New Canaan on the Hudson

“No architect has any power,” Philip Johnson told Metropolis in a 1998 interview. A party Wednesday night at the Urban Glass House, on Manhattan’s Spring Street west of Soho, suggests otherwise. Few architects, after all, have the sort of lasting influence that stirs up excitement for the posthumous construction of a late, minor design.

Whether the Urban Glass House—based on a design by Johnson and his partner, Alan Ritchie, with interiors by Annabelle Selldorf—is kin to Johnson’s iconic New Canaan residence, or just a good excuse to sell luxury condos, is up for debate. The 12-story glass-fronted building somewhat resembles the original house, stacked high. But if Johnson’s hand is apparent in the framing of the glass facade, the site’s urban context works against its particular Modernist conceit. In lieu of 75 carefully manicured acres of Connecticut countryside, residents will wake up to the Holland Tunnel’s hulking vents and a slim, endangered view of the Hudson River. You can hardly fault downtown Manhattan for not living up to the pastoral splendor of New Canaan, but it raises the question: Should the Glass House really be urban?

One wonders what Johnson himself would have to say. In his verbal sparring match with Philip Nobel, reprinted below, he revealed his method for determining if a building is great architecture. “I have a very simple rule: Does it make me cry when I step in?” We dare not ask.

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I’ll tell you why I’m here, and I’ll be frank because I know there’s no beating around the bush with you. I want to talk about power.

Power?

I don’t know if you ever think about it in these terms, but I’m curious about how you see your power in architecture. Not only the power that comes from designing buildings that influence people, but also the political power you developed through positions such as your MOMA directorship. I also want to talk about the leading architects in the profession — the ones you refer to as your “kids” — and who among them you think is capable of having the kind of influence that you’ve had during your career.

Of course, I haven’t had that power. That’s an illusion. No architect has any power.

Why not?

Because the developers have it — our controllers — just as the archbishops did in the fourteenth century.

What about within the little world of architecture itself? You can’t say you haven’t had real power there.

Within our small world, I’ve had influence, though I didn’t know it. I know the reason now: old age. You see, it’s just great, because you don’t have to be any brighter than Joe Zilch, you just have to live a long time.

Because then people respect you?

You’re a mandarin. And it’s said that they are not looked up to in the West the way they are in the Far East. I’m not so sure. I think underneath we respect people who have had a long experience. I’m at that enviable age, and I’m enjoying every single second.

How would that explain the power you had when you were much younger? For instance, the influence you had on the reception of Modern architecture in the United States in the years after you put on the International Style show with Henry-Russell Hitchcock in 1932?

I had no idea, you see, that we were on a power trip. We were just so passionate about Modern architecture that we would have done anything — we’d have slit our throats willingly — to get it across. The fact that we did succeed is incidental.

You’re being coy, you have to admit.

Certainly not. I mean, not from my point of view. You can interpret it as coyness, which would make sense. But, no, we honestly didn’t think of that type of influence. Power is when you can make people do things.

Right. That’s what I want to talk about.

Yeah, well, that’s what I can’t do.

But you have, maybe more than anyone else, made people think about American architecture in a particular way. Some would say you’ve had more influence than Wright, who had a kind of power in his creative genius, and maybe even more than Thomas Jefferson. You’ve had a unique influence on the shape of the debate in architecture for more than 60 years. You don’t think so?

Of course not. People like Jefferson were great because they were politicians. He was a very good architect — better than he knew he was — but he was not a professional architect, so he doesn’t count. Wright, on the other hand, will go down in history books until the end of observable time. But I represent a certain incident in time when things were changing, and I could have a little influence, with Russell Hitchcock and Alfred Barr. Alfred Barr was the genius who sent us off to write the catalogue for the 1932 show. So all the power there lay in Alfred Barr’s hands.

What about later? Paul Rudolph used to talk about the salon you held at your house in Cambridge when you were a student at Harvard in the early 1940s. And Robert Stern has written about the “Glass House seminars” — your influence on him and people like Paul Goldberger when you were teaching at Yale. That’s the kind of power I’m talking about: being able to influence new generations of architects and critics, and helping them to determine how buildings should be built.

Yeah, with the kids I did have a bit of influence. We had a return engagement the other night, a dinner for the 60th birthday of one of them: Charlie Gwathmey. And the New York Five were all there, and I was the old architect from out of town, so naturally I was looked up to, and that was very pleasant. In that sense, I had an influence, yes.

