Birthday: July 8, 1906
Died At Age: 98
Sun Sign: Cancer
Also Known As: Philip Cortelyou Johnson
Born in: Cleveland
Famous as: Architect
Spouse/Ex-: David Whitney
Died on: January 25, 2005
place of death: New Canaan
U.S. State: Ohio
City: Cleveland, Ohio
education: Harvard University, Hackley School, Harvard Graduate School of Design
awards: 1979 - Pritzker Architecture Prize
1978 - AIA Gold Medal
1975 - Twenty-five Year Award - Glass House
Who was Philip Johnson?
Philip Johnson was a renowned American architect who is particularly known for his postmodern work. Postmodern architecture signifies the return of "wit, ornament and reference" to architecture. His zeal for architecture was such that he made its advocacy his lifelong aim; he did so through his works, writings, and words. Though not the father of modern architecture, he certainly was its best progeny. He took architecture to literally new heights and was generously rewarded both in work and popularity. He collaborated with some the world’s best architects, namely, Mies van der Rohe and John Burgee. His clients included some of the wealthiest New Yorkers who hired him to design their houses. The best one among his creations, the Glass House, he kept for himself. His estate boasted of numerous architectural essays that were part of his signature design. Many of the world’s most famous structures such as the “Sony Building”, “Momentum Place”, “IDS Center”, “National Center for Performing Arts” [Mumbai], and “Crystal Cathedral” bear his signature. Called “the best openly-gay architect in America”, he was involved with gallerist David Whitney for over 45 years. His fusion of art, minimalism, and functional aesthetics made him a kingmaker who brought architecture out of the shadows and thrust it upon the world, which has never looked the same since.
Childhood & Early Life
Philip Cortelyou Johnson was born in Cleveland, Ohio on July 8, 1906. His father was an attorney. He was one of the four children and the only son of his parents.
He was descendent of the Jansen family of New Amsterdam. One of his ancestors was the Huguenot Jacques Cortelyou, who laid out the first town plan of New Amsterdam.
He received his early education from Hackley School, New York. He was a bright student in school, and in 1923, he was admitted to Harvard University without an exam. At Harvard, he studied history and philosophy.
Philip Johnson’s maternal and paternal families were quite wealthy and hence he was destined to inherit an enormous amount of wealth. In 1924, his father handed down a high proportion of his fortune. Philip's sisters got cash, while he acquired Alcoa stock. His inheritance helped him to live a life of self-indulgence.
At this time, he was exploring his sexuality and often took time off from Harvard to discover Europe. It was during these trips that his interest in architecture began to develop.
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During his travels, Johnson was fascinated by the architectural wonders of many ancient monuments. His meeting with architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1928 enhanced this fascination. Both went on to become lifelong friends, collaborators, and competitors.
In 1932, he became the director of “Department of Architecture” at the “Museum of Modern Art” (MoMA) in New York. With his architectural mentor, historian and critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock, he toured Europe and both created a show “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition”. They then co-wrote “The International Style: Modern Architecture Since 1922”.
During the Great Depression in 1934, he tried his hand at journalism and politics. He covered the Invasion of Poland (1939) and observed the Nuremberg Rallies in Germany. He returned to the USA and enlisted in the army and participated in World War II.
To study architecture, he joined “Harvard School of Design” and graduated with a “B.Arch.” in 1943. Marcel Breuer, the famous Hungarian-born architect was one of his teachers. His mentor, however, was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
He returned as the director of the architectural department at MoMA and held the post from 1946 to 1954. This position helped him advocate modern architecture to the world.
He was quite self-indulgent and designed his residence, The “Glass House” at New Canaan, Connecticut in 1949. It was a minimalistic glass and steel paneled design that housed a kitchen, dining area, and bedroom.
To absolve his folly for being a Nazi sympathizer, he designed the “Kneses Tifereth” Israel in Port Chester, New York. It is one of USA’s oldest Jewish congregations and was built in 1956.
Along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, he worked on the “Seagram Building” (1958). This 39-story building had him working for Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of the CEO of Seagram. This building marked a shift in his career roadmap and he began receiving more projects.
He became an associate member of “National Academy of Design” in 1961 and became a full academician in 1963.
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Johnson made use of curvilinear forms and historical quotation patterns in an art gallery in Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. (1963) and continued its use in the “IDS center” (1973) in Minneapolis.
He designed the AT&T headquarters, now known as the “Sony Building” in 1984. It was controversial at that time because of its neo-Georgian pediment and provocative modernist aesthetic.
He continued his designs well into the 21st century and left his mark on innumerable landmarks and architectural wonders.
The ‘Glass House’, also known as the ‘Johnson House’ is a 56x32 ft historic house museum that was one of many of his projects, built on his estate.. It is an important project for modern architecture and stands to show the brilliance and postmodern influence of Johnson.
Together with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson designed the internal aspects of the ‘Seagram Building’, a skyscraper in Park Avenue. The building is a perfectly functional and aesthetic masterpiece. He also designed ‘The Four Seasons’ and ‘Brasserie’ restaurants housed in the building.
Awards & Achievements
The AIA”(American Institute of Architects) awarded him the Gold Medal, in 1978. It is the institute’s highest honor and was given to him in recognition of his body of work.
He was the recipient of the first ‘Pritzker Architecture Prize’ in 1979. It is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of architecture.
The University of Houston conferred on him an honorary doctoral degree in 1987.
Personal Life & Legacy
Struggling with his homosexuality for the most part of his early life, Philip Johnson came out in the open in 1993. Johnson was the life partner of art curator and gallerist David Whitney. They were together for 45 years until his passing.
Coming from a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) family, he was influenced to be anti-Semitic, anti-black with little respect for women. Later, he disassociated with these views and many of his clients were part of the very demographics he had shunned before.
He died of natural causes on January 25, 2005, at the age of 98. At the time of his death, he was residing at his Glass House retreat where he had lived for 58 years since 1960. At age 66, his partner David died the same year on June 12, 2005.
The Philip Johnson Glass House is a site of the ‘National Trust for Historic Preservation’ and is open to the public.