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Design Notes

Johnson at 80: 'The Man to Beat'

July 06, 1986|JANET NAIRN

Last week's PBS presentation of "Philip Johnson: A Self-Portrait" did more to advance the general public's understanding of architects and architecture than any recent architectural film series.

The hour-long American Masters documentary on the life and work of noted--and controversial--architect Philip Johnson, which aired on KCET last Monday, was the second of a 15-part series on portraits of celebrated artists. The series is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS stations and Rosalind P. Walter.

The show was well-crafted by executive director Susan Lacy, whose focus never strayed from the man himself and the resulting architecture that has so dramatically changed the skyline of many cities.

The interviewer, art critic Rosamond Bernier, probed Johnson's design reasoning, eliciting in articulate, understandable language Johnson's personal vision of architecture and the often elusive design process.

At age 80, Johnson is thriving, not only exhibiting a high energy level, but, no doubt, with an abundance of commissions. He once said that "life begins at 70" and now concludes that "he has done better work in the last decade than in the 40 years before."

He proclaimed, with unabashed showmanship, "I am the leading architect in this country today! . . . Everybody hates me because I build and create highly recognizable architecture. . . . The success business is important; I enjoy the reputation. Now that I've reached the pinnacle, I'm the man to beat!"

Johnson's key work was singled out, with the most attention given to his own Glass House in New Canaan, Conn. When completed in 1949, it symbolized the International Style, giving prominence to the Modern Movement which Johnson helped introduce to this country with his guru, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Nearly all glass, with a streamlined, unobtrusive black-steel structural system, the house was likened by critics to "living in a fish bowl." But Johnson, undaunted by what the critics have said or written, believes that the Glass House does what a house should do, that is " . . . contain and cuddle you. . . . I don't believe in indoor-outdoor space; here the natural environment serves as expensive wallpaper."

His work with commercial clients has led him to say, "Developers are the Medici of our times . . . for they believe that good architecture is better for business, and, therefore, making more money. . . . No one would ever have thought that real estate operators would be so powerful. . . .

"We don't really live in a style period. Each building can be different."

And different they are, each one representing another image. His Houston buildings serve to demonstrate this, for he's completed at least three high-rise towers and a major office complex.

In particular, the juxtaposition of two neighboring buildings downtown depict radical design departures--Pennzoil Place, with its nestling twin-towers topped by sharp angular roofs, and the Republic Bank Tower featuring manipulation of the gable roof.

"Architecture is like a piece of sculpture, that you should move in and around, and out of," Johnson concluded. ". . . if it's not artistic, we should recognize it for what it is, and call it practical building or construction. . . . The architect must make a value judgment, balancing money and art. But remember, art lives a long time, and life is short."

Kaufman & Broad has announced the name of its new real estate development subsidiary--Civic Enterprises Inc. Edward Helfeld, former administrator of the Community Redevelopment Agency, is president. The office is located at 11601 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90025-1748. (See Design Notes column June 1.)

Los Angeles landscape architect Emmet L. Wemple & Associates has been selected to assist architect Richard Meier in site development of the 24-acre Getty Center, to be constructed in West Los Angeles, and for several hundred surrounding hilltop acres also owned by the J. Paul Getty Trust.

The search committee was composed of Stephen Rountree, director, the Getty Trust building program; Meier; Frank O. Gehry, Los Angeles architect, and Bill Lacy, president, Cooper Union in New York City.

Wemple's work is well-known in Southern California, having served as landscape architect for Angelus Plaza, the Olympic Villages for 1984 Olympic Games, USC campus, and many commercial projects. The firm also has worked in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Japan.

"Although actual construction will not begin (on Getty Center) for several years," Rountree explained, "we are determined to do everything we can now to conserve the landscape, save trees by replanting those that would otherwise have to be felled, and establish a sophisticated system of fire prevention. . . ."

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