born July 8th, 1906 – died January 25th, 2005
Philip Cortelyou Johnson (July 8, 1906 – January 25, 2005) was an American architect best known for his works of Modern architecture, including the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, and his works of postmodern architecture, particularly 550 Madison Avenue which was designed for AT&T, and 190 South La Salle Street in Chicago. In 1978, he was awarded an American Institute of Architects Gold Medal and in 1979 the first Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Johnson, by Carl Van Vechten January 18, 1933
In 1930 Johnson joined the architecture department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There he arranged for American visits by Gropius and Le Corbusier, and negotiated the first American commission for Mies van der Rohe. In 1932, working with Hitchcock and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., he organized the first exhibition on Modern architecture at the Museum of Modern Art.[additional citation(s) needed] The show and their simultaneously published book International Style: Modern Architecture Since 1922 played an important part in introducing modern architecture to the American public. His flirtation with fascism and the Nazi party was documented in Marc Wortman’s 2016 book 1941: Fighting the Shadow War. It was excerpted by Vanity Fair magazine. When the rise of the Nazis in Germany forced the modernists Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe to leave Germany, Johnson helped arrange for them to come to work in the United States.
The amount of power he yearned for was inversely proportional to the amount he actually attained. In politics, he proved to be a trifler, the dilettante he earlier feared himself to be, a model of futility who sought to find a messiah or to pursue messianic ends but whose most lasting following turned out to be the agents of the FBI—who themselves finally grew bored with him. In short, he was never much of a political threat to anyone, still less an effective doer of either political good or political evil.
In 1941, at the age of 35, Johnson abandoned politics and journalism and enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he studied with Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. In 1941, Johnson designed and actually built his first building, a house that still exists at 9 Ash Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The house, strongly influenced by Mies van der Rohe, has a wall around the lot which merges with the structure. It was used by Johnson to host social events and was eventually submitted as his graduate thesis; he sold the house after the War, and it was eventually purchased by Harvard in 2010 and restored by 2016.
After the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Johnson enlisted in the Army. He was investigated by the FBI for his contacts with the German government and his support for Coughlin, who opposed American intervention in the war, but he was cleared for service and entered the army. He spent his army service during the war in the United States.
The Modernist Period (1949–1979)
The Glass House (1949)
Interior of the Glass House (1949)
Sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1953)
Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel Synagogue in Port Chester, New York (1954–1956)
Seagram Building (1958)
Monastery building at St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington DC (1960)
Atrium of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center (1964)
The Kunsthalle Bielefeld art museum in Bielefeld, Germany (1968)
The Johnson Building at Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts (1972)
IDS Center in Minneapolis (1973)
Pennzoil Place in Houston, Texas (1970–1976)
Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas, Texas (1977)
In 1946, after he completed his military service, Johnson returned to the Museum of Modern Art as a curator and writer. At the same time, he began working to establish his architectural practice. He built a small house, in the style of Mies, in Saaponack, Long Island in 1946. This was followed by one of his most famous buildings, which he built for himself; the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, completed in 1949, which has become a landmark of modern architecture.
The Glass House
Johnson, by Carl Van Vechten, April 10, 1963
The house is a 56 foot by 32 foot glass rectangle, sited at the edge of a crest on Johnson’s estate overlooking a pond. The building’s sides are glass and charcoal-painted steel; the floor, of brick, is not flush with the ground but sits 10 inches above. The interior is an open space divided by low walnut cabinets; a brick cylinder contains the bathroom and is the only object to reach floor to ceiling. The New York Times described it in 2005 as “one of the 20th century’s greatest residential structures. “Like all of Johnson’s early work, it was inspired by Mies, but its pure symmetry, dark colors and closeness to the earth marked it as a personal statement; calm and ordered rather than sleek and brittle.”
Johnson continued to add to the Glass House estate during each period of his career. He added a small pavilion with columns by the lake in 1963, an art gallery set into a hillside in 1965, a postmodern sculpture gallery with a glass roof in 1970; a castle-like library with a rounded tower in 1980; a concrete block tower dedicated to his friend Lincoln Kirstein, the founder of the New York City Ballet; a chain-link “ghost house” dedicated to Frank Gehry.
