Architect Philip Johnson Dies

carousel, Katie Couric interviews William Powers, author of Hamlet's Blackberry, about unplugging in a wired age. CBS

Philip Johnson, the innovative architect who promoted the "glass box" skyscraper and then smashed the mold with daringly nostalgic post-modernist designs, has died. He was 98.

Johnson died Tuesday night in New Canaan, Conn., where he lived, according to Joel S. Ehrenkranz, his lawyer. John Elderfield, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, also confirmed the death Wednesday.

Johnson's work ranged from the severe modernism of his own home to the Chippendale-topped AT&T Building in New York City, now owned by Sony.

"There's only one reason for my whole life and that's art. Nothing else counts, nothing else gives me pleasure, nothing else gives me satisfaction," Johnson said in a 1998 interview with CBS News Correspondent John Roberts.

Then 92, Johnson told Roberts he didn't think of himself as an old timer: "Heavens no, I never think of it at all. There's no such thing as old age. I'm no different now than I was 50 years ago. I'm just having more fun."

Johnson and his partner, John Burgee, designed the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., an ecclesiastical greenhouse that is wider and higher than Notre Dame in Paris; the RepublicBank in Houston, a 56-story tower of pink granite stepped back in a series of Dutch gable roofs; and the Cleveland Playhouse, a complex with the feel of an 11th century town.

"Architecture is basically the design of interiors, the art of organizing interior space," Johnson said in a 1965 interview.

He expressed a loathing for buildings that are "slide-rule boxes for maximum return of rent," and once said his great ambition was "to build the greatest room in the world — a great theater or cathedral or monument. Nobody's given me the job."

In 1980, however, he completed his great room, the Crystal Cathedral. If architects are remembered for their one-room buildings, Johnson said, "This may be it for me."

He got even more attention with the AT&T Building in New York City, breaking decisively with the glass towers that crowded Manhattan. He created a granite-walled tower with an enormous 90-foot arched entryway and a fanciful top that seemed more appropriate for a piece of furniture.

The building generated controversy, but it marked a sharp turn in architectural taste away from the severity of modernism. Other architects felt emboldened to experiment with styles, and commissions poured into the offices of Johnson-Burgee.

Most were corporate palaces: the Transco II and RepublicBank towers in Houston; a 23-story, neo-Victorian office building in San Francisco, graced with three human figures at the summit; a mock-gothic glass tower for PPG Industries in Pittsburgh.

"The people with money to build today are corporations — they are our popes and Medicis," Johnson said. "The sense of pride is why they build."

But his large projects at times ran into a buzz saw of criticism from local preservationists and even fellow architects. In 1987, he was replaced as designer of the second phase of the New England Life Insurance Co. headquarters in Boston after residents complained about the project's size and style.

Critics unearthed a quotation he had made at a conference a couple of years earlier: that "I am a whore and I am paid very well for high-rise buildings." Johnson said later his choice of words was unfortunate and he only meant that architects need to be able to compromise with developers if they want to see them built.

Philip Cortelyou Johnson was born July 8, 1906, in Cleveland, the only son of Homer H. Johnson, a well-to-do attorney, and his wife, Louise. After graduating with honors from Harvard in 1927 with a degree in philosophy, he toured Europe and became interested in new styles of architecture.

That interest became his life's work in 1932, when Johnson was appointed chairman of the department of architecture of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That same year, he mounted an influential exhibition, "The International Style: Architecture 1922-1932."

Johnson was especially enthusiastic about the work of the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who called for designs that express a building's structure in the most direct and economical way possible. Under such a doctrine, if a building is supported by steel columns, they should be left visible instead of being masked behind stone or brick.
  • Dan Collins

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