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An Eccentric Architect

Thanks to the miracle of TiVo, I’ve just finished watching a superb documentary on PBS, Philip Johnson, Diary of an Eccentric Architect, produced and directed by Barbara Wolf. Philip Johnson, best known to most people as “that old architect guy with the funny glasses… you know, like that other guy,” has played a pivotal role in the last century of American architecture. As director of the architecture department at MOMA, he helped introduce the United States to the International Style that comprises much of what we think of as “modern architecture.” Not content to sit on the sidelines, Johnson headed back to Harvard at the age of thirty three to obtain a degree in architecture. As fascinating as his contributions to architecture may be, the documentary wasn’t exactly about that…

Rather, it was a personally narrated tour of his 40-acre New Canaan, Connecticut estate, including the 1949 Glass House that marked his brilliant debut as an architect. It was like taking a stroll through Taliesen or Oak Park with Frank Lloyd Wright. Or maybe a having a tour of Montecello guided by Thomas Jefferson. I was transfixed.

Johnson is obviously someone for whom architecture is a joyful passion; his estate is the one place he can express that passion unencumbered by pesky client’s needs. In the documentary, he speaks of each structure as though it was his child. From the pure modernism of the Glass House, to the “love room” in the guest house, to the Frank Stella-inspired welcome pavilion, each building provides a glimpse into a certain phase of Johnson’s career.

 

An interesting but totally unrelated tidbit I came across while looking for Philip Johnson links: one of my favorite buildings on the UW campus, the Physics and Astronomy complex, was designed by Cesar Pelli. Pelli is best known of late for designing the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Who knew? I have a vague recollection of attending a presentation about Pelli with my architecture major roommate in college.