Who among that generation — the kids’ generation — has power in the same sense? I mean, Frank Gehry is undeniably a great architect, and Stern has his following —

— Stern is marvelous —

— and there are people who have a taste for Richard Meier. But do you see any of those architects being able to translate their popularity into power the way you have?

Into the power that you think I have? I guess I use a different measuring stick.

What’s your stick?

My measuring stick is the great architect who does great buildings that will go down in history with the cathedrals of the past. Bilbao is the only building like that built in this century.

The whole century?

The whole century. There’s nothing that Frank Lloyd Wright ever did that has that emotive power. You walk into Bilbao — have you been?

I haven’t been yet.

Well, you’d better get your ass over there. That is the important building of our generation and of our time.

It will, of course, be copied a million times by students everywhere, but do you think that building will really have the lasting influence that, say, Wright’s Guggenheim has had?

Oh, five times the influence. It’s a better building. In every way.

How are you determining “better”?

I have a very simple rule: Does it make me cry when I step in?

Did it?

Bilbao did. I’ve been back, too, and I said it wouldn’t happen again, because I’ve learned now. But it did: I burst into tears. That’s not easy to do. Gehry is so far the greatest architect that you almost can’t talk about the rest. But the man of influence in your sense is Stern. I noticed that when he was a student of mine. I said, this is the brightest kid that ever worked for me — I didn’t say “designer” — I said [he had] an influence for the good, through his knowledge of history, his personality, everything you can come up with. And he did become powerful. He did exactly what I thought he would. When he was my student, I said, “You are going places, young man.” And, boy, did he go places.

Where do you think he went? A lot of people would say he has made a name for himself more through influence-peddling than through his talent as an architect.

I’ll let you say that. I’m not going to bad-mouth any other architect. I think Bob Stern is just wonderful, and God bless him. He has real influence. Naturally, I’m very envious.

That’s the sort of power I’m accusing you of having, too.

Well, he’s got it all.

I’m young, so correct me if I’m being naive —

— I’ll kick you in the shins —

—but I feel that over the long term, the great buildings — like Bilbao and whatever else might crop up — set the pattern at a grand scale, but for those buildings to get built at all there are people, like you and Stern, who set an equally important agenda of tastemaking within the schools and the press. You haven’t seen this?

Maybe. On your scale, I would put Stern at the top. But on my scale there’s only one top: Frank Gehry.

And what about Peter Eisenman?

Eisenman is still new. He hasn’t done any important buildings yet, but they’re going up, like the new ferry terminal on Staten Island. He’s hit the big time, and I’m very proud of him, naturally.

But before he hit the big time with built work —

— well, he had a huge intellectual influence on architects. Is that a power you would count, too?

Yeah, I think we should count that.

Oh, well, that’s Eisenman. He was the one who got the New York Five together. He’s the one who influences me. He made a crossroads of the world at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies [in New York] in the 1970s. We all met there. The institute was his great creation. In your sense, if you want to put it that way, he was already up there with Stern.

So do you think it is ridiculous to try to assess architects’ power outside of their work?

Sure I do. But I don’t mind — you do it.

I’d rather talk about buildings, but you know there’s only so much interest out there.

You are perfectly right: People are interested in power, not in buildings. And that hurts.

It hurts? Why?

Then I lose [my real] influence, because what I do is make shapes. I like buildings that are molded like sculpture.

Now you do.

Yeah, now. My best building now is the Monsta.

I think you are proving my point. The Monsta is extremely influential, beyond its merits as architecture alone. Other people who are not Philip Johnson, God help them, were designing similar buildings, but when this came out it was published everywhere — it got its own page in the New Yorker — and it helped popularize that whole expressionist direction.

To me there was only one comment about the Monsta that mattered. Eisenman said, “Philip, that’s the first time you’ve made something for the history books.”

That’s because it was the first time you made something that looked a little like his stuff.

But it doesn’t. I got this from Frank Stella, the painter. I’ll pick up anything.

So the influence is going the other way? Do I have it wrong? I came here to ask Philip Johnson how his influence was still trickling down to the rest of the profession.

No, it’s the other way around: It trickles down to me. I’m enjoying the world, and I do have a little ability to talk and to become known. Yes, I have that — I don’t know what that is, though. What I want is power.

What you want is power?

Of course.

How would you go about getting it?

Well, I can’t.

Why not?

Because I’d have to be a better architect.

I think you might have something better than being a better architect —

— something like Bob Stern has?

Right.

Well, I don’t have that either!

So what do you have? Why am I here?

Exactly.

I thought I was coming to the source.

