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Essay: Philip C. Johnson

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  • Subject area(s): Architecture essays
  • Reading time: 7 minutes
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  • Published: September 24, 2021*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 1,951 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 8 (approx)
  • Philip C. Johnson
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During the 1900’s art was conforming to the chaotic world surrounding it, the financial, social, and political issues effect everyday life, but some people do not realize how art is constantly a response to these factors. The world of architecture was following in a loose context compared to the otherwise issues such as war and depression, but none the less on the same direct path to what was called modern art. During the 1900’s an era of design had been sparked by multiple names, one being Phillip Johnson, who joined the modern movement following his education at the perfect time. There was great prosperity of architectural design ideas as a whole, all being sourced from the events of the social and political world where technology had been accelerating along with the idea of a more efficient work force and production of goods. All of these factors were forcing design to lean towards a new technology of its own, such as steel structure in high rise buildings.

The reason Johnson entered Architecture at such a perfect time period is that the change had been in effect for some time so that when he arrived at his education it was based on these early pre-modern ideas, then by the time he was ready to practice and apply them, modernism had already been debuted to Europe. Now it was his job as a designer to introduce America to these themes at play in the art in Europe. Though Johnson was in America at the time, he was able to see how it was accomplished by those before him, leaving his work in the states to simply be put in the right spotlight. With the help of the Museum of Modern Art and the ability he had as Director of the Architecture department to expose material, modern architectural design swept across the United States.

“Mr. Johnson was justly celebrated for championing the two architectural movements that most profoundly affected urban landscapes during the second half of the 20th century: The International Style; and the reintroduction of the uses of a wide variety of historic styles in contemporary architectural design. Philip Johnson won the first Pritzker Architecture Prize for lifetime achievement and received the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects, the highest honor of his profession.”

Among his other awards, his most famous building has received the 25 year award from AIA, to celebrate the structure standing for now 25 years and remaining at the top of its class the entire time. While Johnson created some of the most famous buildings in modern architectural history, but what will be addressed about Johnson is what influenced him, whether it was a person or event in his life, to make him the architect who won the first Pritzker Prize ever awarded in 1979. Among these influences are his time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, travels with colleagues, and specific artists who helped him jumpstart his career.

After graduating from Harvard with his bachelor’s degree in History and Philosophy, Johnson travelled Europe, not particularly in search of anything but rather he was there to absorb the art. Europe is always on a different level as far as art goes, compared to America. It was in Europe that his interest in architectural design began to grow.

“After meeting historian of architecture Henry-Russell Hitchcock (1903–1987), who was teaching at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, Johnson toured Europe with Hitchcock in 1930. That trip led to the publication of The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (1932) and a related show at MoMA (1932).”

Historically, there has been an east to west kind of sweeping effect in which a lot of the ideas and styles which changed art over the multiple eras, originated in Europe to begin with. It was a series of travelling to different places which pushed Johnson towards architecture. Though it took him some time and he took a detour to live in the war as much as he could through journalism and research, Johnson knew architecture was where he was meant to be, quickly returning to school and producing the American architecture icons that we see today, at nearly 40 years of age.

By 1932, Johnson alongside his co-workers Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City installed the first modern architecture exhibit.

“The three men, deeply preoccupied with style, were steadfast in their belief that the time was ripe for a universal, modern, architectural style.”

The museum had only started 12 years prior to Johnson’s joining to the team, making his influence very important to the architectural department. Johnson worked tirelessly to start the department off on a good note.

“On their journeys through Europe in 1930 and 1931 Hitchcock and Johnson searched, according to the aesthetic preferences shown in Modern Architecture, Romanticism and Reintegration, for the ideal models to display in the Museum of Modern Art in 1932.”

Johnson was still attending Harvard for his first degree when he began working for Barr to build the architecture department. This experience seems to be the most impactful, perhaps for the reason that it lasted most of his life and was a consistent stream of information. Due to being ran very efficiently and by artists themselves, the museum grew so quick that they had to change locations multiple times to accommodate their collections.

“Alfred Barr was determined to broaden the scope of the museum beyond the conventional display of painting, drawing, and sculpture, and Johnson helped him to realize that goal. His wealth allowed him to indulge in architectural connoisseurship and, with Hitchcock’s support, to curate the first architectural exhibition in 1932 entitled Modern Architecture: International Exhibition.”

