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America’s Dean of Architects

Times Staff Writer

Philip Johnson, who reigned for much of the 20th century as architecture’s leading taste maker and designed some of America’s most recognizable buildings, including the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, has died. He was 98.

Johnson died Tuesday night at the Glass House, his masterpiece of unadulterated International Style Modernism in New Canaan, Conn., said Terence Riley, chief curator for architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The cause of death was not announced.

With his trademark oversize black-frame glasses, crisp dark suits and ready store of witty, trenchant commentary, Johnson was not only the long-standing dean of American architects, but someone who enjoyed broad celebrity beyond the profession.

Known more for his remarkable ability to anticipate trends and paradigm shifts rather than for the consistency of his work, Johnson played a significant role in nearly every major architectural movement of the last century.

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He did so not just as an architect but as a tireless advocate of architecture as art. Among his best known works are the quintessentially cosmopolitan Four Seasons restaurant inside architect Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York and a group of skyscrapers for corporate clients, including the 1984 AT&T; Building in Manhattan, topped with a pediment designed to resemble the top of a Chippendale chest of drawers. That building remains one of the most recognizable of postmodernist skyscrapers.

After helping to usher in the age of architectural celebrity and fashion, he was only too happy to sit atop the ladder of fame, reaching down to help up those architects he deemed most worthy, including figures with styles as different as those of Robert A.M. Stern, Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas.

“In his life, he popularized architecture,” Gehry said Wednesday. “He made [the cover of] Time magazine with the AT&T; Building. He loved architecture and he promoted a number of people. He mentored people way beyond what anybody else did.”

Johnson, who was the first winner of the Pritzker Prize, an award established in 1979 to honor an architect of international stature, rose to prominence in the early 1930s as the first director of MoMA’s architecture department. In that post, he actively championed the International Style Modernism that was emerging in Europe, familiarizing Americans with its clean lines and expanses of glass and bringing it into the American mainstream.

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Alfred Barr Jr., the museum’s founding director, gave him the job despite his young age and lack of architectural or curatorial experience. Johnson’s relationship with the museum remained strong for the next 75 years.

A foray into fascist politics in the latter part of the 1930s, for which he expressed deep regret later in his life, took him away from architecture for a time. But he lost that political fervor and enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1941. After earning his degree, he went to work with Van der Rohe, putting the lessons of that apprenticeship to quick work in his Glass House.

Johnson, who described himself as an architectural chameleon, broke sharply with the International Style in the 1970s. He soon became an early and enthusiastic champion of postmodernist architecture, which brought historical ornament and a freewheeling sense of energy and experimentation back to the field.

He shifted gears just as easily once again in the 1980s. And as late as 1988, at the age of 81, he helped curate another landmark MoMA show, this one on the tension and the fragmented, shard-like forms of the style he and co-organizer Mark Wigley dubbed Deconstructivism.

Known for supreme charisma, Johnson enjoyed steady work with each of several partners, as well as on his own.

Yet what set him apart, far more than the quality of his buildings, which ranged wildly from sublime -- his Glass House -- to rather shallow -- the so-called Lipstick Building, a pink-tinged skyscraper in New York -- was his enduring passion for architecture and restless, probing curiosity. Those qualities never flagged even in his 10th decade.

Speaking with the Los Angeles Times in 1998, at age 92, Johnson was asked what he thought of the eclecticism of 1990s architecture.

“I think you just have to say it is a wonderful, total, absolute chaos,” he replied enthusiastically. “I feel freer now to wander among the shapes available than at any other time. So I’m having a delightful time.”

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Philip Cortelyou Johnson was born July 8, 1906, in Cleveland. His parents -- Homer, a prominent lawyer, and Louise -- were wealthy.

“I started my architectural career when I was 13,” he told National Public Radio in 1996. On a trip to Europe after World War I, he recalled, his mother took him to see the cathedral at Chartres. “I broke into tears, because that is one of the greatest buildings of all time, that stained glass and whole shape of the apse. So I became converted to architecture.”

