The Contradictory Life and Changing Allegiances of Philip Johnson

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The contradictory life and changing allegiances of Philip Johnson

Philip Johnson, excluding his own professional success, has played an irreplaceable role in the development of Modernism and Post Modernism architecture during the past century. Architects such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were the innovators and pioneers of Modernism, and Philip Johnson was its director of public relations. He can be seen as the person responsible for bringing the Modernism craze to America and played a key role in the contextual acceptance of it by its mainstream culture.

Johnson was a well-connected young man from an affluent and influential family, which allowed him to travel throughout Europe and gave him the opportunity to observe all the Modernist architectural examples for himself that were only accessible in America through its use in academic architectural literature.

Johnson initially started his architectural career as an advocate of the Modernist movement, working in collaboration with Modernist innovators such as Mies van der Rohe on the Seagram Building in New York, but Johnson also played an influential role in the decline of Modernism. Modernism became such a formal, rigid style it became soulless, that is, its concern for improving lives, social consciousness and the need for economic and simplistic design. He saw the need to break away from Modernist conventions and restrictions by designing obvious Post- modernist buildings as a reaction to Modernism.

Johnson succeeded in making modernist architecture acceptable to the mainstream American market, by showcasing it mainly as an architectural style, rather than an overall social and aesthetic philosophy that it had previously been throughout Europe. This allowed Modernism to be embraced by large corporate companies, who found the characteristics of Modernism particularly attractive in the development of efficient high rise commercial buildings. This Modernist mainstream society that came to life in America allowed for the modernist style to be implemented and showcased on a varying array of building types, such as; schools, places of worship, museums, libraries etc.

By Johnson just showcasing it as an architectural style and stripping the Modernist philosophy of its social and functional values it caused modernist architecture to be merely a subjective and meaningless interplay of architectural forms within a design. This individualistic kind of architectural freedom allowed Johnson the opportunity of picking and choosing different iconic forms from different historical styles, according to his preference, without taking the buildings context or functional needs into consideration when designing a building.

This blatant disregard of any contextual or conceptual thought throughout the design phase, led to the development and growth of Post- Modernism. Johnson could also be credited with the idea of designing a building or space without a concept, causing Architects and Interior Designers to create beautiful spaces, but that has no soul or substance to it.

When it came to implementing Post-Modernist forms on a design, Johnson was very selective and only chose historical styles and forms that adhered to him. Making use of a simplified or slightly altered historical form or some symbolic abstraction of a form and implementing that onto the plan to address the basic programmatic needs of the design. With the use of unintentional forms and ironic styles, Post- Modernist architecture was a breeze of fresh air to the general public and was a welcomed change to the formal seriousness of the Modernist style. Modernist architects took their work and themselves too seriously, whereas Johnson came from this world where he believed in the playfulness of design and that one should not take it too seriously.

Johnson got to know many of the pioneers of Modernism on a personal level, and enjoyed exposing them for being nothing more that individuals that had weaknesses that contradicted the integrity of their work and the philosophies they believed in. He has always been an eccentric and unique individual, and has never shied away from being evaluated or criticized purely on his designs rather than relying on a governing philosophy or theory to back up his design decisions. Laying it all out there for anyone or everyone to critique his work, and not having this underlying concept to support his design decisions, choices he purely made because he felt like it.

One can say that Johnson was the one that instigated this rebellious regime against anything or anyone that had something to do with Modernism, directing a lot of hatred towards himself from his fellow architects, from the Modernist era, who still believed in the importance of a governing philosophy or underlying concept when it comes to design. Johnson not only rebelled against architectural styles but in his personal life he was quite prolific as well, he was an anti-Semite, fascist sympathizer and active propagandist for the Nazi regime.

This continuous change of allegiance, his involvement in Nazism and him being a gay man, supporting a regime that condoned homosexuality, makes one questions Johnson integrity and moral beliefs as an individual and everything he stood for. One can argue that it was survival through a cynical reason, in which one knows that you are doing the wrong thing, but still does it to survive and get ahead of your competition.

Johnson is still celebrated for mainstreaming Modernist architecture and his ability to effortlessly switch from one style to another. He was influential and played a key role in the counter movement against Modernism and the development of Post- Modernism. His studies in a vast array of historical forms and skepticism of architectural theories that drove Modernism contributed to his large portfolio of work that exceeded his mistaken venture in unsavory political activities. I personally am not too fond of Post- Modernism as it lacks a deeper purpose or underlying governing theory or concept, creating buildings and spaces that is mediocre and soulless.

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List of References:

Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy, eds. Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1989. A comprehensive and authoritative study of modern and postmodern spatiality.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. An important treatment of the relations between elite and mass culture in modernism and postmodernism.

BLAKE, Peter. Philip Johnson. Basel: Berkhaeuser, 1996.

KANTOR, Sybil Gordon. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Mod- ern Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.

^ Varnelis, Kazys, Cornell University (November 1994). "We Cannot Not Know History: Philip Johnson’s Politics and Cynical Survival" ( Journal of Architectural Education (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, Inc.) 49 (2): 82–. Retrieved 29 January 2013.

Saint, Andrew (January 29, 2005). "Philip Johnson — Flamboyant Postmodern Architect Whose Career Was Marred by a Flirtation with Nazism" (,3604,1401260,00.html). The Guardian. Retrieved August 12, 2010.