After completing the Glass House, he completed two more houses in New Canaan in a style similar to that of Mies; the Hodgson House (1951) and the Wiley House (1953). In 1953 he also created an architectural sculpture garden for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The Seagram Building
Johnson with plans for his Boston Central Library addition
In the same period, Johnson won commissions to coordinate the master plan of Lincoln Center, New York City’s new arts center, and to design that complex’s New York State Theater, built in a massive and unadorned modernist style. He also undertook his first foreign commission, the modernist art museum in Bielefeld, Germany, with a modernist facade clad in dark red stone, and a modernist colonnade of slender pillars (1968).
In 1967 Johnson entered a new phase of his career, founding a partnership with architect John Burgee. Johnson and Burgee won commissions for a series of new skyscrapers. including the IDS Center in Minneapolis (1973), and the two matching towers, facing each other like bookends, of Pennzoil Place in Houston, Texas. The two towers of Pennzoil Place have sloping roofs covering the top seven floors and are trapezoidal in form, created to leave two large triangual aras on the site, which are occupied with glass-covered lobbies designed like greenhouses. This idea was widely copied in skyscrapers in other cities.  
In the late 1970s Johnson applied landscape architecture to two significant projects in Texas. The Fort Worth Water Gardens opened in 1974, creating an urban landscape where visitors experience water in distinct ways. And in 1977 Johnson completed the spiraling white chapel and meditation garden at Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas.
Postmodern Period (1980–1990)
The Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California (1980) and Tower (1990)
The Williams Tower in Houston, Texas (1983)
Center for the Fine Arts (now Miami Art Museum), downtown Miami (1983)
550 Madison Avenue (formerly AT&T building and Sony Building) (1984)
Main entrance of 550 Madison Avenue (1984)
PPG Place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, (1984).
Lipstick Building, New York City (1986)
550 Madison Avenue (former AT&T Building) (1978–1984)
It was one thing to build a glass cathedral in California, and another to build a corporate headquarters skyscraper in the center of Manhattan, the showcase of modern architecture. Shortly after the Crystal Cathedral, working in collaboration with John Burgee, he completed one of his most recognizable buildings, the AT&T building (later named the Sony Building, and now 550 Madison Avenue). Built between 1978 and 1982, a skyscraper with an eight-story high arched entry and a split pediment at the top which resembled an enormous piece of 18th-century Chippendale furniture. It was not the first work of Postmodern architecture—Robert Venturi and Frank Gehry had already built smaller scale postmodern buildings, and Michael Graves had completed the Portland Building in Portland Oregon (1980–82) two years before the AT&T Building; and most of the building was in a traditional modernist style; but because of its Manhattan location and size it became the most famous example of postmodern architecture.
At about the same time as the AT&T Building, Johnson and Burgee completed other remarkable postmodern skyscrapers; the Bank of America Center (Formerly Republic Bank Center) in Houston (1983) and the PPG Place, the headquarters of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass company (1979–1984). Both buildings combined modern materials, construction and scale with suggestions of traditional architecture. The forms of PPG Place suggested the neogothic tower of the Houses of Parliament in London, while the Bank of America Center appeared inspired, on a colossal scale, the stepped houses of Flemish Renaissance architecture.
Later career and buildings (1991–2005)
DDC (Domus Design Collection) Showroom at New York City – Main Showroom
Chapel of St. Basil at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas (1992)
One Detroit Center in Detroit, Michigan (1991–1993)
“Da Monsta” the gatehouse of his Glass House residence (1995).
Gate of Europe towers in Madrid, Spain (1989–96)
Hines College of Architecture at the University of Houston (1985)
The Urban Glass House condominiums in New York (2006)
Pennsylvania Academy of Music (now The Ware Center) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (2008)
In 1986 Johnson and Burgee had moved their offices into one of their new buildings, the Lipstick building, the popular name of the skyscraper they built at 885 Third Avenue in New York, and given its nickname because of its resemblance to the color and shape of a stick of lipstick. Burgee, who wanted to play a larger role in the firm negotiated a smaller part for Johnson, and in 1988 the firm’s name was changed to John Burgee Architects with Philip as the design consultant. By 1991 Johnson had split with Burgee and opened up his own practice.
