Oh Heavens

article by Wouter Vanstiphout
Philip Johnson and the Dawning of the New
1 January 1996

Berlin 1996: Asked to build a huge edifice on Friedrichstrasse, the ninety year old architect Philip Johnson found himself restricted by the preconditions of the urban plan by which the city wanted to recreate the 18th-century urban tissue that had been destroyed during the war. Johnson designed a contextualist monstrosity but at the same time he designed a fantasy version, a building for an imaginary Berlin, in which each architect is free and nobody talks about the 18th-century urban grid 'Which was boring anyway'. During lectures he would show it saying: 'in the meantime I would have liked to build this'. The design is absolutely fairytale-like, like a cross between earlyWalt Disney and late Frank Stella. Only the tiny figure standing next to the model says anything about its scale, or does it? The building might as well be ten feet tall or three hundred; it doesn't matter. Johnson explains it as referring to Finsterlin. By being free, the design is cheerful; it profits maximally from the emptiness it stands in by being as beautiful as it possibly can. The attitude that has produced this design presents to us a possibility to defuse the urbanist debate going on in Berlin at this moment, between one group (the one in power) that wants Berlin to look as if there has never been a war, and another (the one not in power) that wants it to look as if the war is still raging. Johnson has made the first major design for Berlin since Mies's Nationalgalerie that does not insult the Berliners by rubbing something in they know already. In other words Johnson has made the first life-enhancing design for Berlin in thirty years.

In 1932 Philip Johnson (Cleveland Ohio, 1906) had his green-leather-upholstered sports car hoisted on an ocean liner to Europe to go and see modern architecture in Rotterdam, Paris and Berlin.1 With a particular cheerfulness he travelled through the abendland, let Mies van der Rohe and J.J.P. Oud design apartments and houses for himself and his family, stayed ostentatiously unconcerned about all the social discourse but lifted modernism out of history and showed it to the world as a full-grown architectural style. Philip Johnson is a historian, but one of the perverse school. His cardinal work in architectural history is the Glass House of 1949. Mies van der Rohe entered the house once; but after the famous liquor-clogged evening he left, swearing he would never return. In hindsight it is understandable; about the same time Mies was working on the Farnsworth House. In this project the Glass House concept is placed explicitly in the advancing historical development of modern architecture. The house is programmatic; it hovers above the ground; the supports are placed outside the glass walls, the interior is defined by partitions in the open floorspace and the fire place is abstracted to the level of invisibility. The design is to be understood as the final consequence of a research into clarification and dematerialization and is therefore a radical design. It has a lot to do with Mies' incantation 'with infinite slowness arises the great form'. Compared to the Farnsworth House Johnson's Glass House is ambiguous and therefore radical; it is made entirely of glass but is set firmly on the ground. It is immaterial but has as a core a brick cylinder that at the same time contains the bathroom and serves as a fireplace. The supports are not divorced from the wall but are integrated in it. The furniture comes from Mies's Barcelona pavilion but the oil painting is by Poussin. In the Glass House Johnson stripped Mies's architecture of its Hegelian and Platonic indisputability and gave it a Nietzchean hybridity.
The second stage in a carefully designed process of perversion consists of Johnson's explanatory notes in The Architectural Review of 1950. The Glass House is not explained by an essay but by a legend to the historical references by use of which the architect made the design: Corbu, Mies, Van Doesburg, the Acropolis par Auguste Choisy, Schinkel, Ledoux and Malevich. Underneath Le Corbusier's plan of 1933 for a farmer's village Johnson notes: 'The footpath pattern I copied from the spider-web-like forms of Le Corbusier, who delicately runs his communications without regard for the axis of his buildings or seemingly for any kind of pattern'.2 Underneath a picture of Schinkel's casino in Glienicke Park he tells us: 'The site relation of my house is pure Neo-Classic Romantic - more specifically, Schinkelesque. Like his Casino, my house is approached on dead-level and, like his, faces its principal (rear) facade toward a sharp bluff.' And under Malevich's Black Circle of 1913: 'Although I had forgotten the Malevich picture, it is obviously the inspiration for the plan of the Glass House. Malevich proved what interesting surrounding areas could be created by correctly placing a circle in a rectangle'.