It was an experience that would repeat itself at least twice: Johnson reported crying at the sight of the Parthenon in Athens on another trip to Europe nearly a decade later, and again, decades after that, paying his first visit to Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Indeed, though during his early conversations with the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, for whose congregation Johnson designed the Crystal Cathedral, he suggested that he was, according to Schuller, neither religious nor emotional, Johnson became overwhelmed with feeling on the morning the building opened.

Johnson told him: “We believe that this is what we are on Earth for, to create shapes and space like this. We have a saying in architectural circles that you’ll find all over Europe, often engraved over the entrances of many a church: Deo omni potenti maximo -- this building was built for the greater glory of God,” Schuller recalled Wednesday.

It was telling that Johnson -- a self-proclaimed atheist -- and evangelist Schuller would find that sort of common ground.

Indeed, clients’ sensitivities were never far from Johnson’s mind. In 1977, he asked the New Yorker to leave mention of his homosexuality out of a profile the magazine was preparing, for fear of losing the commission for the AT&T; Building. That anecdote suggests Johnson’s talent for winning and keeping jobs.

“He was an operator, no doubt about that, but a very, very able one,” said Franz Schulze, who wrote the most prominent biography of the architect, “Philip Johnson: Life and Work.”

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Johnson enrolled as an undergraduate at Harvard in 1924 but, waylaid by bouts of severe depression as well as his travels, took until 1930 to earn a degree in philosophy. He toured Europe in 1930, seeking out the work of modernist pioneers J.J.P. Oud, Le Corbusier and others.

Barr hired Johnson as the first director of MoMA’s architecture and design department. Stock that Johnson’s father had given him when he went off to Harvard had risen dramatically by that point, and his new wealth allowed him not only to work without a salary, but also to pay his secretary himself and make a substantial donation to the museum.

But Johnson quickly proved to be far more than a dilettante. In 1931, he organized a small show, held at a storefront in midtown Manhattan, called “Rejected Architects,” the title referring to a dozen practitioners of the Modernist style whose work had been left out of the Architectural League’s most recent annual exhibition on contemporary buildings. The show helped Johnson lay the theoretical groundwork for what would become the defining moment of his curatorial career, and indeed of an architectural era, a year later.

Johnson, Barr and historian Henry Russell Hitchcock, with some assistance from the critic Lewis Mumford, mounted an exhibition called “Modern Architecture -- International Exhibition,” which ran at the Modern for just six weeks but was instrumental in pushing the style into the American mainstream.

The exhibition was accompanied by a catalog, credited to Johnson and Hitchcock, called “The International Style,” which remains the standard English-language text on the origins of architectural Modernism. In 1934, Johnson furthered his reputation as one of design’s sharpest young minds with the exhibition “Machine Art,” which consisted mostly of industrial objects whose presence in a museum gallery was meant as a provocation and a statement about the rise of mass production.

Traveling to Germany in the early 1930s, Johnson found himself enthralled by the rise of the Nazi Party, by its discipline and order. Convinced his future lay in politics, the restless Johnson resigned his post at MoMA in 1934.

He moved first to Louisiana to attach himself to the demagogic Gov. Huey Long and then, after Long was killed, back to the Midwest, where he first ran unsuccessfully for the Ohio Legislature and then became a follower of Father Charles Coughlin, a right-wing radio commentator. According to Schulze, one of Johnson’s tasks for Coughlin was to design a huge Modern-style podium for a 1936 Chicago rally.

“It was modeled after the one he had seen used so effectively at the 1932 Nazi rally,” Schulze wrote in his biography.

Summing up that period, Schulze concluded, “One of the salient facts of his life in the 1930s is the stunning dissimilarity between the success of his endeavors at the Museum of Modern Art and the virtually total failure and frustration of everything he undertook immediately thereafter.”

In a phone interview Wednesday, Schulze added: “As I was researching the book, Johnson was very candid with me about that period. It was clear he deeply regretted it. But he was very deeply involved.”

