“Phillip Johnson”

This presentation will focus on the theories of architecture that builds the basis of Philip Johnson’s design and thinking throughout his career as an Architect. We will firstly explore some key factors in his lifetime and then later, more in depth discuss his intellectual background, theories in relation to philosophy, design and the arts, his criticisms and how he still influences the design world today.

Historical Context 

He was born in the early 1900’s when the architectural world was in its modernist era. During the time when Johnson was in Harvard studying Philosophy, Mies van der Rohe, one of the pioneers of modernist architecture movement, began his design for the German Pavilion. Mies would later be a mentor of Johnson in his career.

Johnson early in his life had an interest in philosophy, architect and arts, and took part in curating exhibitions.


He later studied architecture, and designed The Glass House which was inspired by Mies Farnsworth House design drawings, which have similarities in design, however the glass house was built 2 years earlier. Mies then meets Johnson who became associate architect for the Seagram building. Johnson's career continued to develop, specifically in the postmodernist era, and later won a Pritzker Prize.


 Mies and Johnson

Mies van der Rohe influenced a lot of Johnson’s architectural design work. Mies worked closely as Johnson’s mentor early in his life when he began implementing himself in the art world. Johnson was an associate architect for the Seagram Building.

Whilst focusing on a career in architecture, he also took part in curating exhibitions in MoMA New York. The art work that he looked at will be discussed further on.



Intellectual Background

Johnson studied Greek philosophy in Harvard, particularly the work of the pre-socratic philosophers. This philosophy asked questions in relations to the “essence of things”. Philosophers of that time would question where everything came from? How they came to be? The combination of philosophy and Johnson’s interests in the arts influenced his career and designs.



Relationship with the Arts

Johnson was fond of collecting art work in the avante-garde movement. This movement explores art that is innovatory, introducing or exploring new forms or subject matter. These key ideas linking closely to his studies in philosophy.

Johnson was highly interested in the Machine Art, where machine-made objects, such as springs, pots, instruments were displayed as sculptural pieces.



How Theory Informs Architecture (Part 1)

The theories of Forms by Plato is an argument of non-physical forms that represent reality accurately. In other words, in philosophy we argue that everyone knows what a circle looks like, but no one has ever seen a perfect circle.

The postmodernist era, in architecture, rejects pure shapes and strict rules set by modernist architects. Instead it seeks to design with sophisticated and angular buildings using advanced techniques, materials and technology.



 How Theory Informs Architecture (Part 2)

Phillip Johnson had a few major shifts in his thinking that underpinned his architecture. In his first period fascinated with modern architecture and Mies van der Rohe he explored qualities of modern architecture which resulted in an exhibition organized along with Henry Russel HItchcock through which the term of the “International style” emerged.

He then started experimenting with decorative classicism in which he combined modern and decorative elements of architecture. That’s how his interest in post modern architecture emerged which is symbolized by the AT&T building.


  The International Style

The international style aim to express the volume of design over mass, balance rather than symmetry and removal of ornamentation. Adolf Loos wrote an essay “Ornament and Crime” exploring this earlier during the modernist era. Some key characteristics emerged along with the advancements of technology.  For example, the adoption of increased glass used in facade, steel and concrete, simplifying forms and honest expression of structure.



How Theories underpin design

The theory behind a design defines its background as well as direct where the design is going. An example of this AT&T Building which was a way of announcing that architecture was experiencing the maturation of a new evolutionary phase, which was Postmodernism.



The Architecture of Light

Light has always been important in architecture. The distribution of natural light in space is an important factor in contributing to the success of a building. With advancements in technology, it was possible to build large structures to support glass facades, curtain walls and canopies.

Johnson designed the world's largest glass building in 1981, The Crystal Cathedral.

Light was important feature in religious buildings as it is a metaphor of god. The building was made predominantly of steel with glass cladding.



Architecture as a Shelter

Another theory looks at architecture as a shelter in both physical and metaphorical sense. A shelter for ideas, concepts, ideology but a space designed to offer stimulation for these ideas and concepts. An example of this is the Crystal Cathedral, which captured the zeitgeist (zeet-guyst) of its era and combined elements of consumer culture with religion.



 Application to Design: 550 Madison Avenue Building

The geometry used in the AT&T building is indicative of both a return to the perfect forms pursued by renaissance mathematician architects and a desire to break free from modernism characteristics. The use of a masonry facade brings to life the idea of “decorated shed” coined by Robert Venturi, an architect who influenced Johnson in his Post-Modern period. Structural and spatial programme of the building respond to the requirements of the brief, whereas use of masonry is purely aesthetic.



Application to Design: Pennzoli Tower

The concept used in Pennzoli Tower looks for elements from modernist architect and alters it. We can see that in its design form, Johnson cut up the form of the seagram building in half and created a mirror image, which formed this unique design. This design later influenced many American skyscraper.



Criticism: The Glass House

One of the criticisms were made by Mies himself. The one-story house has an open floor plan. The structure, however, did not impress Mies when he visited the house, who interpreted it as a lack of thought in the detail.



Criticism: Farnsworth House and Glass House Comparison

Mies talks about ‘free space’ in Farnsworth House in relation to flexibility in design, however Johnson’s Glass house is more rigid, and the architect had more control on how the space is occupied and used. Johnson’s Glass House features clusters of large and small objects throughout the interior and doorways on all four walls, the interior of the Farnsworth house is unrelenting in its ordered geometry and this was something the Farnsworth family discovered only through living in the house over time.




TIME Magazine featured Johnson on its January 1979 issue front cover. Critic Robert Hughes, in the article, examined Postmodernism and suggested Johnson as its leading pioneer. That same year, Johnson was the first ever recipient of the Pritzker Prize, established by the Pritzker family in Chicago to honour the world's most influential architects.





Influences on Present Day - Thinking

Before the era of Post-Modernism, Architecture was based on very strict rules, and in some ways within a border in terms of creating designs that produce true forms. What Post-Modernism did was reject the modernist thinking. This allowed for this style to evolve through architects such as Zaha Hadid, OMA, and Norman Foster.




Influences on Present Day - Practices

Philip Johnson’s smaller works arguably has little influence on present day architecture because it seems that from his glass house along with others, they were mostly influenced and inspired by Mies van der Rohe, which made his smaller works seem more of him paying homage to his mentor.
On the other hand, with his larger designs such as the interior space of the four seasons dining in the Seagram Building, the glass cathedral and 550 Madison Avenue influenced a great deal of post-modern architecture by being against formality, and shaping a new style which allows the use of different characteristics of different architectural style into one design.



Influences - Person Design as a Student

As a student, learning and designing are based on the use of precedents.

Although we may not be directly influenced by Johnson, his work has still contributed to a large part in the architectural world. He played a large part in building the foundations of post modernist architecture and continued to learn and develop from the past.

As Johnson once said “There's no worse feeling than seeing my buildings and realising the mistakes”. Instead of seeing this negatively, perhaps it suggests that there is always something to learn and develop from.




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