It turns out Johnson also manipulated an apocryphal genealogy of the Glass House and to this day keeps doing so. It consists mainly of non-architectural references.3 The house is compared to a dislodged glass elevator: 'then the snow comes down at night and the building floats. If the snow comes down at an angle, then it's as if you're in an elevator going up that way'. It is linked to the pioneer-feeling or just to the family camping trip by describing it in terms of coming together around the fireplace: 'When it is cold outside, I have to move closer to the fire.' (In fact the entire house has floor-heating.) Also sex has its place in the genealogy; the total transparency has been interpreted as referring to exhibitionism and to the secret desire of being caught red-handed while masturbating. According to Johnson the relation exists but is less straightforward: 'Much more important than exhibitionism is the interface of architecture and the desire for all kinds of sexual experiments. Whether you want to close yourself in is Freudian in one way, but exposing yourself is Freudian in another way'. The most famous reference is the one of the burned out village in Poland with the charred hearths as the only reminders of the wooden dwellings, supplying Johnson, travelling through Europe immediately after the war, with the image of a transparent house with a brick core. Now he has this to say about it: 'Yes, I regret having said that. Because the burned-out village was in the Second World War, and I was on the wrong side. So we don't talk about that anymore. My enemies do. Of course. That's a part of my life I'd rather forget. But it was a horrifying sight. And yet, it's so symbolic, that you've got the hearth, the one thing that was left. And it was so beautiful. That's a horrible thing to say, but ruins are beautiful. You can't help it. Fascination with ruins, it's endless.'
It takes your breath away, the way Johnson volunteers to bring into the conversation the most unspeakable part of his life and proceeds to load the Glass House with even more meaning and drama. Until the beginning of the war Johnson was an active sympathizer of the Nazi regime and wrote agitated articles for American magazines about the possibilities for monumental architecture now that a regime had risen to power committed to leaving physical traces of its greatness. After the critics had been hesitating for years in front of an empty goal, Charles Jencks finally kicked the ball in by pointing out at the beginning of the 1970s the similarities between Nazi architecture and Johnson's monumental Neo-classicism of Lincoln Center. Thanks to Franz Schulze's recent biography we now know that the architectural dreams accompanying Johnson's infatuation with Hitler were Miesian more than Neo-classical. We already knew about Mies's, Corbu's and Gropius's intense flirtations with the Nazis, and we have long ago reached the conclusion that there is no unambiguous contract between totalitarian regimes and classical architecture. In other words Jencks's goal has to be disallowed. But at the same time Schulze, having had the opportunity to browse through the giant FBI file on Johnson and to talk extensively and intimately to Uncle Philip, has put to us again, and with even more ugly details than before, Johnson's past on the wrong side. This time Johnson himself takes the initiative in the unavoidable process of hinein-interpretierung, he connects his shame to a personalized image of destroyed homeliness and in this way saves his oeuvre from a rigged conviction of political abjectness. With an impressive agility he succeeds in securing the innocence of the art of architecture and implies the following statement: an architect can be guilty, a building can not. Jencks wrote something else in 1971 :'This honest a-morality is exactly what gives Philip Johnson his integrity.'4 Philip Johnson has become famous with an eloquent a-morality on the subject of the architect's social position: 'I am a whore and I am very well paid for building high-rise buildings'. In this famous acerbicism we should not see the core of his work but the defence mechanism with which he keeps architecture free from all kinds of excuses, disclaimers, frustrations and false promises. To paraphrase Jencks: this honest a-morality is exactly what Johnson uses to save architecture's integrity.

