I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Philip Johnson: Mise-en-scène of an Architect

by Dr. Emmanuel Petit
July 22, 2013

Here we go again: thanks to Network Awesome Magazine, architect Philip Johnson gets another, posthumous occasion to expose his persona to a wide audience. In this video, Johnson displays the blasé, self-satisfied, and self-congratulatory egocentrism for which he became so famous. Barbaralee Diamondstein’s soft and devout interview style plays right into Johnson’s game, and helps this episode of American Architecture Now turn into another exercise in hagiography: it is quickly apparent that no intellectual trap is to be expected from the interviewer, and that in consequence, the interviewee recapitulates the seductions of Sophistry, which he developed over the years. There is no question that the charisma of Johnson’s persona, however, constitutes the gravitational center of the magnetism he has exercised on the cultural sphere.

Under the banner of personal “freedom” and “fun,” Johnson relishes debasing some of the most fundamental cultural achievements of the West in the interview--such as the value of education (“what artist went to school?”), the artistic commitment to the development of society (“I am a whore”), and the importance of subjecting the self to the social contracts of democracy (“there’s only one good client, and that is oneself”). These views were considered mal mots then as much as they are now; however, their funniness should not conceal the fact that they mirror Johnson’s particular attitude towards the world around us. On the one hand, the satire behind his assertions has been embedded in the “Enlightenment project” since its beginning--think of Voltaire, who complained that he had been forced to study “Latin and the Stupidities” at the Jesuit college Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Without doubt, the rhetoric of satire and irony have an intrinsic function in the creation of the Western weltanschauung. On the other hand, Johnson’s farcical statements are attributable to an existentialist streak of thinking that inhabited him following the disasters of both World Wars, which he lived through. According to this attitude, truth is not found, but made by strong personalities, whose aesthetic sensibility transcends the cognitive faculty of the masses: “Architecture in the main is something that is more apt to be run by popes, kings and generals than by public vote,” Johnson stated, “and so I got interested in getting things done in a grand way.”5 Johnson played no negligible role in reconfirming the saga of the celebrity-architect, whose judgment in matters of architecture in the form of his endorsement or veto could either make or break whole careers; as such, he promoted “the kids”--a younger generation of architects, who would become the spokespersons of East Coast American architecture (Meier, Gwathmey, Stern, Gehry, Eisenman, Kipnis ...). But it should not go unmentioned that, as a young man, Johnson made some wrong choices, when he was star struck by the aesthetics of power surrounding Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Not only did Johnson cover the Nazi invasion into Poland as a German wartime correspondent to Father Coughlin’s extreme right-wing paper Social Justice18--a mistake which he later blamed on his innocent hunger for “total excitement” and his “lust for power.” A few years later and with the help of Alan Blackburn, Johnson would also launch a Fascist group in the United States called the Gray Shirts, later renamed Young Nationalists. He never expressed remorse for this.

In his acceptance speech for the first Pritzker Prize ever to be awarded, in 1979, Johnson declared that “The practice of architecture is the most delightful of all pursuits.” The term “delightful” reveals his bias for architecture as a nontheoretical and nonmethodical art practice. Every built and written statement of his invokes new inspirations, which he quickly picked up and just as rapidly exchanged with other ideas. Johnson saw architecture as an art for the eyes—one of the traditional loci of the “subjective” perspective. He inherited this interest from the teachings of the architecture historian, who taught him how to “see” history, and designated Henry-Russell Hitchcock the “eye scholar.” With Hitchcock, Johnson had collaborated on the book The International Style in 1932, which established him as an impresario of the visual arts. Johnson’s legacy will be the reintroduction of “history” into architecture after modernism had, to a large extend, expunged it from discourse and practice. For Johnson, architectural history was a repository of ideas that were all available for reinterpretation by contemporary architects; in the series of pavilions in his New Canaan estate, he demonstrated his aptitude to appropriate different moments of history and shape them into a personal narrative of self-discovery and self-promotion. In his most important text, “The Seven Crutches of Architecture” from the mid-1950s, Johnson designated “history” as one of the “crutches”--which “we all use at times.” In the essay, he dismantles seven central themes of modernist architectural methodology, while acknowledging the greatness of men like Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright. “Isn’t it wonderful, he asserts in 1954, to have behind us the tradition, the work that those men have done? Can you imagine being alive at a more wonderful time? Never in history was the tradition so clearly demarked, never were the great men so great, never could we learn so much from them and go our own way, without feeling constricted by any style.”

Emmanuel Petit is Associate Professor in the School of Architecture at Yale University, teaching architectural design and the history and theory of architecture. He received his Ph.D. and Master of Arts from Princeton University, and his diploma in architecture from the ETH in Zurich. 
Petit is editor of Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change (Yale Press, 2009), which was published with the support of the Graham Foundation and which received an Independent Publisher Award; he is editor of Stanley Tigerman's Schlepping Through Ambivalence: Writings on An American Architectural Condition (Yale Press, 2011), and author of Irony, Or, The Self-Critical Opacity of Postmodern Architecture (Yale Press, 2013), supported by the Graham Foundation.
Petit is curator of the traveling exhibition "Ceci n'est pas une rêverie: The Architecture of Stanley Tigerman" (New Haven & Chicago, 2011-12); he curated "An Architect's Legacy: James Stirling’s Students at Yale, 1959 - 83" (2010-11), and co-curated Peter Eisenman’s “Barefoot on White-Hot Walls,” Museum for Applied Art, Vienna, 2004. 
He is a partner in the architecture firm Jean Petit Architectes in Luxembourg City, and co-founding partner at EPISTEME Architects in New Haven.