Phillip Johnson is dead and for the most part the public will glance at the page-one notice, acknowledge that 96 years is a long life and turn to the sports section. Such is the minor fame of major architects in a fame-glutted society.
Johnson, it seems to me, had several attributes that allowed him to move easily and powerfully through the world of architecture . . . and a dizzying, spiteful, jealous and egotistical world it is: he was independently wealthy, intellectually curious, smart, enormously enthusiastic and willing. A good many contemporaries shared the first qualities but were lacking in the last . . . willingness is not the same as self-promotional, it shrugs off the consequence of being wrong and there’s great strength in that.
Johnson was famously politically wrong and it says a good deal about his charm and intellect that, being so wrong about Hitler, he was able to move on to collaborate and learn from Mies van der Rohe and then move on again. Architects are famous for not moving on. Like pros on the PGA tour, most cling to their swing long after it’s failed them. Phillip moved on and in doing that he left some great, some not-so-great and some truly awful buildings behind him.
Even so, Johnson never succumbed to telling (to build is to tell in this instance) the architectural joke that’s been so in vogue for the past couple of decades. The AT&T building came close, with its chippendale top, but that was more smile than guffaw. The currently hot Frank Ghereyesque crowd tell each other architectural jokes and see how far they can push public acceptance of the outrageous-as-serious. But like a joke that’s funny the first time, these buildings are retold each time they’re seen and the joke soon becomes old, then tiresome, finally petty and degrading. Johnson’s ego, which was large enough, had plenty of room for the celebration of others and while he reveled in the gossip of his profession, wit was important to him. But it was delivered from a scalpel rather than a cleaver.
Whether any of this is important in the day-to-day business of getting buildings built is not debatable . . . it most assuredly is important. Someone designs the spaces within which we live and work. That design has to solve the problems of proposed use, budget, space, zoning laws, traffic pattern and ‘liveability,” whatever the hell that is.
It’s the whatever-the-hell-that-is that Phillip Johnson was good at and he went after it with the zeal of a horseman after a foxhound. Men like that shape the daily experience of walking in and out of buildings and when they’re gone, we miss them. Even if we were not personally aware of them, we miss them.