The Legacy of Philip Johnson
Today is what would have been Philip Johnson’s 104th birthday. Philip Johnson was a renowned architect whose work covered the 20th century and many of its architectural styles. Coincidentally, questions of 20th and 21st century architecture have been appearing in the news recently, as Vanity Fair has published results of a survey on the most important works of architecture since 1980. The clear top choice was Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a building that Gehry says encompasses his vision of what was next for architecture—his reaction to the postmodernist style in which Johnson was a major player during the latter part of his practice.
Philip Johnson clearly stands as a predecessor and inspiration for the architects who are nominated in Vanity Fair. The accompanying article by Matt Tyrnauer in fact opens with Philip Johnson as he visits Bilbao (a moment you can also see in this Charlie Rose segment with Matt Tyrnauer), a work that led Johnson to declare Gehry the “‘greatest architect we have today.’” Vanity Fair’s poll mirrors Johnson’s sentiments; twenty-eight votes were cast in support of the Museum in Bilbao, gaining it the top ranking in the survey. Paul Goldberger, the author of the Yale Press book Why Architecture Matters, explains to Tyrnauer that Bilbao marked a major turning point in architectural history, one on which all agreed.
Philip Johnson’s works were also culturally significant, though not as universally well-liked as is the case with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. His AT&T building becomes one of the icons of postmodernism, but what makes it an icon—above all its roof which mimics Chippendale furniture—also makes it extremely controversial when built. His buildings have even become infamous beyond the architectural world; three floors of Johnson’s Lipstick Building became the headquarters of Bernie Madoff’s company.
In Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change, sixteen major figures in architecture, both study and practice, offer their perspectives on Johnson and his work. The volume matches multiple people with multiple notable and complex aspects of Johnson’s work and life. The essays focus in closely on Johnson, or cover broader subjects which relate to his architecture. With this variety of scholars commenting on the same and similar issues, the book offers up a variety of critical perspectives on the life, work, and ideas of Philip Johnson.
As Emmanuel Petit notes in his introduction, the “life span of an architect” is unclear, not necessarily limited the days of their birth and passing. Johnson must live on in his buildings, and in studies like Constancy of Change. There is much left to discuss and debate about Johnson and his buildings. The same will undoubtedly become true of Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.