The house was commissioned by Blanchette Ferry Hooker Rockefeller, the philanthropist wife of John D. Rockefeller. The unique structure was intended as both a showcase for her modern art collection and a space for entertaining.
The Rockefeller couple shared a passion for Asian art, but Blanchette also had an enthusiasm for modern works. Moreover, the neighborhood that it was built in, called the Turtle Bay, has been one of New York’s artistic centers since the 1920s.
When one stands in front of the Rockefeller Guest House it’s hard to see what the house is like on the inside. The house is made of red brick, steel, and glass. The first thing one sees when entering the house are wooden cupboards. This way, the transition from the façade to the interior is still rather gradual. However, after this initial entrance, the general design and feel changed quite drastically. After the hallway, one enters a large, light, and open living and exhibition space. The Rockefeller Guest House also has an atrium garden with a pond. Both the atrium as well as the glass ceiling make the interior light and emphasize the warm colors of the wood and the fresh white of the vinyl tiles. Thanks to the lack of ornamentation, the general simplicity of the space, the use of modern materials like glass, steel, and stone, as well as the abundance of light, the Rockefeller Guest House became a great example of modernist architecture.
In 1958, the Rockefeller Guest House was donated to the MoMA, before Johnson and his partner Whitney leased it and lived in it themselves for eight years. Just like Blanchette Rockefeller, Johnson also used the house as a residence for his art collection. This way, the walls were adorned with works made by Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella.
3. The Seagram Building
The Seagram Building is a skyscraper located at 375 Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Initially, the building served as the headquarters of the Seagram Company, which was a Canadian distiller. The Seagram Building was primarily designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, with the help of the architects Ely Jacques Kahn and Robert Allan Jacobs. Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Seagram CEO Samuel Bronfman, also had a say in the design of the building.
After Johnson learned from Lambert that the Seagram company wanted a new office, he promoted Mies as the best designer for the job. Once Lambert appointed Mies, the three of them all worked together on the building’s design. Mies, who had been at the forefront of high-rise architecture and had already developed various radical designs for sheer towers of steel and glass, led the project. It was an important work in Johnson’s oeuvre not only because of the building itself but because of his collaboration with Mies too.
The Seagram Building is a notable example of the International Style which was defined by simplicity, functionality, and the use of modern materials and technologies. The Seagram building’s exterior exemplifies the International Style through the prominent display of its structural elements, rendering any decorative ornamentation unnecessary. The interior of the Seagram building also reflects the principles of the International Style in several ways.
The open plan and minimalistic design prioritize function and utility over ornamentation. The use of materials such as steel, glass, and travertine marble reflects the modernist aesthetic. Additionally, the use of a limited color palette, with an emphasis on neutral tones like white and grey, also aligns with the International Style. The same applies to the clean lines and geometrical forms of the furniture.
The Seagram building consists of a wide variety of spaces, including offices, conference rooms, dining areas, and public areas. Generally, the interior is very open, without many structural walls. The office floors were designed to be flexible, with a regular grid of columns and a raised floor system that allowed for easy reconfiguration of partitions and workstations. The building also had several dining areas, including a public restaurant and a private executive dining room. In addition, there were several public spaces in the building, such as the large, double-height lobby and the plaza outside the building.
4. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
The Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, also referred to as the Bobst, is the main library of New York University. The name of the library derives from its benefactor, Elmer Holmes Bobst, who donated more than eleven million to the project. Bobst, who made money in the pharmaceutical industry, was a philanthropist and long-time trustee of NYU. The Bobst Library was designed by Johnson and Richard Foster in 1966. It was built in Lower Manhattan between 1967 and 1973. Nowadays, the Bobst Library houses more than four million volumes, 53,320 serial titles, and over 43,000 linear feet of archives. Thanks to its large collection, the library receives thousands of visitors per day. It offers 2,600 seats.
The Bobst Library is a good example of postmodern architecture. Johnson and Foster favored a more eclectic approach that incorporated historical references and a sense of playfulness. The two features do not fit into the modernist aesthetic. The exterior of the Bobst Library is made of red sandstone, giving the building a warm look. This stone was quarried in Massachusetts in the late 19th and early 20th century, and again briefly between 1965 and 1971. Overall, the building looks quite stately. The exterior walls consist of long windows, which add nice bits of light to the interior.
However, the light does not only derive from these windows. The interior design, which features a twelve-story tower with a large atrium at its base, is covered with a striking glass roof. Thanks to this, the spaciousness of the hall is emphasized and the building is always provided with a good amount of natural light. However, the openness of the atrium did not always benefit the safety of the building. In fact, three students committed suicide here, even after the university installed barriers. For this reason, a perforated aluminum screen was installed. At the bottom of the atrium lies a beautiful geometric floor inspired by the floor of the Palladio Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. Overall, the design is minimal, but has some features that make it look less strict than modernist buildings.
5. Philip Johnson’s Signature Postmodern Building: The AT&T Building
Often called a postmodern landmark, the AT&T Building was designed by Johnson in collaboration with John Burgee between 1978 and 1983. The building is also called 550 Madison Avenue or the Sony Building, as Sony leased it in 1991 and subsequently bought it from AT&T in 2002. Sony later sold it to the Chetrit Group in 2013, but leased it again for another three years.
The building was initially built as the headquarters of AT&T, a multinational telecommunications company. It has 37 floors and a pink granite exterior which makes the building stand out from its surroundings in a unique way.
It also has some classical features which are characteristic of postmodern architecture like the building’s large entrance arch which is adjoined by arcades. There’s also the broken pediment on the roof that has a circular opening. Thanks to these features, the building is known as the world’s first postmodern skyscraper.
The design features numerous windows. The entrance hall features an impressive central staircase that’s lit by the abundance of daylight that comes through the arch window. For the interior, Johnson and Burgee used luxury materials, which gave the AT&T office a stately feel. The interior also featured references to classical architecture like arcades. Additionally, the building also contains a two-story auditorium and a CCTV studio. During Sony’s time in this building, the office spaces were renovated and adjusted to accommodate record and movie production.
Last but not least, the AT&T building featured a public atrium that has a metal and glass roof. According to Burgee, the atrium was meant to have a different character than the rest of the building. However, Sony closed the atrium during the 1990s and put up a large television screen showing its renovation. In 2020, a new garden was constructed in the atrium. This garden, which contains trees, shrubs, and plants, is open to visitors. Different than before, the atrium is now covered by a canopy made of metal and glass, which collects rainwater. The atrium, which includes a waterfall and places to sit, is meant to provide people with a place to relax.