Johnson sees architecture as art and takes his art extremely seriously. What distinguishes Johnson from his examples in philosophy (Nietzsche) and architecture (Mies, Corbu, Van Doesburg, Schinkel and others) is his feeling for liteness, the attitude that says that the quality of a work is not entirely dependent on the existential world-weariness with which it is carried out. In that respect Johnson is more related to Oscar Wilde who said: 'Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy....or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed.'5
Johnson has always been able to find the 'congenial and sympathetic surroundings' and has of course always copied the best models. One of the reasons we have to take his work so seriously is because he is one of the very few architects who have been able to do what they really wanted, and to such an extent. Take for instance Mildred Bliss, who in 1963 gave him the job of designing a museum for the collection of pre-Columbian art she and her husband had donated to Harvard twenty years earlier. Money was no problem to Mrs. Bliss, according to Johnson: 'Very few times you get a client with a perfect program and with all the money in the world'. Johnson says he was inspired by the madrasa of Sinan's Great Mosque in Istanbul. The result was a system of octagonal pavilions with spherical vaults, so closely surrounded by trees that it does not have an exterior. The building was - according to a critic who took the pains of calculating it - probably per square metre the most expensive ever built. The window frames are made of copper, the floors of teakwood and marble, the columns of travertine and the walls of rounded double glazing. The vaults make every whisper boom through the entire building as if transmitted by an intercom, but then Johnson finds that: 'You should look at the art, be quiet and listen to the fountain'. With its modular classicism the building makes you think of Aldo van Eyck's orphanage in Amsterdam; but instead of unfortunate children it is used by fortunate adults. The next maecenas was Nelson Rockefeller, billionaire, director of a museum and governor of the State of New York. He helped Johnson to the job of designing the urban plan for the Lincoln Center and to design the State Theater. The ceiling is covered with gold, the stairs look like travertine bavarois, the ceiling of the auditorium is an immense flower and the lighting attached to the lodges forms a giant diamond necklace. The lobby however is dominated by sumptuous wrought iron galleries derived from North American jails. This space is 'really great and wonderful' and proves that honest a-morality works. Johnson has not attempted to blur the jail-reference (as Herman Hertzberger would do); nor has he tried to dramatize it (as Jean Nouvel would do). The 'clearly stated need' - to use the dictum of Johnson's great friend and mentor Oud - of a theatre lobby is to permit seeing and being seen; the 'clearly stated solution' then is using a typology that has proven its worth in doing exactly this. Foucauldian and Tafurian analysis misfire on Johnson's purely architectural interpretation of panopticism: 'If you visit a good jail, it would look like this. They're usually much narrower, but the little cells are on the balconies. You can always watch where everybody is, you see. There are some charming interiors of jails'.

Helen Searing, in her article 'The Crimson Connection' has pointed out the seminal role Harvard University has played in dispersing modernism as an architectural style and not as an ideological movement.6 The three protagonists of the 'International Style' exhibition in the MOMA, Alfred Barr, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, had met earlier around the Harvard University magazine Hound & Horn. In it a fascination with modernism in literature, art and architecture was being displayed. Typical for the atmosphere in Harvard at the time was the fact that the fascination was primarily aesthetic. This is clearly shown by a letter Philip Johnson wrote to Oud in 1930: 'Naturally the critical analysis will be purely aesthetic, to the great disappointment of our German "sachlich" friends, who think of nothing but sociology.'7 The Crimson Connection continued further than described by Helen Searing. Johnson fixed it that an important European modernist architect would become president of the Harvard School of Design. He wanted Mies but had to suggest three names so as a formality he added those of Walter Gropius and Bob Oud. When Mies discovered his name was on one list with Gropius, he was so insulted to be even mentioned together with him that he refused to take the job. When Oud also refused, it had to be Gropius. The purely aesthetic reasons for importing modernism to the US had perversely resulted in the sociological side taking over architectural education in Harvard. The story gets even more complicated; when Johnson decided to study architecture, he did not go to the IIT in Chicago where Mies had finally got the job, but to Harvard. Johnson explains this strange choice by saying that Mies was much less of a teacher than an architect and that Harvard was his Alma Mater when he was a student the first time around and: 'Anything at Harvard would be a nice degree to have, and who had ever heard of IIT? Chicago did not amuse me. Boston was near enough to civilization'. It is plausible that Johnson went back to Harvard for the confrontation with his enemy Gropius. Johnson tells about the house - in fact a clever variation on Mies's unbuilt court-houses of the 1920s - he built as his thesis: 'I had a marvellous time once it was built, because I used it as propaganda against Gropius. Once when he came to visit the house, the first time and the only time really, he walked smack into the wall and hurt his nose. It was bleeding.' Ever since Johnson literally hit Gropius in the face with the glass wall of his first built design, Harvard has been the most important battlefield in the ongoing war between architecture and the sociological side.

