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Arbiter of taste, enfant terrible: The best and worst of Philip Johnson

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The prolific 20th-century American architect’s work, ranked by the author of Johnson’s mega-biography

Philip Johnson’s idiosyncratic oval pavilion, which opened as the “Tent of Tomorrow” for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York.
Philip Johnson’s idiosyncratic oval pavilion, which opened as the “Tent of Tomorrow” for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York.
Valerii Iavtushenko / Shutterstock

If there is anything to be gleaned from Mark Lamster’s new biography of Philip Johnson, The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century, it’s that Johnson was a walking contradiction.

That applied to his personality (he could be both magnanimous and cruel), his politics (an anti-Semite who counted Jews among his closest friends), and above all his architecture, which ranged from the zenith of civic and aesthetic achievement to the nadir of opportunistic cynicism.

Courtesy of Little, Brown

In this spirit, we asked Lamster (who should know: He worked on this book for nine years) to consider the output, listing what he considers to be Johnson’s most successful buildings, and the ones that haven’t exactly held up under the 21st century’s exacting lens.

The best

The Glass House, New Canaan, CT, 1949
Johnson’s home, and the New Canaan estate on which it sits, is a unique and uncompromising exercise in modern design executed over more than half a century. Like much of Johnson’s work and life, it is polarizing: Mies van der Rohe, in particular, detested it, thinking it a poor derivation of his own Farnsworth House. (In a particularly PJ maneuver, Johnson managed to complete the Glass House before Mies could get the Farnsworth built.) Either way, you cannot understand Johnson without understanding this place apart from the world, where he shaped his ever-shifting vision.

Love it or hate it, Johnson’s 1949 Glass House—which he designed for himself in New Canaan, Connecticut—helped dictate a typology for the “modern glass box” we know today.
Photo by Mark Lamster

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, New York, NY, 1953
Although MoMA’s sculpture garden has been shaped and reshaped and compromised by the museum’s various building campaigns, it remains the model of a modern urban oasis. Johnson once dreamed of putting a dome over it. (Fortunately that didn’t happen, or it would reside in a different section of this list.)

The Seagram Building, New York, NY, 1958
Johnson was the co-architect, with Mies, of the sine-qua-non of modern office towers, and his contribution is routinely undervalued. Yes, the vision came from Mies, but much of the detailing was Johnson. And the Four Seasons, the immaculate cafeteria that begat the so-retro-as-to-seem-quaint Power Lunch, was his alone.

Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 1963
This gallery for pre-Columbian art, an addition to the Dumbarton Oaks museum in Georgetown, is a true hidden gem, with practically no visible exterior. Connected to the main building by an umbilical glass hall, it is a tic-tac-toe grid of nine circular, domed rooms, with a fountain in the center square. The materials are exquisite—marble, wood, curved glass—and if it is not the very best place for the display of art, it is among the most opulent.

IDS Center, Minneapolis, MN, 1973
Widely imitated (I’m looking at you, Trump Tower), IDS introduced the zig-zag corner, making it possible to have enough corner offices to please law firms with long partner lists. The sheer gridded-glass stalk remains a principal landmark on the Minneapolis skyline. But the real magic is the Crystal Court at the base, a glorious public atrium featured prominently in the credits of none other than The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He made it after all.

Pennzoil Place, Houston, TX, 1976
Houston’s twin towers, with their angled roofs and shared atrium, are the apogee of modernist commercial design, and that was the idea: to forego building the tallest, and instead build the most distinctive. One of the towers was for Pennzoil, the other was for its sister, Zapata Oil—the business founded by future president George H. W. Bush.

Chapel of Hope, Dallas, TX, 2010 (posthumous)
Johnson was commissioned to build a cathedral for this LGBT congregation, which had been decimated by AIDS. When there wasn’t enough money, he designed this chapel, which was finished five years after his death. Light as a cloud, it acts as a bit of sunny optimism amidst the auto-dealerships and strip malls of Dallas.

The Interfaith Peace Chapel at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, “a commission for the world’s largest predominantly gay and lesbian congregation.” Johnson called the project “‘emotional,’ and the banal, functional surroundings actually emphasize that quality.”
Photo by Mark Lamster

The worst

Third City, unbuilt, 1966
Conceived as a make-work project when Johnson was short of business, and later quietly exhibited at MoMA, this urban renewal scheme by one of America’s most famous preservationists proposed knocking down a square mile of Harlem and replacing it with a walled city centered around a pair of 150-story towers.

Bobst Library, New York, NY, 1973
Also known as book prison, NYU’s dystopian library is so dreary its open arcades needed to be glassed in because it had become such a popular spot for student suicides. A space designed more for events than research or study, all defined by a big void—a Johnson signature.

The Longmeadow Redstone facade of Johnson’s Bobst Library for NYU, finished in 1973 and designed with Richard Foster.
photosounds / Shutterstock

1001 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, 1978
This building was a mess before Johnson even arrived on the scene. He then provided a suitably elegant façade to an apartment tower on the most hoity-toity block of Fifth Avenue, across from the Met. But his dopey faux-mansard roof pleased nobody. Even the firm, in its own monograph, tried to wash its hands of the project.

