Interview with Philip Johnson
Architects & Firms
"After 50 years, you shouldn't do the same thing," says Philip Johnson, FAIA, describing his recent design for a multidomed, Byzantine-inspired addition to the Robert C. Wiley House, a chaste, Modernist box he designed in 1956. The comment, of course, could apply to Johnson's career in general. Architecture's great chameleon, Johnson has changed his colors with nearly every passing style—delighting the media with his nimble aesthetic and annoying colleagues who staked their reputations on the last wave. From his heralding of the International Style in 1932 to his stripped-down neoclassical designs for the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center (1964) and the Boston Public Library (1973) and his championing of Postmodernism in the 1980s and Deconstructionism in the 1990s, Johnson has always anticipated the next great thing. He has famously called himself "a whore," and some critics have agreed. As he turns 95 on July 8, he's still designing in many modes—from three-dimensional collage for a real-estate developer in New York City to whimsical historicism for a fan in Vermont. Now in partnership with Alan Ritchie, Johnson comes to his office in the Seagram Building three days a week and works on projects large and small, from New Canaan to Qatar. Recently he and Ritchie discussed their new work with RECORD's Clifford Pearson and Suzanne Stephens.
Architectural Record: You have projects in various stages of development all over the world—from an addition to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, to a folly in Vermont and a mixed-use, urban redevelopment project in Liverpool, England. That's a lot to juggle, isn't it?
It's a real dichotomy of types and scales, yes. But that's what keeps it fun. I tell Alan that as long as it stays fun, he can count me in.
Let's talk about some of these new projects. You have a 26-story residential tower on Spring Street in Manhattan that was recently announced. It doesn't look like anything else you have designed.
It's all sculpture. I stacked a lot of blocks on top of each other to create a free-form sculpture that kind of recalls Dutch Expressionism from the 1920s. The blocks are Cubist forms, and each will have a different kind of brick to pick up the colors of the neighboring buildings, which are mostly 19th- and 20th-century warehouses. All of the windows will be old-fashioned double-hung windows. I call it "the revenge of the double-hung."
Would you call this a Modern building?
(laughing): Modern is what I say it is.
The project is right next to the historic James Brown House, which is an early-19th-century landmark. How does your high-rise building relate to its three-story neighbor?
Well, it picks up the old windows and the different colors of brick found in the area. The client, Nino Vendome, started with a sandwich shop next door, then moved into real estate. So he knows the area. Now he wants to contribute a piece of sculpture to the neighborhood.
Alan Ritchie: Architecture joining with sculpture—that's what we've been exploring in a range of projects over the past few years.
Tell us about the 4,000-square-foot addition to the Wiley House in New Canaan that you are designing for a young family.
Well, it's a new owner and a new era, so we wanted to do something different. The addition will be two groups of domes—like clusters of grapes of different sizes. Each dome will be stuccoed and a different color. Our idea is to use summer colors: red, orange, yellow. It will be like a village of Byzantine domes with no windows, just glass doors and light coming in from the top, like at the Pantheon.
AR: You also have two small-scale projects: a sculpture in Vermont and one for the Sheikh of Qatar.
The sculpture in Vermont I originally designed for my own backyard. It's the dome of St. Peter's, 20 feet in diameter and pierced by a unicorn horn. For your backyard you make a joke. It's ridiculous. The client, a man named Chuck Meyer—not to be confused with Richard Meier—loved the idea of a folly on his property. The dome will be cast in aluminum or some kind of fiberglass. The sculpture for the sheikh will be poured concrete 30 feet high and 50 feet wide. The key to the design is the opening, the slit in the continuous form.
AR: You're working with a young British firm, Studio BAAD, on a big project in Liverpool. How is that going?
Ritchie: It's been going through a difficult process. It's a large project—over 1.2 million square feet of shopping, movie houses, recreation, and park land linking the old heart of Liverpool to the city's docks and waterfront. The docks had long been cut off from the rest of Liverpool, and our site has been essentially a derelict park. The project goes up for city approval in September or October. The public seems to want it, but you never know what's going to happen. I figure we have a 50-50 chance of getting the okay. We're quite excited about the design, especially the roof structure, which is a swooping glass umbrella that covers but doesn't totally enclose the space. We worked with Arup on the engineering of the project.
PJ: The structure is like a Möbius strip, twisting and then curving back on itself. It's really quite interesting.