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PHILIP JOHNSON / 1906-2005

America's Dean of Architects

January 27, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

Philip Johnson, who reigned for much of the 20th century as architecture's leading taste maker and designed some of America's most recognizable buildings, including the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, has died. He was 98.

Johnson died Tuesday night at the Glass House, his masterpiece of unadulterated International Style Modernism in New Canaan, Conn., said Terence Riley, chief curator for architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The cause of death was not announced.

With his trademark oversize black-frame glasses, crisp dark suits and ready store of witty, trenchant commentary, Johnson was not only the long-standing dean of American architects, but someone who enjoyed broad celebrity beyond the profession.

Known more for his remarkable ability to anticipate trends and paradigm shifts rather than for the consistency of his work, Johnson played a significant role in nearly every major architectural movement of the last century.

He did so not just as an architect but as a tireless advocate of architecture as art. Among his best known works are the quintessentially cosmopolitan Four Seasons restaurant inside architect Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in New York and a group of skyscrapers for corporate clients, including the 1984 AT&T Building in Manhattan, topped with a pediment designed to resemble the top of a Chippendale chest of drawers. That building remains one of the most recognizable of postmodernist skyscrapers.

After helping to usher in the age of architectural celebrity and fashion, he was only too happy to sit atop the ladder of fame, reaching down to help up those architects he deemed most worthy, including figures with styles as different as those of Robert A.M. Stern, Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas.

"In his life, he popularized architecture," Gehry said Wednesday. "He made [the cover of] Time magazine with the AT&T Building. He loved architecture and he promoted a number of people. He mentored people way beyond what anybody else did."

Johnson, who was the first winner of the Pritzker Prize, an award established in 1979 to honor an architect of international stature, rose to prominence in the early 1930s as the first director of MoMA's architecture department. In that post, he actively championed the International Style Modernism that was emerging in Europe, familiarizing Americans with its clean lines and expanses of glass and bringing it into the American mainstream.

Alfred Barr Jr., the museum's founding director, gave him the job despite his young age and lack of architectural or curatorial experience. Johnson's relationship with the museum remained strong for the next 75 years.

A foray into fascist politics in the latter part of the 1930s, for which he expressed deep regret later in his life, took him away from architecture for a time. But he lost that political fervor and enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1941. After earning his degree, he went to work with Van der Rohe, putting the lessons of that apprenticeship to quick work in his Glass House.

Johnson, who described himself as an architectural chameleon, broke sharply with the International Style in the 1970s. He soon became an early and enthusiastic champion of postmodernist architecture, which brought historical ornament and a freewheeling sense of energy and experimentation back to the field.

He shifted gears just as easily once again in the 1980s. And as late as 1988, at the age of 81, he helped curate another landmark MoMA show, this one on the tension and the fragmented, shard-like forms of the style he and co-organizer Mark Wigley dubbed Deconstructivism.

Known for supreme charisma, Johnson enjoyed steady work with each of several partners, as well as on his own.

Yet what set him apart, far more than the quality of his buildings, which ranged wildly from sublime -- his Glass House -- to rather shallow -- the so-called Lipstick Building, a pink-tinged skyscraper in New York -- was his enduring passion for architecture and restless, probing curiosity. Those qualities never flagged even in his 10th decade.

Speaking with the Los Angeles Times in 1998, at age 92, Johnson was asked what he thought of the eclecticism of 1990s architecture.

"I think you just have to say it is a wonderful, total, absolute chaos," he replied enthusiastically. "I feel freer now to wander among the shapes available than at any other time. So I'm having a delightful time."

Philip Cortelyou Johnson was born July 8, 1906, in Cleveland. His parents -- Homer, a prominent lawyer, and Louise -- were wealthy.

"I started my architectural career when I was 13," he told National Public Radio in 1996. On a trip to Europe after World War I, he recalled, his mother took him to see the cathedral at Chartres. "I broke into tears, because that is one of the greatest buildings of all time, that stained glass and whole shape of the apse. So I became converted to architecture."

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