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The Philip Johnson Tapes: Interviews by Robert A.M. Stern, Edited by Kazys Varnelis

The Philip Johnson Tapes is a juicy romp through the greater part of twentieth-century American architectural culture narrated by Johnson (1906-2005) to his good friend and acolyte, Robert A.M. Stern, during the course of several months in 1985. Philip Johnson is dead, long live Philip Johnson! The recording of his gossipy utterances has become something of a cottage industry. Some examples focus more on the man and less on the architecture: Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words (1994); Philip Johnson: Life & Work (1996); Philip Johnson & Texas (2000).

For me, when Johnson died in 2005, it was almost as if some part of modern architecture died with him. Too young and far away from New York to have known him as a power player on the contemporary scene, I will always recall Johnson as a strange, wrinkled, seemingly immortal chimera, or maybe vampire, hovering at the edges of American architecture culture. This book, written as a dialog between Johnson and Stern with Johnson doing most of the talking, shows how deeply entwined he was in the formation this culture. Chapters include those on his upbringing and education at the Harvard GSD under Gropius, activities at MoMA, his fascist interlude, armed service in World War II, his architectural practice, and several discussions about such seminal projects as the Seagram Building and Lincoln Center. Of particular interest to Houstonians will be the passages describing people who worked with him in Houston: Hugo V. Neuhaus Jr. (“There was one boy who was much richer than I was [at the Harvard GSD in 1940],” 78.); Dominique de Menil (“She had violent artistic taste,” 119); Jane Blaffer Owen (“Her interest in me was physical,” 168); and Gerald Hines (“…if we couldn’t persuade him, we did what he said,” 181).

Johnson is credited with bringing Modernism to Texas and pretty much everywhere else in this country. The book sheds light on how he became so influential through what Varnelis describes as Johnson’s “endless discussion of who he knew, when he knew them and what connections he was able to make,” a “dangerous history…that could not be revealed during his lifetime” (194). But really, and as the designers among us can all attest, isn’t all architecture made of this? Who knew who? What was your lucky break? A client, e.g. your mother or college roommate made good, a publication, a friendly critic?

What interested me in reading these interviews was to see Johnson outlining this activity with such precision and obvious pleasure, when, as Varnelis implies, it should rather be concealed so critics and the public can revel in the unanalyzed eruption of “genius” (Zeitgeist, perhaps?) that underlie conventional architecture history narratives. The only other book I have read that dared explore this “dangerous” theme was Roxanne Williamson’s mostly forgotten American Architects and the Mechanics of Fame (1991). Had Williamson written twenty years later, it would have been satisfying to see her meticulously chart Johnson’s personal and business connections as she did those of Sullivan, Wright, Richardson, McKim, Mead & White, Latrobe, Bulfinch, Kahn, and those she labeled “The European Immigrant Masters in the Twentieth Century.”

The chapter on the Seagram Building (1958) best illuminates the manner in which Johnson the critic and Johnson the architect acted both as handmaiden and midwife to the creation of important works of architecture, or, in this case, an uncontested masterpiece of modern design. It started when Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, daughter of Samuel Bronfman, president of the Joseph E. Seagram Company, the largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the world, “felt something was wrong” (137) with the way her father’s company was planning to build a new headquarters building in Manhattan. She was directed to Johnson, then director of the Department of Architecture, after inquiring at MoMA to seek advice. Johnson accompanied her on a series of interviews with prominent architects (Pei, Saarinen, Wright). He specifically said he “kept completely still” (137) when she spoke of Mies. But what does that mean? By the 1950s, Johnson had known Mies for over twenty years; he had hired Mies to design the interior fit out for his apartment in 1930 and had written the first monograph in any language on the architect as part of a MoMA exhibition in 1947.

We may never know how “still” he completely was when asked to enumerate Mies’s merits. Was this obvious silence, in contrast to his volubility in discussing the others, perhaps a signal to Lambert of Johnson’s respect for Mies? During the course of design and construction Johnson “filled in the little holes where Mies either didn’t want to or didn’t complete things.” (141). When challenged by Paul Rudolph on this subservient relationship, Johnson countered that “I got my foot in the door by working with Mies” (147). Johnson surely took pleasure in seeing Mies’s rise from a semi-obscure apartment outfitter to become one of the most respected architects in the world due in no small part to his acolyte’s tireless stumping. Shortly after, Johnson made the transition from a house architect to a designer of large buildings. The cover of Peter Blake’s monograph, Philip Johnson (1996) shows his mature masterpiece, Pennzoil Place (1976), a twinned, sharply angular office tower in Houston built for Hines and clad in a dark-tinted glass skin that bears more than a passing resemblance to Seagrams of some twenty years earlier.

The crisp graphic design, especially the helpful footnotes giving additional information on the many dropped names, along with interesting illustrations (it was fun to see a photo of Hugo Neuhaus’s house in Houston), make this book a pleasant read. Hopefully we can look forward to seeing more like it.

The Philip Johnson Tapes: Interviews by Robert A.M. Stern
Edited by Kazys Varnelis
Monacelli Press 2008, 207 pages, Hardcover, $40
Designed by Michael Beirut of Pentagram

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