Philip Johnson: Architecture's Icon

With Philip Johnson, architecture's ingenuous icon, as the featured guest speaker, the annual Dean's Council dinner of the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning held last Sunday on the Westwood campus was a sellout.

Nearing 80 years of age, the elegant, winsome Johnson has become the profession's leading superstar, gathering in coveted commissions and, in partnership with John Burgee, turning out, not surprisingly, elegant, winsome structures.

These include the Chippendale-topped AT&T; headquarters in New York City, a Dutch-gabled skyscraper in Houston, a mirrored, Gothic-style tower in Pittsburgh, a soaring, skewed office silo in San Francisco and the glass, abstract Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, among many. He also is designing one of the buildings in the Library Square complex in downtown Los Angeles that is being pieced together by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.

Johnson's latest California creation to be completed is a relatively modest, 23-story, granite-clad tower in San Francisco, topped with a distinctively-sloped French mansard roof adorned with faceless classical statues (see photograph above). It is the statues that lend the office building a personality, if not a touch of class. It is certainly not the building's awkward entrance and heavy columns.

Although a few of the structures may not work as well as they should for the users, and some are out of scale and context, pieces of sculpture more than architecture--and not very neighborly--they have garnered for Johnson the envy of his peers and just about every professional honor.

Johnson has come a long way since, as a young dilettante 50 years ago, working for New York City's Museum of Modern Art's newly-formed architecture department, he advocated the severe international style of glass and steel box-topped structures and, more controversially, flirted with fascism. He rejected fascism at the outset of World War II and the international style about 25 years later.

Aiding his rise in the very competitive world of architecture was Johnson's access to corporate board rooms. In this respect, he is a throwback to the not very distant days when architecture was considered a gentleman's profession, with success more dependent on social graces and connections than on design skills.

The access was eased by the fact that Johnson has been one of the most verbal, if not articulate, practitioners, and obviously enamored of architecture. At various times he has called the profession "the most delightful of all pursuits," containing "a host of delicious occupations," producing the "most enduring of all the arts." It is such comments that clients and fellow architects love to hear.

As those who attended last week's dinner witnessed, Johnson also is a marvelous politician, well versed in local history and design personalities, very aware of who is in the audience he addresses, self-effacing and quick to praise.

Massaging the UCLA crowd, Johnson did not talk about his own work, as most architects would have been tempted to do. Instead, he declared Los Angeles to be "by far the most interesting city in the United States," with a rich architectural past, an exciting present and a promising future, aided by a benign climate.

Johnson rhapsodized over the designs of Bertram Goodhue (the Los Angeles Central Library), Frank Lloyd Wright (the Ennis House), and Charles and Henry Greene (the Gamble House), among others, lingering on a description of the Ennis House that, while not particularly accurate, was indeed evocative.

He also noted the contributions of Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler and Cliff May, and tipped his hat to Dione Neutra, Ray Eames, Mimi Perloff and Frank Gehry who were in the audience.

As for Gehry, he called him his current favorite architect in Los Angeles, in particular praising Gehry's remodeling of his Santa Monica residence, completed seven years ago, but still a subject of curiosity and controversy.

Johnson also praised the works of Charles Moore, and urged Beverly Hills to construct the City Hall addition as Moore and others have designed it, and not cut back on it because of expected cost overruns, as has been hinted.

Though one can be appalled at Johnson's flirtation with fascism, even though he rejected it, take exception to various of his designs for over-emphasizing frivolous detail and ignoring larger issues of scale and context, or simply how a building meets the ground, there is no denying his enthusiasm for architecture. It is infectious.

He is a great salesman for design consciousness, which is very welcome in this self-serving Philistine age when many architects seem to care more about how a building photographs than how it works. You can even begin to forgive Johnson for his errors in judgment (but not forget them) and sit back and enjoy the rambling reminiscences.

For me, it was a nice way to come back to this column after a paternity leave to welcome my newborn son.

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