The Washington Post

December 3, 1992, The Washington Post

Scraping the Sky: The Eternal Architect

Even at 86, Philip Johnson has no small plans

As America’s best-known practitioner of architecture, Philip Johnson is inevitably labeled dean of the profession. But those less enamored of his protean, power-broker approach to design consider him the Godfather. Both revered and reviled, Johnson is attracting renewed attention as he embarks on yet another stage of his restless career, founding a new architectural firm at the age of 86.

“It’s like rebirth,” Johnson exclaims in his latest office, perching his perfectly tailored, rail-thin frame on a Robert Venturi chair. Another prop from the 20th-century architectural grab bag, round black eyeglasses in imitation of Le Corbusier, accentuates Johnson’s hoot owl gaze. “It’s just that great thing of starting out and I get a second time, another chance, long after I’m supposed to.”

His current incarnation comes after more than two decades in tandem with Chicago architect John Burgee. With Johnson’s stylish flair and vision complementing Burgee’s administrative skills, the duo formed one of the most dominant and prolific American architectural partnerships. Together they strew skyscrapers in assorted postmodern historical modes across this country and beyond.

Adept at certifying trends, Johnson helped introduce the so-called International Style to the United States in 1932 as a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. After studying under Walter Gropius at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, he joined forces with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to create the landmark Seagram Building on Park Avenue. But Johnson subsequently broke loose from modernist constraints and was instrumental in prodding corporate America to swap Bauhaus-inspired boxes for classical detailing as the preferred style of their headquarters.

His influence and celebrity were confirmed in 1979 when he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, wielding a model of his monumental AT&T building as if it were a cudgel. The younger, less-known Burgee was nowhere in sight. Befitting Johnson’s brand-name status, the recent demise of the partnership was front-page news in the Wall Street Journal.

The seeds of the breakup were planted in the early 1980s as Burgee, long resentful of being in Johnson’s shadow, tried to drop the senior partner’s name from the firm’s shingle. When a heart ailment temporarily kept him away from the drafting board, Johnson was demoted to design consultant. Burgee then eased him out altogether, only to find it tough going solo when the recession smashed the wave of office tower construction they rode so successfully. Difficulties mounted after Burgee lost a $13.7 million lawsuit to another disgruntled partner, forcing him to seek bankruptcy protection in April.

“I am so sorry for John Burgee,” says Johnson, himself very much on the rebound. “He did an enormous amount for me. Plus, more than that, we were partners in everything. And he was very, very good, so I regret it. He’s mad now.”

Giving his own account, the 59-year-old Burgee says: “Philip and I had always talked about the fact that at some point I would carry on the firm. Through the years that was always difficult to establish because he was a more flamboyant figure and a figure that the press liked to cover in greater detail. So he naturally attracted more attention.” Burgee ultimately attributes the collapse of their teamwork to Johnson’s advanced age. “It’s hard for an older person to realize that things are winding down… . I guess we’ve all had an elderly aunt that we’ve had to tell it’s time the poor aunt has to slow down.”

Though he complains of tiring more easily as an octogenarian, Philip Courtelyou Johnson is not one to be shoved aside. Armed with genetic longevity and a knack for cultivating business, he appears to have recovered from physical or professional setbacks. His father lived to be 97; a sister recently celebrated her 90th birthday. Old and new clients are turning up at Johnson’s suite in the elliptical tower here known as the Lipstick Building, which he designed with Burgee. Donald Trump, boosted by increased revenues at his Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, bolted over with a job there as soon as he’d heard Johnson had set up his own shop. “Philip is a legend and I want to have a legend on my project,” the developer said. “Philip’s name adds a great deal of value.”

A commission to redo the Trump resort facade is among half a dozen projects the architect has in the works, including a Berlin office building at the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing and an addition to Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, which Johnson designed in 1961. He also has drawn up plans for the Seton Hill College of Fine Arts in Pennsylvania, a chapel for the University of St. Thomas in Houston and an addition to the University of Houston Law Center.

“I’ve never had so much fun in all my life,” Johnson enthuses. He puts in four full days a week at the office. A fifth is spent drawing at his celebrated Glass House in New Canaan, Conn. He continues to make regular luncheon appearances at the Four Seasons restaurant he designed in the Seagram Building. Business travel goes on at a furious pace, of late taking him to Japan, Berlin, Switzerland, Cleveland, Florida and Texas.

“He’s very vibrant right now,” said Donald Porter, a former Burgee associate who is one of two full-time architects now working with Johnson. “He’s having a ball… . Architecture is his life. He is most happy and most enthusiastic when he is busiest, when he is in the public eye and when he’s producing architecture. I think he really likes to have his name on the door.”

