Friday, March 4, 2005

People Who Live In Glass Houses . . . Philip Johnson, Architect, 1906-2005

Article published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #255, March 4, 2005)

The next time you look at the Minneapolis skyline and see the iconic IDS Center, remind yourself that its architect was a gay man. That architect, Philip Johnson, died Jan. 25 at the age of 98.

Johnson designed the IDS Center to be the center of a downtown that, prior to its construction, didn’t have one. The IDS Center and its Crystal Court became the hub of the Minneapolis skyway system, and both the building’s exterior and the interior of the Crystal Court became symbols of Minneapolis when they were used in the opening of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Every week millions of American television viewers caught a glimpse of Mary dining in the restaurant overlooking the Crystal Court; a plaque still commemorates the table where she dined.

Prior to the construction of the IDS Center the tallest building in Minneapolis was the Foshay Tower. At 51 stories (plus six more stories of mechanical equipment), the IDS Center dwarfed the Foshay. The IDS is still (barely) the tallest building in downtown Minneapolis; perhaps out of respect for Johnson, no one has yet built a taller one.

Philip Johnson was born July 8, 1906 in Cleveland, Ohio, to a well-to-do family. Published reports differ on the year he graduated from Harvard with a degree in philosophy—some say it was 1927, others 1930. While at Harvard he suffered a nervous breakdown that years later he attributed to the stresses of coming to terms with his homosexuality.

Johnson’s career involvement with architecture started in 1932. That year saw both his appointment as chairman of the Department of Architecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and his mounting of an exhibition at the museum called “The International Style: Architecture 1922-1932.” This was the first exposure many Americans had to the “modern” architectural style that came to dominate the middle of the 20th century: the boxy, glass-walled skyscraper.

After his involvement with architects and architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1940 Johnson went back to grad school at Harvard to study to be an architect. The first building Johnson designed is also one of his most famous: his own residence, the Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., which was his masters degree thesis.

Dating from 1949 and surrounded by woods, the one-story glass-and-steel house is completely transparent (except for a cylindrical brick core containing a fireplace and chimney in one half and a bathroom in the other half). At his first visit to the Glass House, fellow architect Frank Lloyd Wright found it hard to determine whether he was inside or outside and kiddingly asked Johnson whether or not he should remove his hat.

Johnson went on to become one of the leading advocates and practitioners of the International or modern style of architecture (the IDS Center, designed in 1969 and completed in 1973, is a relatively late example) before breaking with that style and embracing “postmodern” architecture. The Chippendale-topped AT&T Building in New York (now occupied by Sony) is the most notable (or notorious) example of Johnson’s postmodern work.

Another famous and instantly-recognizable building designed by Johnson is the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., home of the Garden Grove Community Church and Dr. Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power” television ministry. One of Johnson’s final designs was that of the new Cathedral of Hope in Dallas for a former Metropolitan Community Church congregation that is now independent.

Johnson was the winner of many awards including the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1978 and the first Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1979. However, Johnson was not universally loved, nor were his buildings. Twin Cities cartoonist Richard Guindon drew a memorable cartoon showing the Minneapolis skyline, which at the time consisted of the IDS Center and the Foshay Tower. The cartoon was captioned, “There’s the Foshay Tower, and there’s the box it came in.”

While Johnson was sometimes criticized as being a better publicist than architect, he in fact was the most famous architect of his time and the epitome of the socially-prominent, modern-day architect as celebrity. He could be brash and outspoken and liked to say things that shocked, referring repeatedly to himself and other architects as “whores” who were paid very well for their services. (But a survey of architects will generally show that one doesn’t design structures on such a grand scale unless one has a sizeable ego.)

Befitting his celebrity, Johnson’s death brought a flurry of attention and coverage in both television and print media. Much of the television coverage omitted any mention of the fact that Johnson was gay. Print media stories gave more in-depth coverage of Johnson’s life. Some reports mentioned his homosexuality and some even mentioned that Johnson was survived by David Whitney, an art dealer and curator who was Johnson’s “companion” for over 40 years.

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