Friday, October 1, 1993
Philip Johnson Looks Ahead
We Can Do Anything
Published in Deutsche Bauzeitung, October 1993, page 176.
© Deutsche Bauzeitung, David Cohn 1993. All rights reserved.
Philip Cortelyou Johnson talks in a clipped telegraphic style, his thin voice pitched in sharp accents and emphases, his famous wit peppered with old-fashioned swear words and archaic contractions, like the voice of another New York society charmer, Truman Capote.
It wasn't an entirely satisfactory interview. In the first place, most of the questions were from Johnson to me: on Spanish architecture ("I think they're the best now," he opined); on Germany ("The Germans are impossible. I don't understand why. After the other war, they were wonderful... Mies and Gropius, everything came out of the defeat. But look, after this war... What comes out of the 50s and 60s? The 70s and 80s? The 90s? I'm working now in Berlin... So stuffy. So intellectually...").
Johnson skimmed over the topics of conversation like someone who has said everything before, someone in a great hurry to move along - the same velocity you see in his last big projects after the A T & T building. His cryptic references and ellipses accelerated the discussion into a verbal repartee, including the interviewer in that knowing, conspiratorial intimacy of New York insiders. A typical exchange, as we leafed through a portfolio of recent projects:
Me: "It looks like..."
Johnson: "It is. I copied it."
Johnson's verbal haste is also the haste of fashion, always a step ahead of his interlocutor, planning a surprise. Johnson had a couple for me. "Right now, I'm most interested in Frank Stella's work," he told me. "Architecture. He's really got something. He's working on Dresden in the park there. Dresden, Germany. He's got the models all over his studio. Studio, hell, he's got a theater." Later, he also enthused over Peter Eisenman's Max Reinhardt Haus project: "The latest thing in Berlin. Forty story tower. You know that one? Well, you go get it!"
Johnson has never claimed to have invented any new ideas, but from the International Style and Mies van der Rohe to Post Modernism and Deconstruction, he has managed to transform his position as wealthy dilettante and patron into that of an architectural power broker. And he has accomplished this precisely through a kind of mental acceleration -what is known in the fashion trade as "a sixth sense" or "a good nose"- that has kept him a step ahead of breaking trends, and made his career a dizzying spiral of changes.
Johnson offered me this laconic summary of the last thirty years: "My interests were awakened by Eisenman and my old friend Frank Gehry. I picked them for the Venice Biennial, as you know. They opened my eyes..."
"No, I'll go back. What opened my eyes was Venturi's book (Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture). I saw it before it came out, in 1962. And this last 30 years I've been working on helping the kids and following along, pitty-pat. I got fed up with my modern training."
"Then I went into Post Modernism, like the A T & T building. But that didn't satisfy me because, really, to pick up these themes today doesn't work."
"And why not?" I asked him.
"I don't really know," he replied. "I just felt dissatisfied with using themes from Ephesus or Romanesque capitals. What ever I would pick [to copy, presumably], I felt that something wasn't right. It was the ambience of course and the knowledge and the craftsmanship of the days when it came out and was real. So I said, `This is perfectly stupid'".
"And so then I got interested in and had a show on Deconstructivism, you'll remember. Silly, silly word. For God's sake, what does it mean? But it did give me a chance to get together with the guys that I think are good."
Arriving at his current interests, we began to get closer to substantial issues: "I think what we're introducing that's different from Modernism is the lack of Euclidian geometry. You'll notice it in the second prize in the Nara Competition, by Bahram Shirdel [then on view at the Museum of Modern Art]. There are other geometries, of course, that can be used. I never paid any attention to geometry. But anyhow, we're all through with Euclid, and the sense of axis, and pure Euclidian Le Corbusian rigidity, the perfect square, and all that."
Together with Euclidian geometry, Johnson's DeConstructivism has also freed itself from typology, functionalism, the Miesian grid and structural order in general: "So we're really in a perfectly marvelous new cycle, where the modern approach to functionality doesn't have to get lost, but it doesn't have to be stressed. And technology. The whole Miesian idea of Less is More is ridiculous, the whole Miesian idea of module, of using a grid. You don't pay any attention to structure whatsoever. You come in later and work it out. Well, sure. We can do anything. We haven't even begun to use technology yet."
At the same time, Johnson's former passions remain alive beneath the surface. He stumbled over his defense of DeConstruction when I mentioned Aldo Rossi: "No, he's good. Very very good. But the freedom that we all have now. I bet he could do that. I would love to see... Well, you should see the Stella project."
And when I asked if he had seen the reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion, he replied, "I should. But I'd be disappointed, you see. The wrong marble. The wrong glass. I know the building too well. I know I wouldn't like it." I later learned he never made it to the original.
Johnson hasn't had much of a chance to build a DeConstructivist design yet. One of his first opportunities and last skyscrapers, the twin-towered Puerta de Europa project in Madrid, escaped from his hands with the breakup of his long-standing partnership with John Burgee.
The two towers, which lean towards each other across the Paseo de la Castellana, the principal axis of modern Madrid, dominating the city's skyline, are to be clad in black glass trimmed in chrome and red stripes, a Johnsonian copy of the gridded skin of Eisenman's Checkpoint Charlie housing for the IBA in Berlin.
Johnson told me that the original idea was much more daring. "I started by taking the diagonal diagram of Rodchenkov. He did a drawing once of a building with a zigzag like that. When we got the job -I got the job- that's how we started out, but then it ended up being more of a classical scheme to fit what the client wanted across the Champs Elysées there. Is that going up now?"
The towers stand half-finished and abandoned (Johnson's reaction: "They must look better that way"); the builder, Prima Inmobilaria, is bankrupt, and its directors, the Spanish managers of the Kuwait Investment Office, are charged with defrauding the Kuwaiti government of thousands of millions of dollars.
John Burgee, the official architect of the buildings, is bankrupt too, in a bizarre drama which saw Johnson ousted from his own architecture firm. Johnson had brought Burgee in as a partner in 1967, to handle project management and the business side of the practice as Johnson launched himself into the commercial office projects of the 70s and 80s.
But in a tragic misjudgment, Burgee nurtured hopes of succeeding Johnson, hopes which were continually frustrated by Johnson's longevity, his unflagging popularity, and Burgee's inability to compete at the same breathtaking level (after all, Johnson made it look so
An absurd struggle took place over a number of years, with successive changes in the name of the firm that saw Johnson first paired with Burgee, then listed separately as a consultant ("My friends think I'm dead," he complained), and finally ousted entirely, in 1991. As clients abandoned Burgee and the recession paralyzed new building, another ousted partner, Raj Ahuja, successfully sued Burgee for his share of the firm's enormous profits from the 80s, with an award of 13.7 million dollars that threw Burgee into personal and corporate bankruptcy.
Johnson emerged from the disaster apparently unscathed, and now, at the age of 86, he is starting over in a new office that simply says "Philip Johnson Architect" on the door. Gone is the top-floor suite in the Seagram Building, the staff of 70, the backlog of huge corporate commissions.
Johnson showed me a portfolio of six current projects: a house addition, some small college buildings, and two small pavilions for the lawns of his Glass House Estate in Connecticut (which he has left to the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a future museum), all DeConstructive works with obvious borrowings from his friends and colleagues.
As we looked over his design for the Law School of the University of Houston, based on a sketch by Malevitch and Daniel Libeskind's project from the DeConstructivism show, Johnson muttered under his breath, "Damn, I wish I had the time to do these things again!" Now, more than ever, Johnson is a man in a hurry.