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SPECIAL MILLENNIUM ISSUE / HOME & DESIGN

Four Takes on a Brave New (Residential) World.

May 16, 1999

Essays compiled by Ed Leibowitz.

Philip Johnson.

Philip Johnson, at 92, is considered the reigning dean of American architects. His career spans most of the 20th century revolution in home design. As an architecture critic in the 1930s, he and collaborator Henry-Russell Hitchcock helped define the "International Style" of Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius in their book of the same name. In 1949, he built the Philip Johnson residence, the see-through glass house at his estate in New Canaan, Conn., where he still lives.

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The level of architecture in the present housing situation is in a bad way, but architects are apt to be defiant of the present and hopeful of the future. Empirically, there's no reason to be pessimistic. Everything's going fine, and we're all working hard on new houses.

What we're looking at now is a switch from the Modern period, like my old glass house, and the switch from the Postmodern trend to go back to colonial at all costs, which has taken over the East Coast. I think what we're doing is feeling for new shapes for the new world; that is, a freer, more sculptural approach to the house. The best example of that is Frank Gehry or Peter Eisenman, who are trying out new shapes all the time. There's an architectural show at the Museum of Modern Art in July which will be very revelatory of our directions. This is a reaction to the colonial reaction: the new shapes are sculptural, well, wigglies even, with no historical background at all.

I don't think this emerging architecture will affect the tract house. Tract houses are likely to remain the same for cost reasons and for the taste of the general buying public, which is OK. There always has been that gulf, and I don't see any reason for it to change.

We're busy in this part of the woods tearing down the International Style work of the '50s and putting up colonial. Of course, the prosperity of the country has made even the tract house balloon into huge buildings. These colonials are some elements of 20th century architecture that I would dislike most to see carried over into the 21st. It's really the dimensions, the hugeness of the new colonials that have drowned out all sense of the landscape--in the East. I think California is always ahead of us. You've got a history there of more advanced thinking in both tract architects and the individual artist architects.

The cycles of architecture will go on cycling. I don't believe in any fixed ideals. The state of flux is a very healthy state. We couldn't be in a particular worse state--I'm talking about the East Coast now--than we are, but California has been more independent always and I hope it will go on being so and lead the world. Richard Neutra took one direction, but, of course, the kids are doing quite different work and more interesting.

I wouldn't write any recommendations for the 21st century. Whatever I say is going to be different; anybody who prophesies is just plain wrong. What we architects prophesy is what we wish, what we're dreaming about. Naturally, I dream of sculptural architecture of very, very strange and interesting shapes, but to say that "something" is going to happen is silly.

As for our American habit of ruining a landscape as we go along, I think even trying to change that would be a task beyond the architect's dreaming. It's a business decision, and developers' moneymaking desires will settle that. After all, the bright new towns like Telluride have the stiffest rules in the world against what we call modern architecture. Telluride is made up of a bunch of special ski people who have money and who don't want anything to change at all. In Telluride, they even determine the pitch of the roofs. I'm building a house there now, and it's very difficult: I try to follow exactly the words without following their spirit, and it's an interesting battle. I'm having a great deal of fun.

Fifty years ago, when I built the glass house, it had a normal bedroom, a normal living room. The living room has been going recently, but the whole approach to the home is going to be different. Nothing's going to be unrecognizable, because it's going to be so slow, due to the general timeline of appreciation. You're just going to get a lot of individual attempts like Frank Lloyd Wright or like me nowadays, but I don't think it's going to change very fast.

A fireplace is the essence of home in any period, because there's something primeval about it, the dancing of a fire, that is captivating to everybody in all history. The flickering and warmth! The warming of the tushie! The whole feel of it!

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