On Philip Johnson’s 110th Birthday

By Special Contributor posted 07-08-2016 10:37


By Gwen North Reiss

July 8, 2016, is the 110th anniversary of Philip Johnson’s birth. His life—he died in 2005 at age 98—spanned almost a century.

Born in 1906 in Cleveland, Ohio, Johnson traveled east to attend the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York, and went on to study the Classics and philosophy at Harvard. His love of landscape and architecture started early with family trips to Europe, and after completing his undergraduate studies, he became the first curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)—then a new and somewhat rebellious institution. He was, in fact, the first curator of architecture anywhere, bringing it under the umbrella of art and into the museum world. He and colleague Henry-Russell Hitchcock curated the 1932 International Style Exhibition, which introduced the American art world to the Bauhaus architects.

 Credit: Magnum Photos

During his time as a curator, Johnson helped bring artist and teacher Josef Albers to the Black Mountain College, the art school in North Carolina whose students included artists Cy Twombly, John Chamberlain, and Robert Rauschenberg; poet Robert Creeley; and many other luminaries of the American avant-garde.

Rethinking his life’s work after a disastrous detour into politics, Johnson returned to Harvard in 1940, enrolling as a 30-something-year-old student (which was very unusual at the time) at the Graduate School of Design. His teachers there included Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. As Franz Schulz wrote in his 1994 biography, Johnson was excused from the required architectural history course because he had written one of the textbooks—The International Style, published as the catalog for the 1932 exhibition.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Breuer and Johnson, along with Landis Gores and John Johansen, would all follow Harvard colleague Eliot Noyes to New Canaan, Connecticut. Known as the “Harvard Five,” they—as well as architects like John Black Lee and Victor Christ-Janer—helped reshape the history of modern residential architecture in the United States.

While he practiced architecture (his skyscrapers are notable in numerous city skylines) and continued to work on his masterpiece, the Glass House property in New Canaan, Johnson never left MoMA. He curated a ground-breaking exhibit on Mies van der Rohe in 1947 and served as a board member and donor. He and his long-time partner David Whitney, a respected independent curator, donated more than 2,000 works to MoMA during their lifetimes.

They also hosted at the Glass House what Yale professor Vincent Scully has called “the longest-running salon in the history of the United States.” Architects and artists—including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Frank Lloyd Wright, Peter Eisenman, Robert A. M. Stern and many, many others—were frequent visitors. Johnson was a lightning rod in the architectural world, bringing artists and architects together to discuss their work and ideas. He was a preservationist too, joining forces with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the 1970s to help save Grand Central Station from Penn Station’s fate. In an interview conducted at the Glass House three years ago, his friend and colleague Peter Eisenman said that no one has replaced him—or could—in encouraging, inspiring, and bringing together architects .

Since the opening of the Glass House to the public in 2007, visitors have begun to appreciate that it is more than just the iconic pavilion. Of the 14 structures on the site, two are large galleries housing a significant permanent collection of art as well as seasonal exhibitions. But the landscape itself stuns—a 49-acre site where Johnson created Ohio meadows on Connecticut’s rocky slopes and wetlands. It is also where he preserved 200-year-old stone walls, mature trees, and vistas worthy of a 17th-century painting or an English country house estate. “Some people say I’m a better landscape architect than I am an architect,” he once said to his biographer, Hilary Lewis. “To me, it’s one art … I don’t find the line drawn anywhere.”

 Credit: Magnum Photos 

As he grew older, he spent more and more time at the Glass House, which in earlier years had been a weekend retreat. He walked the paths of his property every day into his 90s and, in the 1990s, designed a doghouse for the two Keeshond puppies he and Whitney adopted. He died in New Canaan in January 2005.

Every day at the Glass House, we walk by the row of young maple trees he planted along the gallery walkway late in his life. He knew the 200-year-old sugar maples wouldn’t last forever, and he planted a new row of them, which now have full crowns that turn orange, then gold, in the fall. The Baroque allée of maples, his white pines, the willows on the slopes, the hickory tree that breaks a high stone wall, and the white oaks that hover over the Glass House—these too are an architecture of sorts—one that he returned to, appreciated, and gave away to all of us.

Gwen North Reiss is a writer, poet, and arts communications consultant who works part-time as an educator at the Glass House. Read more about Philip Johnson's work on SavingPlaces.org.

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