Relishing his renewed energy, Johnson is nonetheless preparing for the day when he’s left the scene. He has donated the glass country home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for use as a public museum. He has drawn up a new pavilion that will eventually serve as a visitors’ entry to the walled compound where he has built follies, a sculpture garden and an underground art gallery.

He is also cooperating with the author of his first full-scale biography, Chicago critic Franz Schulze. “It helps the ego a lot,” Johnson says of monthly sessions with his biographer, who completed a major chronicle of Mies van der Rohe’s life and work in 1985. Johnson expects “warts and all” since Schulze refuses to show him the manuscript before Knopf brings it out. Publication was originally slated only after Johnson’s death; late 1993 is now the target date. Astounded at his subject’s indefatigability, Schulze says, “He’s going to go on living for years… . When you talk about a posthumous book, the question is, `Whose death, his or mine?’ “

Reviewing his lengthening career, the architect sounds as if he rues having worked for so many developers on what have been denounced as “cookie jar” monuments. “Some architects get stuck. I got stuck in the old thing that architects get stuck on, looking for jobs, the money, more, more, more,” says Johnson. “I’m not a very good postmodernist.” But he vows to restore attention to detail. “Now when I do something I watch every little edge, corner of every table, every heating fixture, every lighting fixture.”

It was this painstaking approach that he took to the interiors of the Seagram Building. But no sooner was the stately tower completed in the late 1950s than Johnson opted for a more sculpted neoclassicism in designs for the original Amon Carter Museum, the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, Neb. The work produced in this period referred to monumental buildings executed under 1930s fascism and recalled Johnson’s own enthusiasm upon visiting Hitler’s Germany and his involvement in a briefly lived U.S. right-wing movement.

“Architecture in the main is something that is more apt to be run by popes, kings and generals than by public vote. And so I got interested in getting things done on a grand way,” he said. In retrospect, he voices shame at his stance toward Nazism, quietly stating, “I lost my mind.”

No apology is forthcoming about his notorious quip, made in a 1983 Esquire interview, that architects are but “high-class whores.” Letting loose a cackle, he mischievously demands, “What’s wrong with a high-class whore if she’s high enough class? It’s the oldest profession. It can be the noblest profession. We’re other things besides whores. But all I meant was that we are for sale.”

Lately he has offered his services on an alteration of his most celebrated work. Acting as a consultant, Johnson has given his imprimatur to plans by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates to convert part of the AT&T building into a mini shopping mall. After the breakup of its communications monopoly, AT&T moved out of the pink granite structure, and new owner Sony wants to enclose the easily rentable street-level loggia that brought the building part of its acclaim. The Chippendale highboy pediment will go untouched, but the carefully executed base has already lost the 28-foot gilded sculpture for which its barrel-ceilinged lobby was designed. “They’re not going to destroy it,” Johnson insisted. “To me it’s a perfectly logical development.”

Moving along himself, Johnson has now ditched postmodernism for deconstructivism. He marked the change in 1988 by returning to the Museum of Modern Art to curate a show of seven disparate proponents. Deconstructivism, he wrote in the catalogue, is no new style. “We arrogate to its development none of the messianic fervor of the modern movement, none of the exclusivity of that catholic and Calvinist cause.”

Explaining the mutation, Johnson says: “We had to change, we had to go through this period. One or two things good came out of it. But on the whole I like these new directions… . I like to be in the forefront of things.”

He cites Arata Isozaki, Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman among the architects he admires most at present, praising them for realizing a “new relationship of the inside and the outside, a new confidence in the sculptural exterior of the building unrelated to function.” He defines architecture as “the decoration of structure” and proceeds to muse, “Is that just fashion or is there something to fashion that’s basic?” Pressed for his view, he responds, “I don’t know. Let’s leave it open.” Ever on the lookout for the new, he eagerly follows and promotes younger architects but declines to predict his profession’s direction. “Anybody who makes a prognosis is a fool. I’m always wrong myself.”

Admirers stress his openness to new ideas; others charge that he lacks aesthetic convictions. The critique rankles. “I feel my conviction is my dedication to art and forms that can change,” he says. “Forms do change, always have changed, and the speed of today’s changes is part of the era we live in. Of course, it bothers me. I don’t like to be considered a flibbertigibbet amateur. I’ll let history decide. I’m not as good as I think I am.”

His primary interest, as always, is in creating monumental shapes. “I’m not interested in sociology as I should be. I’m not interested in construction as I should be. I rely on experts for construction. I’d much rather do housing than skyscrapers but I don’t have enough conviction to stop doing skyscrapers and do housing. In other words, I’m out to work for the Devil himself if he’s building.”