The parable continues; the phenomenological Gropius-mysticism was finally eroded from within Harvard by one of its most famous alumni: Charles Jencks. Jencks who had not only studied architecture but also literature, has at his disposal weapons similar to Philip Johnson's: charm, style, erudition and eloquence and most importantly: the laudable quality of not being afraid of anything or anyone. Like Johnson, Jencks was born with a gift for exaggeration, and has always succeeded in finding or creating the congenial and sympathetic surroundings to develop them in. The reproaches to Jencks are similar to those made against Johnson; he is said to be a sell-out, to disperse his talent too thinly among too many purely money-driven books. He is accused of forcing everyone into self designed -isms and in that way behaving irresponsibly with the development of architecture. Kenneth Frampton, himself not a part of the Crimson Connection, but a staunch Marxist and a member of what Ed Taverne calls Giedion's gang, says of Jencks: 'As an ideologue he has been instrumental in driving up the forces of consumerism and marketing. His multiplication of -isms and their continuous classification strongly resemble market-reflexes.'8

The ideological subtext of Jencks' historiography and critique comes to the fore in the use of concepts like multivalence, pluralism and heterogeneity. By dismantling the linear historicism, or ahistoricism, by which the modern movement legitimizes itself, architecture becomes a common property, everyone becomes free to choose whatever they want and it will once again become possible to trust one's brain and eyes when looking at and using architecture. Johnson and Jencks belong to the same faction of the Crimson Connection because they both are famous, wealthy and anti-essentialist. They do not believe in a platonic truth, in an invisible in architecture, that defines its value. On top of that they clearly consider people to be intelligent beings who are capable of looking after themselves.

The oeuvre of Philip Johnson between 1932 and 2006 follows the premise that architecture is meaningful because it is there. This premise is somehow related to a letter Gerrit Rietveld ('another great friend and mentor') wrote in 1954 from the United States (he had been lodging at Johnson's house in Harvard) to Oud, in which he expresses his feeling that architecture only concerns itself with social issues and that they should do something about that, or else architecture just might disappear altogether. It also has to do with Rudolf Wittkower giving back the meaning of Renaissance architecture to what we can actually see: the proportional relations in the plan and the facades.9 Through Wittkower it also relates to his pupil Colin Rowe who used the same instruments to make Le Corbusier's designs understandable as architecture.10 The same Colin Rowe has with his last book The Architecture of Good Intentions written an essay on modern architecture on the basis of its deeply rooted desire of salvation from all evil. Rowe puts it to us that Modern architecture, by disposing of all cultural memory, wants to win back her nakedness and thus wants to gain entry to the earthly paradise. He himself underwrites this desire but suggests, since true nakedness is impossible to regain and the front door of paradise will probably stay shut forever, that we present ourselves at the backdoor, clad in the rags and tatters of our history. Rowe is sure that 'somehow, we and the world alike will be received into the all-consuming bliss of total redemption'.11
To our young ears Rowe's ante-apocalyptic humility sounds terribly old-world; with his belief in the all-consuming bliss of total redemption he does however touch a tender spot. Redemption and Bliss are once again important subjects in contemporary culture. In a recent column in The New York Times, the art critic Hal Foster attacks what he calls The Cult of Despair, the tendency to overly identify with the victim, because this attitude offers a small chance of redemption. Johnson's oeuvre has been teaching us for years that Redemption should no longer mean identifying with man’s suffering, but offering him something that is really new, showing him that not all is fixed in advance, that not all is the same, that not all is lost.

1. Annie Oud-Dinaux, letter to Ernst van der Hoeven, Wassenaar, March 13, 1990 (Rotterdam: Ernst van der Hoeven Archives). /
2. Philip Johnson, “House at New Canaan Connecticut”, Architectural Review, September 1950, pp. 152-159. /
3. Hilary Lewis and John O’Connor, Philip Johnson, The Architect in His Own Words, Rizzoli, New York 1994. All non annotated quotes in this article are taken from this book. /
4. Charles Jencks, Modern Movements in Architecture, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth Middlesex 1973, pp. 204-210. /
5. Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”, De Profundis and other Writings, edited by H. Pearson, Penguin Books, London 1986, p. 61. /
6. Helen Searing, “International Style: the Crimson Connection”, Progressive Architecture, no. 2, 1982, pp. 88-91. /
7. Searing /
8. Cees Boekraad and Hans van Dijk, “Autonomie en Autarkie: een vraaggesprek met Kenneth Frampton”, Archis, March 1988, no. 3, pp. 8-11. /
9. Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, Academy Editions, London 1973. /
10. Colin Rowe, “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa”, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays, The MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. 1976. /
11. Colin Rowe, The Architecture of Good Intentions: Towards a Possible Retrospect, Academy Editions, London 1994, p. 43. / [modula id="1988"]

article 'Oh Heavens, Philip Johnson and the Dawning of the New’, in: Wiederhall, no.19, 1996