Maybe I’m just being coy. I’ll have to revise my opinion of myself. I’m always afraid someone’ll come and tap me on the shoulder and say, “Johnson, you’ve spent a lifetime in architecture and you’re wealthy enough so you don’t have to worry; why aren’t you better?” I still have the big building to do.

Which is the big building?

I don’t know, that’s always the question. I’m working on buildings that move.

And that idea came from one of the kids?

I suppose the permission, as it were, came from Gehry. Although he does it his way and will always do it his way. He’s a unique architect, like Gaudí. He has great sensitivities for shape. He sees the drapery on a statue in a Gothic cathedral — there’s something in the folding and the shadows that are made from it — that’s just what he wants to do, you see? And it’s very tactile. In Bilbao, when you go, you’ll want to touch it.

Like the prow of I.M. Pei’s National Gallery building, where everyone rubs it?

Yes, and that’s what they do with the Monsta — everyone grabs the point. There’s something about a point. But it’s better than Pei, because it leans. So you go up to it, and you pet it. It’s the most tactile building I’ve ever done.

So the Monsta is going to be the public entry pavilion to your property, down the road, when the National Trust takes over? In the paper recently someone there gave you 15 more years, and they said they wouldn’t need it until then.

Really? My doctors tell me eight. Anyhow, I don’t care much anymore. Death is nothing, you see — it just happens and that’s the end. I just want to finish some more buildings.

During one of your appearances on the Charlie Rose show you said you’d really like to design a city. Is that still a goal?

Yeah, it would be, but the people don’t want that. They don’t want an architect telling them how to live. Le Corbusier spent most of his life on the Ville Radieuse and ridiculous ideas like that. But he couldn’t help it. You only do architecture when you can’t help doing it.

Maybe good architects only do architecture when they can’t help doing it.

Well, no architect should do it unless he can’t help doing it. Like you, you see: You can do something else, so for heaven’s sake do it. There’s very little passion around. Without passion, you shouldn’t go into architecture.

Do all of your kids have enough passion?

Gehry does. To me, Gehry can do no wrong. That’s nonsense — of course he can, but I don’t think so. And I can do no wrong. Of course, I may make trouble sometimes because of what my clients ask me to do — but me? My goodness, no. You see, I’m not so coy, inside. I never make mistakes. I don’t always have the perfect opportunity, as I did with the Monsta. You know, I still don’t know what that building cost. Always be your own client.

During another interview a few years ago with Charlie Rose, you got a word in edgewise —

— I told him to shut up and let me talk —

— and you said that we are approaching a time when we would once again have larger-than-life “form-giving” architects like Wright and Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.

We’ve got one.

Is there another?

I’m not sure that Eisenman isn’t one. And that would be an interesting combination: an intellectual turned architect. How it happened, I have no idea, except he knows he should be an architect, he always knew he should be. But he couldn’t help being an intellectual first — he was brought up on words.

I see Eisenman with Stern, sharing the top of the “influencers” scale. Do you think he could ever cross over to your scale of timeless builders?

I think he just might. We’ll have to wait and see. But look, if someone doesn’t do a curved building, does that mean it isn’t good?

No, of course not. It may be better to be “good” without relying on egotism and histrionic forms. There’s a trend toward this in New York now: Youngish architects are forming generic firms that do good, humble work — and a lot of them aren’t even putting their names on the door.

It’s all false modesty. You’ve got to have egotism if you want to be an architect.

Always?

Well, why would you ever go through the torture otherwise? It’s ridiculous. Selfless architecture! Michelangelo, that great selfless genius?

Some of the midtown skyscrapers right out your window here are pretty selfless — your Lipstick Building excepted, of course.

That’s just because people don’t have the talent to do anything else, A. And, B, that’s where the money is: where there’s no art. Our rulers, the people who dictate the taste, are developers. They’re the ones with the clout, and that’s what a lot of them want.

Don’t influential architects — say, you and Stern and maybe Eisenman — play some role in defining that taste over time?

I wish we did. Dear Mr. Jerry Hines is now the biggest developer in the world, and do I get a peep in? Not a peep.

Are you being a little coy again? You can look back on everything you’ve done since 1932 and say that you haven’t had any influence on the way people build in this country?

I have only had that kind of influence in one place: Houston, Texas. It’s mostly my buildings there. Nine buildings, and most of them were built by Jerry Hines.

So you did get to build your city — in Houston?

Well, it was the nearest thing I could get. A building here and a building there, that’s not a city. C’mon, that’s beyond anyone’s ability right now. But I have to say, through Jerry Hines I had what you call power, I guess, in that one place.

But why did Jerry Hines come to you at all? Didn’t you already have a reputation as the last word in good taste?

