STARCHITECTS - Philip Johnson

STARCHITECTS - Philip Johnson

Hemalatha M

Hemalatha M

Philip Johnson who was born in 1906 in Ohio lived till 2005 to emerge as a prolific 20th century American architect, remembered for his dual role ,first in promoting the International Style and later for his role in defining postmodernist architecture.

Since the name of this Column is ‘Starchitects’, it’s apt to reproduce a few lines from Johnson’s biographer, Mark Lamster quoted in The Architectural Review, ‘Johnson was different things to different people, and sometimes different things to the same people. To his fellow architects, or some of them, he was a kingmaker who thrust the profession into the public consciousness, the man who minted celebrities and virtually created the ‘starchitect’ class. To others, he was a dark force who stripped Modernism of its social agenda and then betrayed it twice more, first as standard-bearer of the postmodern movement, then as a promoter of deconstructivism’s empty formalism.’

The Glass House built in 1948–49 is iconic because of its innovative use of materials in home design, such as glass and steel and its seamless integration into the landscape.

From the 1930s to the ‘50s, Johnson achieved several milestones. He majored in philosophy from Harvard and later completed B.Arch from Harvard under Marcel Breuer. He had two stints as Director of the Dept. of Architecture of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; co-wrote The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (1932); and was mentored by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, with whom he created the well-known Seagram Building in New York city.

Several of Johnson’s most iconic structures were designed in the late 1940s and ’50s, including his Connecticut residence, the Glass House, and the Seagram Building in New York, which was a collaboration with Mies van der Rohe. From his early modern structures to his later postmodern buildings, Johnson defined several architectural movements over the course of his decades-long career.

Mark Lamster who spent about 9 years writing The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century, has ranked some of his creations which he considers his personal Best: The Glass House; The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden; The Seagram Building; Dumbarton Oaks; IDS Center; Pennzoil Place; and Chapel of Hope.

The <a href="">Interfaith Peace Chapel at the Cathedral of Hope</a> in Dallas, “a commission for the world’s largest predominantly gay and lesbian congregation.” Johnson called the project “‘emotional,’ and the banal, functional surroundings actually emphasize that quality.”

In 1979, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, often referred to as ‘the Nobel Prize of Architecture’ and ‘the profession’s highest honour’, was established by the Pritzker family. The Prize was created to honour a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of talent, vision, and commitment was bestowed on Philip Johnson for the first time in 1979.

Among the projects that were listed for honours ranged from numerous high-rise projects such as International Place in Boston; Tycon Towers in Vienna, Virginia; Momentum Place in Dallas; 53rd at Third in New York; NCNB Center in Houston; PPG in Pittsburgh; 101 California in San Francisco; United Bank Center Tower in Denver; to the far flung National Center for Performing Arts in Bombay, India; Century Center in South Bend, Indiana; a Water Garden in Fort Worth, Texas; a Civic Center in Peoria, Illinois; the Crystal Cathedral in California; and a Dade County Cultural Center in Miami, among others.

Johnson designed Crystal Cathedral in 1980, the building is clad in over 10,000 panes of glass and is shaped like a four-pointed star. The church was touted as “the largest glass building in the world” when it was completed in 1981.

Commenting on his favourite work, the Glass House, Philip Johnson had this to say, ‘It is wonderful to be in the country in a glass house, because no matter what happens out there, you're nice and safe, you know, cuddled in your little bed, and there it is, raging storms, snowing - wonderful…All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.’

Over his 70-odd career-years, Johnson, America’s original starchitect, led different lives-- a life as an architect, life as curator, life as an art collector, and life as a political figure. In his personal life, Johnson was gay and has been called the best-known openly gay architect in America.


Hemalatha is a Chennai-based architect with experience in practicing & teaching architecture, and co-founder of SIDART Photography.