Remembering Philip Johnson, the architect who pioneered modernism in America

The first Pritzker Laureate, historian and critic who laid the foundation of modern architecture in America and built many beloved buildings against its skyline.

by Zohra Khan Published on : Jan 25, 2020

Philip Johnson (July 8, 1906 – January 25, 2005), the American architect who received the first Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1979, was one of the key figures who defined what we know as modern architecture today. An extraordinary repertoire comprising museums, theatres, libraries, houses, gardens and corporate structures were cited by the then Pritzker jury as a ‘combination of the qualities of talent, vision and commitment that has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the environment’.

Before designing his first building at the age of 36, Johnson had been a client, critic, author, historian and museum director, but not an architect.

15 years since the loss this great visionary, STIR remembers his life and his most significant contributions to the world of architecture.

A portrait of Philip Johnson | Philip Johnson | STIRworld
A portrait of Philip Johnson Image Credit: Carl Van Vechten, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Cleveland native and Harvard graduate became MOMA’s (Museum of Modern Art) first director of the architecture department in 1930, where he laid the canon of modernism. In 1932, he curated Modern Architecture: International Exhibition with architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock and introduced people to an emerging architectural style that was characterised by simplified geometry and minimalism. The ‘International Style’, as it was popularly known, was described by Johnson as ‘probably the first fundamentally original and widely distributed style since the Gothic.’

All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space. – Philip Johnson
  • The Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, was built by Philip Johnson in 1949 as his own residence | Philip Johnson | STIRworld
    The Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, was built by Philip Johnson in 1949 as his own residence Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • A glimpse of the interiors of the Glass House | Philip Johnson | STIRworld
    A glimpse of the interiors of the Glass House Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • Seagram Building in New York City designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson | Philip Johnson | STIRworld
    Seagram Building in New York City designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A significant event in Johnson’s life that inspired his journey in architecture and gave form to many landmark buildings, including the glassy skyscraper of the Seagram Building in New York, was his meeting with architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Over the years, Johnson found a friend and a mentor in Mies. His design of the Glass House (1949) in New Cannan, Connecticut, surrounding green hills and maple woods, draws similarities with Mies’ Farnsworth House from Plano, Illinois. The project, though referred as a house, is best understood as a pavilion for viewing the surrounding landscape. It was in this house that Johnson spent most of his life.

  • Monastery building at St. Anselm's Abbey in Washington DC (1960) | Philip Johnson | STIRworld
    Monastery building at St. Anselm's Abbey in Washington DC (1960) Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • The Kunsthalle Bielefeld art museum in Bielefeld, Germany (1968) | Philip Johnson | STIRworld
    The Kunsthalle Bielefeld art museum in Bielefeld, Germany (1968) Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • Main entrance of the 550 Madison Avenue (formerly AT&T building and Sony Building) in Manhattan, New York (1984)  | Philip Johnson | STIRworld
    Main entrance of the 550 Madison Avenue (formerly AT&T building and Sony Building) in Manhattan, New York (1984) Image Credit: Matthew G. Bisanz, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • The Williams Tower in Houston, Texas (1983)  | Philip Johnson | STIRworld
    The Williams Tower in Houston, Texas (1983) Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Through an eclectic career, Johnson did not have one recognisable style. His approach to architecture, which has often been deemed as an ‘anomaly’, was about appreciation and ability to design, in diverse aesthetics. His projects range from early modern buildings to later post-modern structures such as the Monastery building at  St. Anselm's Abbey  in Washington DC (1960), The Kunsthalle Bielefeld art museum in Bielefeld, Germany (1968), The  Williams Tower  in Houston, Texas (1983), and 550 Madison Avenue (formerly AT&T building and Sony Building) in Manhattan, New York (1984).

Johnson with plans for his Boston Central Library addition | Philip Johnson | STIRworld
Johnson with plans for his Boston Central Library addition Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Johnson, who lived till the age of 98, was cited by architectural critic Paul Goldberg in an obituary in The New York Times (2005) as a ‘combination godfather, gadfly, scholar, patron, critic, curator, and cheerleader.’ As the original starchitect of America, who gave the country many beloved buildings that still shine in their glassy glory, his life continues to inspire with a message of deep commitment and legacy - one that not only existed till he was alive, but which is continuing and everlasting.

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