Hines College of Architecture University of Houston, TX, 1985
Johnson outraged faculty at the architecture school with his design, a copy of C.N. Ledoux’s House of Education, a speculative project from the 1770s. Besides a lack of originality, it seemed a poor fit for its use, with an atrium that looked like something out of an upscale mall.

American Business Center, Berlin, Germany, 1997
Here is Johnson, on a site of deep historic significance, mixing his postmodern and deconstructivist tendencies into a single bloated building. The exterior is boring, and the interior is worse: Its coffered central hall inescapably recalls the Reichschancellery of Albert Speer, a fan of Johnson’s work. Bad optics, to say the least, given Johnson’s pro-Nazi history.

St. Basil’s, Houston, TX, 1997
Sitting at the head of his own Mies-meets-Jefferson campus for the University of St. Thomas, St. Basil’s is the most preposterous product of Johnson’s “deconstructivist” phase, a box with a wall slicing through it for no reason. The real crime is on the interior, where Johnson turns a crucifix—a symbol of the greatest sacrifice—into an excuse for empty formal gamesmanship.

What do you get when you cross a cube, a sphere, and a diagonal plane? The worst of Johnson’s deconstructivist phase, that’s what. The Chapel of St. Basil opened in Houston in 1997.
Photo by Mark Lamster

Riverside South, New York, NY, 1998-2005
An utterly banal phalanx of towers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, built for Donald Trump. Originally known as Television City, the project was scaled down, but even in its reduced state lacks any kind of architectural character, and still seems to exist on its own, separate from the rest of the city, a vertical suburb.

Deep cuts

Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, 1961
Perhaps his most underrated building, because of its critically unfashionable modern classical façade of (ahem, beautiful) Texas shellstone. But inside it is modern and logical and spare, and gives an unexpected dignity to the museum’s extraordinary collection of Western art—in particular Frederic Remington and Charles Russell—work that is typically seen in kitschy period settings.

Johnson’s circa-1961 edifice housing Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum entails a modern structure built with vernacular materials.
Photo by Mark Lamster

The New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, New York, NY, 1964
The idea of an arts complex like Lincoln Center, set apart from the city as a cultural acropolis, seems dated and ill-conceived today, but if you move beyond the formalist aesthetics and Robert Moses-driven urban renewal planning of the complex, there is much to admire, and Johnson’s theater above all. Its grand promenade is unquestionably one of New York’s greatest rooms, and the theater itself is a giant jewel box that is at once a technical achievement and a wonderful venue for viewing America’s most celebrated and influential dance company.

The New York State Pavilion, Queens, NY, 1964
The bizarre relic in Flushing Meadows is like nothing else in Johnson’s catalog. The massive oval pavilion, with its concrete columns and steel cables, was created as the Tent of Tomorrow for the 1964 World’s Fair. Adjacent is the Cyclorama building, which had originally been decorated with works by Johnson’s Pop artist friends—except Andy Warhol, whose contribution was too controversial. But it is most famous for the three observation towers with their flying saucer tops, featured to brilliant effect in the final scene of the film Men in Black.

AT&T Building, New York, NY, 1984
Was he serious? The Chippendale cap seemed like a joke, but the monumental arcade at the base seemed deathly. With the breakup of AT&T, it was obsolete before it was finished, and it was among the most controversial buildings of the 20th century way before even then—Johnson was even on the cover of TIME holding a model of it five years before its completion. What is AT&Ts legacy? A recent fight brought out preservationists, rightly protecting its status as one of the defining icons of postmodernism. But its legacy, like Johnson’s, is one that will always be mixed, and contested. Which is probably how he would have wanted it, and as it should be.

The infamous Chippendale cap topping Johnson’s 1984 AT&T Building in New York City.
Photo by Mark Lamster

Times Square, yes, that one!, 1984
Johnson, typically a champion of preservation, had proposed taking down the circa-1905 New York Times Tower (no more ball drop!), and surrounding its blank triangle with a series of monumentally boring corporate towers with leaden postmodern detailing. Universally hated and rejected, Johnson returned with what was essentially the same design, but this time with deconstructivist detailing and signage theoretically more in keeping with the area. It too, died of its own dead weight.

Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, CA, 1980-1990
It has been pilloried as corporatist, shallow, fascist, and kitschy—and it is probably all of those things—but it is also dramatic, optimistic, relentlessly modern, and above all essentially Californian in its shiny effervescence.

The chapel of Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles, which runs 400 feet by 200 feet, designed with John Burgee. The cathedral’s structure comprises a framework of steel trusses holding 10,000 glass panels.
Roka / Shutterstock

Mark Lamster is the architecture critic at Dallas Morning News. Follow Mark on Twitter at @marklamster. You can also peruse his year-end architecture awards for Curbed—co-authored with Alexandra Lange—from 2015, and 2016, and 2017.