How would he know that?

Because he saw you in the magazines and in books, and he saw your buildings scattered around the country.

No, no. I hadn’t done any buildings when he hired me.

ou must have done a couple. You’ve had that little glass box up in Connecticut since 1949.

Oh, the little glass box — yeah, that one. You know, I forget when I met Jerry Hines — sometime in the dim past. But I’ve always been pretty good at publicity, of course.

Right. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like the kind of influence that comes with your ability to publicize yourself —

— the kind of influence that comes with my ability, I’ve had. I can’t deny it: I’ve been successful in getting to where I wanted to be. The only thing — the top prize — I haven’t got.

Which is?

What Frank Gehry gets at the youthful age of 60.

Maybe because it comes so easy to you, you don’t put any value on the tastemaking ability that you’ve always had.

Tastemaking? I did [do] that. But again — I can’t help it, it may sound coy — I got the great push from Alfred Barr. Barr was the man of vision who saw everything that was happening in the twentieth century. And he told me about it. And I did a lot of the carrying out [of his vision], I don’t deny that. I knew how great Russell Hitchcock was; nobody else did. Nobody knew how great Barr was, either. Barr wanted Mies van der Rohe to build the Museum of Modern Art. He didn’t have a chance, of course.

I think you’re proving my point again. Barr wasn’t even an architect, but through you he’s had this big influence.

Yeah, that’s right. And I helped him in return. That’s a fair exchange. I see now: Taste leaders, by influencing other people, then influence the world?

Something like that. Think about Gehry. If he came along with his personal vision at a time when the ground had not been prepared, people might have laughed at him.

Maybe that’s why Frank’s so nice to me. Eisenman I can see. He likes me because I can help him with his fame.

But before Eisenman got interested in making physical monuments, I think he was interested in just this kind of power-brokering. Following your example, he was busy changing the climate of taste, though I’m sure he would put it differently. Am I giving you too much credit?

It’s the other way around: I discovered him. But maybe now he thinks it would be a good idea to have his name tied to mine. So when he got a big job to do a casino in Atlantic City — the biggest casino in the world — he said, “I’ll take the job, but only with Philip Johnson.” We both took the job. And we both walked out.

Why?

He’s his own architect.

Eisenman?

No, the developer [Steve Wynn]. We loved him, and we both worked our asses off for him, but he wasn’t open to architecture as we saw it. We had twinkles in our eyes. Two billion dollars to spend! Can you imagine? So maybe we went too fast, but I doubt it. I’m pretty malleable.

Is Eisenman?

No. He’s not malleable at all, which is why I didn’t think he’d ever make it, but he’s changed.

What’s helped him to get as far as he has?

Not me. Oh, well, maybe. It might be me.

And if he should ever go on to make an epochal building like Bilbao, wouldn’t it exist in part only because you helped pave his way?

I think you’re wrong, but I see your point. I don’t give myself that much credit. All right: I can talk. I am a persuasive talker. I do meet with people “outside,” in the world of clients. But I don’t influence them. If I did, I’d have more work.

Maybe I’m affected by the old Victor Hugo canard that books are more lasting than buildings, but I feel that certain people — I don’t want to mention any names — who have the ability to communicate ideas and charm people, can have as great an impact on the direction of architecture as those who design the buildings. Take you and Mies, for instance. You were instrumental in his getting the commission for this building. If you hadn’t set the stage through power-brokering, we wouldn’t be sitting in the Seagram Building right now.

Yes, I got him the job. Alfred Barr turned Phyllis Lambert over to me. She came and said, “How do I find an architect?” I said, “I’ll drive you around the country, and we’ll find one.” Then I sort of inched her over until she liked Mies the best. I didn’t say, “You’ve gotta pick Mies,” but I was influential. That’s power, huh?

Yeah, that’s it.

Okay, I was helpful in getting Mies this important job.

I’m not sure that’s where it stops.

That’s where I think it stops. I think any real power you read into it is an illusion. So I’m a good little helpful puppy dog that can smile at some people like Mrs. Lambert. But I can’t charm anybody else. Why haven’t I got General Motors to build something?

You didn’t help Eero Saarinen to get work with General Motors in the 1950s?

No, I did not! He was never one of my protégés. But you got me there. All right, I have power.

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  • Photo: Michael Silverberg
  • Photo: Michael Silverberg
  • Photo: Michael Silverberg
  • Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation
  • Photo: Evan Kafka
Photo: Michael Silverberg Photo: Michael Silverberg Photo: Michael Silverberg Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation Photo: Evan Kafka
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