“I was a damned fool,” Johnson said decades later in an interview with Esquire, “but the next few years were the worst of my life.”

He sought refuge, as he would all his life, in architecture, returning to Harvard to the Graduate School of Design. He was an unusual figure there, in his mid-30s and known both for his work at MoMA and his political leanings. He was prominent enough to enjoy a rivalry of sorts with Walter Gropius, who had fled Germany and taken the deanship at the school.

Though he remained a committed Modernist in the first decades of his practice, critics even then were suggesting that he was better at refining and distilling architectural ideas than at creating them from scratch. All of his work, even the best, is marked by an epigrammatic quality, as it represents rather than embodies its architectural moment.

Even Johnson himself, ever ready with an insightful bit of self-deprecation, admitted that his real talent lay in his ability to use a building to represent a particular moment in the development of architecture. “I claim that this is where architecture starts, with the concept,” he wrote in 1954.

Architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote of him around that time, “Johnson at his best is admirably lucid, unsentimental and abstract, with the most ruthlessly aristocratic, highly studied taste of anyone practicing in America today.”

The Deconstructivism exhibition Johnson curated with Wigley helped raise Gehry’s profile and introduced many Americans to the work of Koolhaas and others for the first time.

Wigley still marvels at the ease with which Johnson was able not only to recognize the importance of these architects but also, as he had always done, distill their work to an essence that the average museum-goer could understand.

“No one was able to reduce a complex analysis of a work of architecture to a single sentence the way he could with such ease,” Wigley, now dean of the Architecture School at Columbia University, said Wednesday. But the talent Wigley saw was more than just a knack for explaining architectural breakthroughs in layman’s terms. “For me it involved a capacity to see exactly what was at stake and put his finger on it.”

And perhaps that capacity means that no one has ever been better qualified to assess Johnson’s place in history than the architect himself.

“I think the Glass House will endure,” he told Esquire, deftly writing his own epitaph, “but it may be that I will be best remembered as a gadfly, an encourager of younger architects and as an arbiter elegantiarum -- the man who introduced the glass box and then, 50 years later, broke it.”

Johnson is survived by David Whitney, his companion since the 1960s, and a sister, Jeannette Dempsey of Cleveland.

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The house that Johnson built

A selection of buildings designed by Philip Johnson, some in collaboration with John Burgee or others:

California

* Garden Grove Community Church, known as the Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, 1980

Connecticut

* The Glass House, New Canaan, 1949. Sculpture gallery added in 1970.

* Robert Wiley House, New Canaan, 1953

* Eric Boissonnas House, New Canaan, 1956

* Kline Biology Tower, Yale University, New Haven, 1965

Georgia

* IBM Building, Atlanta, 1988

Indiana

* The Roofless Church, New Harmony, 1960

* Century Center, South Bend, 1977

Minnesota

* IDS Center, Minneapolis, 1973

New York

* West Wing, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1951

* Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1953

* Robert Leonhardt House, Lloyds Neck, Long Island, 1956

* Asia House, New York, 1959

* Museum, Munson-Williams-

Proctor Institute, Utica, 1960

* New York State Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York, 1964

* Niagara Falls Convention Center, Niagara Falls, 1974

* Sony Building, formerly the AT&T; Building, New York, 1983

* Museum of Television and Radio, New York, 1991

Ohio

* Geier House, Indian Hills, 1965

* Cleveland Playhouse, Cleveland, 1983

Pennsylvania

* PPG Place, Pittsburgh, 1983

Texas

* Auditorium and classroom buildings, University of St. Thomas, Houston, 1957

* Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, Fort Worth, 1961 (and 2001 addition)

* Fort Worth Water Garden, Fort Worth, 1975

* Pennzoil Place, Houston, 1976

* Transco Tower, Houston, 1983

* Bank of America, formerly RepublicBank Center, Houston, 1984

Washington, D.C.

* Museum for Pre-Columbian Art, Dumbarton Oaks, 1963

Source: Associated Press

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Times staff writers Suzanne Muchnic and Scott Timberg contributed to this report.


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