Philip Johnson, the Morphing Modernist

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“Da Monsta”, completed 1995 — All Photos: Paul Warchol

I wrote a bit last Friday about Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., which has just opened to the public for the first time under the operation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. My visit there last week got me thinking about Johnson’s larger career, especially in connection with the several other structures on the Glass House site that were designed and built by him over the years. He called the whole site his “fifty year diary”, and each new addition was a reflection of whatever developments in Johnson’s thinking were pre-occupying him at the time.

That Johnson kept on thinking is interesting because it was Johnson who co-organized, with Henry Russell Hitchcock, The International Style, the crucial 1932 show that brought the work of European Modernists like Le Corbusier, J. J. P. Oud and his hero Mies van der Rohe to the U.S. With that show Johnson and Hitchcock narrowly codified Modernism in the functional, anti-decorative and ahistorical terms they drew out from Corbu and Mies. That show eventually helped to produce the decades-long postwar triumph of severely reductive glass box Modernism as the house style of American capitalism. But in some ways it succeeded all too well. It locked Modernism into an all too narrow definition that made the style’s exhaustion by the 1970s a foregone conclusion. It was a game that came with too few pieces. The succession of things Johnson built in New Canaan is the work of a man searching for a way to readmit into architecture all the things he had once worked to purge.

Entrance to Painting Gallery, completed in 1965

So there’s an underground gallery for paintings, completed in 1965, that you enter by way of a red sandstone entryway built into a mound. It’s a scheme that Johnson said was modeled after the dromos, or pathway, of a Mycenean tomb, the Treasury of Atreus from about 1250 B.C. It struck me that Johnson was also engaged here in something like the pursuit that Louis Kahn had been engrossed in since the 1950s, a search for modern forms that would invoke the power of ancient ones — the pyramid, the dome, the chamber — without literally imitating them in a historical-revivalist way, the Postmodern way that Johnson would embrace some years later. The Johnson who had helped in the 1930s to all but banish history from architecture was searching for ways to let it back in.

Once inside you enter a widowless gallery space formed by the juncture of three circular spaces, a kind of off-kilter cloverleaf floorplan. At the center of each circle is a column that serves as the axle for a carousel of moveable spokes that each hold a wall that can be rotated all around the column by hand (At least if you put your back into it.) This way the paintings can be changed at any time by rolling a new pair of walls into view.

Painting Gallery interior with rotating walls, 1965

Five years later Johnson completed the best building on the site, after the Glass House itself, a white brick sculpture gallery with a slanting glass roof supported by tubular steel rafters, a transparent companion to the enclosed painting gallery just as the Glass House has its conceptual opposite in the enclosed brick Guest House just across from it. The intricacies of this space are completely fascinating. It allows the language of Modernism some very new twists, and arguably foreshadows the angular interiors of Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind. This time it was also vernacular architecture that Johnson was exploring — his inspiration was the white stuccoed and stairwayed villages of the Greek islands.

Sculpture Gallery, completed in 1970

The last building that Johnson completed on the site, after he had taken steps to ensure that the Glass House and its surroundings would be open to the public after his death, was the visitor center he called “The Monsta”, a pavilion with debts to Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman and Hadid. As an interior space it may not be useful for much. I don’t care. It’s a completely delightful exercise in Expressionist building. By the time it was completed, in 1995, Johnson had transitioned out of his (mostly dreadful) Postmodern phase, the one that produced clunkers like the neo-Gothic turreted glass castle that is the PPG Plaza in Pittsburgh and the pompous Neo-Classical bunker he provided for the Museum of Broadcasting in Manhattan. Johnson had a lifelong habit of going down the wrong road, and then rescuing himself. (That would be the generous way of looking at his lengthy and really despicable flirtation with Fascist politics in the 1930s, a misadventure he later disowned.) So while Johnson’s search for a usable past had led him to produce one bad joke building after another in the 80s, by the end of the decade he understood that Gehry, Hadid et. al. were translating the past into genuinely and unreservedly modern terms. Credit him for recognizing that they were the train of history and he had to get on board.

Johnson was only sometimes a great architect. But he was always a nimble operator. At the Glass House and all around it you get to see him in operation in all different ways.