Included in this was artists like Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius, all famous in Europe for their contribution to the arts world and to the current growth of modern architecture. Mies van der Rohe’s design for Farnsworth House, a home that was exemplary to modern architecture. The Museum of Modern Art, specifically Barr as director “…was not, as is often claimed, the first to introduce European modernist architecture to America. Jane Heap, as editor of the Little Review, had published examples of avant-garde architecture during the 1920s. In 1927 she organized the ambitious Machine Age Exhibition in a large ware- house in New York.”

The types of modern art that Heap and Johnson brought to the public in America are very different, at the end of the day bringing Johnson’s work to be specific to the Museum of Modern Art and building as a whole. Though Johnson did not study architecture before joining the staff, but he did study history and philosophy at Harvard still giving him an advantage coming from such a prestigious school. His pull towards design was natural and only enhanced by his continued exposure to what the Museum of Modern Art was housing in the 1930’s, modern art. When beginning to build a collection for the first architecture departments exhibit, Johnson had the ties to some of the best designers in the world, making it easy to build an exhibit to provide America with the exposure to modernist art. Johnson’s time at the Museum of Modern Art over the years was very successful in bringing new styles and tastes consistently to the art world here in America. The role the Museum of Modern Art played in his own life can be seen in each of his buildings, a small glimpse of the museum influence is what allows a building of his to truly have his mark. Whether that glimpse is a style of design, a collection or exhibit, Johnson grew the architecture department just as he grew himself as an architect, making the Museum of Modern Art a vital part of him as an artist.

“There can be little doubt that by appointing Alfred Barr as director, and Philip Johnson as the head of the Architecture Department, the Museum of Modern Art played a central role in the definition of modern architecture. The torch lit by Hitchcock, and carried by Barr and Johnson, was handed to Gropius and Mies to light the way of architecture in America.”

Johnson proved to make the architecture department of the museum just as successful if not more than he was becoming, with the influence on his own work.

“…while the Museum of Modem Art held several architectural exhibitions in the 1930’s that explored a more varied spectrum of ideas, the far-reaching effect of the 1932 exhibition and its associated publications is undeniable.”

Between the time of Johnson being a Director of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art and his graduation from Harvard College of Design in 1943, Johnson travelled Europe for the second time but now as a journalist and even fought in World War II. “He had studied classics and philosophy, but once introduced to modern architecture by Hitchcock and Barr he found his direction in life.” The time he took off from practicing the arts as a whole explains how long it took some architects to not only find the time for architecture away from everyday life, but also create a design which was successfully recognized by society. When “…Johnson left MoMA in 1934 and dabbled in left-wing politics, a period in which Johnson came to feel, “I’d wasted my life.” Johnson decided to return to Harvard to study to become an architect.” Once he was in school at Harvard for architecture, he had designed a home which he had planned to be his own, a simple residence. What the architect didn’t know is that this would be one of his most famous buildings for the entirety of his career. Upon returning from his break travelling Europe, Johnson became the Director of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art once more and designed this infamous residence he stayed in up until his death in 2005; “Glass House.”

It can easily be said that Johnson lived and worked among the most famous obdurate modern pioneers and architects from across the world, such as Mies van der Rohe. It takes many factors to make a designer great, and while Johnson had a lot of education and exposure to the world, Mies is one that can say he helped Johnson to become the most well-known American modern architect. Johnson had no problem with his designs catching on to the public eye, beginning with his first which was his own home. Located in Connecticut is Johnson’s Glass House, a small modern home whose inspiration was found from the Mies van der Rohe’s model of Farnsworth house which was held in an exhibit that was prior to the thought of Glass House. Though people like to say that the homes are too similar, and that Johnson copied Mies, that is actually not what happened, there was simply inspiration taken. On the other hand, the design was quite different, “The Glass House and the Farnsworth House are diametrically opposite as spatial conceptions, and they represent completely differing ideas about their relationship to the landscape. That Johnson was aware of the elemental nature of his design is suggested by his early plans for the Glass House and its relationship to the guest-house on the property.” Mies van der Rohe is actually very important to mention when talking about Philip Johnson as a designer. The two were great friends who often pulled ideas from each other or bounced them back and forth to improve upon what they aim for.


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