Working with John Burgee, Johnson did not confine himself to a single style, and was comfortable mixing elements of modernism and postmodernism. For the Cleveland Play House, he built a romanesque brick structure; for the Architecture School at the University of Houston, he said that his model was the French neoclassical architecture of the 18th-century architect French Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. His skyscrapers on the 1980s were skillfully constructed and clad in granite and marble, and usually had some feature borrowed from historic architecture. In New York he designed the Museum of Television and Radio, (now the Paley Center for Media) (1991).
After four years as a solo practitioner, Johnson invited Alan Ritchie to join him as a partner. Ritchie had been a partner for many years in the Johnson-Burgee office and was the partner-in-charge of the AT&T building and the 190 South Lasalle Street office building. In 1994 they formed the new practice of Philip Johnson>Alan Ritchie Architects. During the next ten years they worked closely together and yet again explored new directions in architecture, designing buildings as sculptural objects. Some of the buildings that expressed this were the Chapel of St. Basil at the university of St. Thomas, the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, the Habitable Sculpture (a 26-story apartment tower in lower Manhattan), The Children Museum in Guadalajara, Mexico, The Chrysler Center and DDC Showroom in NY. One of his last designs with Alan Ritchie, completed after his death, was the Urban Glass House, a condominium building in lower Manhattan which was an urban expression from his own earlier work, his famous Glass House residence. The final building he designed with Richie was the Pennsylvania Academy of Music building in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which was completed in 2008. Alan Ritchie now continues the Johnson legacy and design excellence and continues to explore the many ideas they developed together.
In 1991, Johnson received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.
Johnson, at the age of ninety-eight, died in his sleep while at his Glass House retreat on January 25, 2005. He was survived by his partner of 45 years, David Whitney, who died later that year at age 66.
Johnson was gay, and has been called “the best-known openly gay architect in America.” He came out publicly in 1993.
In his will Johnson left his residential compound to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is now open to the public.
Art collection and archives
Johnson’s publicly held archive, including architectural drawings, project records, and other papers up until 1964 are held by the Drawings and Archives Department of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University, the Getty, and the Museum of Modern Art.
Controversy over Nazi sympathies
A September 1940 article in Harper’s listed Johnson as among leading American Nazis. An FBI investigation found that “Johnson had developed extensive contacts with the German Propaganda and Foreign Ministries while in Germany and then returned to propagandize on the Nazis’ behalf in the United States.” He was not prosecuted. However, when he was considered for a possible government position, an FBI agent sent a memo to J. Edgar Hoover saying, “I can think of no more dangerous man to have working in an agency which possesses so many military secrets.”
In his Social Justice report on his trip to Poland, author Marc Wortman has observed, “Johnson declared that the German victory amounted to an unmitigated triumph for the Polish people and that nothing in the war’s outcome need concern Americans.” Johnson went on to say that German forces had not significantly harmed Polish civilians, and said that “99 percent of the towns I visited since the war are not only intact but full of Polish peasants and Jewish shopkeepers.” He said reports of Nazi mistreatment of Poles was “misinformed.”
Johnson wrote in Social Justice that “Lack of leadership and direction in the state has let the one group get control who always gain power in a nation’s time of weakness—the Jews,” he wrote. In a letter to a friend, he said, “We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.”
Johnson sought to distance himself from his views on Nazis after the outbreak of World War II. In 1993 he told Vanity Fair, “I have no excuse (for) such unbelievable stupidity. … I don’t know how you expiate guilt.”
In 1956, he donated a design for Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, New York. Architecture professor Anat Geva observed in a paper that “all critics agree that his design of the Port Chester Synagogue can be considered as his attempt to ask for forgiveness,” although Johnson never discussed the matter with the congregation. His biographer Schulze says the design was done “out of practicality not so much by shame following an investigation of his political activities.”
A 2018 New Yorker article notes that “in 1964, well after he had been forced to abjure his Nazi past, he insisted in letters that Hitler was ‘better than Roosevelt.'”
He appears in Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect, a 2003 documentary about Kahn’s father, Louis Kahn.
Philip Johnson’s Glass House, along with Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, was the subject of Sarah Morris’s 2010 film Points on a Line. Morris filmed at both sites over the course of several months, among other locations including The Four Seasons Restaurant, the Seagram Building, Mies van der Roheʼs controversial 860–880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, and Chicagoʼs Newberry Library.