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Philip Johnson, 1906-2005

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The architect Philip Johnson died today at the age of 98. His relevance to ballet, of course, is that he designed the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center "for George."

Associated Press story (which makes no mention of the State Theater)

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Occasionally one hears complaints about the lack of a center aisle on the orchestra level of the New York State Theater (I think people's legs must have gotten longer in the last forty years and their feet bigger), but on the whole, I think it is by far the most successful building at Lincoln Center. The grand expanse of the Promenade is a particularly wonderful public space and makes intermissions a pleasure. In contrast, at the Metropolitan Opera House, there's no place to hang out, and the main intermission activity from the upper reaches of the place (aside from getting sozzled) is leaning over a railing to look at people's heads ascending the "grand" staircase to nowhere.

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NY Times lengthy obituary: Philip Johnson Is Dead at 98; Architecture's Restless Intellect

   

The serene Glass House, a 56-foot-by-32-foot rectangle, is generally considered one of the 20th century's greatest residential structures. Like all of Mr. Johnson's early work, it was inspired by Mies, but its pure symmetry, dark colors and closeness to the earth marked it as a personal statement: calm and ordered rather than sleek and brittle.

A Home Becomes a Museum

Over the years, Mr. Johnson added to the Glass House property, turning it into a compound that became a veritable museum of his architecture, with buildings representing each phase of his career. A small, elegant white-columned pavilion by the lake was built in 1963; an art gallery, an underground building set into a hill, with pictures from Mr. Johnson's extensive collection of contemporary art set on movable panels, in 1965; the sculpture gallery of 1970, a sharply defined, irregular white structure covered with a greenhouselike glass roof; a library of stucco with a rounded tower that from a distance looks like a miniature castle (1980); a concrete-block tower, as much a piece of sculpture as a building, dedicated to his lifelong friend Lincoln Kirstein, the writer and New York City Ballet co-founder (1985); a "ghost house" of chain-link fence, honoring Mr. Gehry, who often used this material (1985); and finally, what Mr. Johnson called "Da Monsta," an irregularly shaped building of deep red with sharply curving walls, finished in 1995.

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Reading The New Criterion weblog's (un)Appreciation) of Johnson, I was stopped by the following queasy-making sentence: "He wrote an admiring article on "Architecture and the Third Reich" for Lincoln Kirstein's magazine Hound and Horn in 1933." Before I head to the local university library for their bound volumes of Hound and Horn, has anyone read this article?

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I haven't read the article, but in NPR's obituary (I'm sure that isn't the right term to use), it was mentioned that Philip Johnson had been a Fascist/Nazi supporter in the 1930's. Later he recanted of course and part of making amends for this was that he designed a synagogue (in Westchester County, perhaps?) free of charge later on in life.

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I saw a chunk of an interview he did with Charlie Rose (rebroadcast after his death) where they discuss this pretty thoroughly, and Johnson seemed very chagrined about his past infatuation with fascism.

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Thanks, GWTW and Sandik. I'd heard about Johnson's feelings, but I was wondering if the Hound and Horn betrayed anti-Semitism. Doubtful, I suppose, given Kirstein's relationship with Edward Warburg.

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Whatever may be said of the use his buildings were put to, and their general subject matter, Albert Speer was a good architect/engineer. It isn't everybody who can mix a Gothic revival with Art Deco and have it come out sensible. Hitler, on the other hand, even according to Johnson, had a sort of "tin eye" for architecture.

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Does anybody remember that one-time-only event Kirstein had NYCB do some years back, a kind of processional for the company (unfortunately, to a miserable Mass by Michael Torke)? Martins contrived the movement. The set was a design by Johnson for a church. It seemed to be related to some project, maybe a possible future collaboration with Johnson, that had a lot of personal meaning for Kirstein, but his program note only added to everybody's mystification as to what it all meant. Does anybody know what that was about?

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If I remember the event correctly (1993?), I believe it had some unconfortable religious undertones. There were some boos mixed with polite applause.

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Johnson's flirtation with Nazism is discussed in this week's New York Observer by Hilton Kramer:

From Johnson’s F.B.I. file, which the bureau began assembling during the war, Mr. Schulze retrieved a letter, believed to have been written to a friend in December 1939, when Johnson was back in the U.S. This is the key passage: "I was lucky enough to get to be a correspondent so that I could go to the front when I wanted to and so it was that I came again to the country we had motored through, the towns north of Warsaw …. The German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle."

I daresay that for most of us, this chronicle of perfidy amounts to something far more significant than a "passing admiration for Hitler."

The fact is that notwithstanding his aesthetic and intellectual talents, Philip Johnson remained at heart a cynic, an immoralist and a profoundly corrupted character—in short, an evil influence.

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