NEW YORK – Philip Johnson (search), whose austere "glass box" buildings and latter-day penchant for incorporating whimsical touches in his designs made him one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, has died at 98.
Johnson died Tuesday at his home in New Canaan, Conn. — itself one of his most important creations.
Johnson's work, which spanned more than half a century starting in the 1940s, ranged from the modernism of his home, a glass cube in the woods, to the more fanciful work of his later years, including the AT&T Building in New York, with its curved pediment that made it look like a giant Chippendale chest of drawers.
Johnson once said his great ambition was "to build the greatest room in the world — a great theater or cathedral or monument. Nobody's given me the job."
In 1980, however, he completed his great room, the Crystal Cathedral (search) in Garden Grove, Calif., a soaring glass structure wider and higher than Notre Dame in Paris. If architects are remembered for their one-room buildings, Johnson said, "This may be it for me."
With his partner, John Burgee, Johnson also designed the Bank of America building in Houston, a 56-story tower of pink granite stepped back in a series of Dutch gable roofs; and the Cleveland Playhouse (search), a complex with the feel of an 11th-century town.
"The world has lost a towering force who defined the art and practice of architecture in the 20th century," said architect Daniel Libeskind, the master planner for the new towers rising on the site of the World Trade Center.
Johnson was one of architecture's most recognizable figures, with his trademark black round-rimmed glasses that gave him an owlish look.
Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger of The New Yorker pronounced him "the greatest architectural presence of our time — which is not the same thing as the greatest architect."
"He was probably our first and most significant architect as celebrity," Goldberger said. "There's no question that he used his fame for the betterment of architecture. His greatest passion was in seeing architecture, talking about it, making a stimulating dialogue about it."
Johnson also invented the role of museum architecture curator, at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1932. And he coined the term International Style for the work of Europeans Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.
His efforts to bring their style to the United States and incorporate some of its elements in his own work "literally changed the landscape of American architecture," said Terrence Riley, MoMA's current Philip Johnson chief curator for architecture and design.
Johnson got a chance to work with van der Rohe by designing the interiors for the German architect's Seagram Building in New York.
He died this week with his latest project in the works: an "urban glass house" in New York's Soho neighborhood, inspired by his home in New Canaan. Until last year, the architect came to his office three days a week, said Alan Ritchie, Johnson's partner at Philip Johnson-Alan Ritchie Architects in New York for three decades.
Johnson's AT&T Building, a granite-walled tower with an enormous 90-foot arched entryway and a fanciful top, broke decisively with the glass towers that crowded Manhattan. The building, completed in 1983, marked a sharp turn in architectural taste away from the clean lines of modernism. Other architects felt emboldened to experiment with styles, and commissions poured into the offices of Johnson and Burgee.
Most of the firm's projects were corporate palaces: the Transco II and Bank of America towers in Houston, in 1983 and 1984; a 23-story neo-Victorian office building in San Francisco; and a mock-gothic glass tower for PPG Industries in Pittsburgh, built in 1983.
"The people with money to build today are corporations — they are our popes and Medicis," Johnson said. "The sense of pride is why they build."
Toward the end of his life, Johnson went public with some private matters — his homosexuality and his past as a disciple of Hitler-style fascism. On the latter, he said he spent much time in Berlin in the 1930s and became "fascinated with power," but added he did not consider that an excuse.
"I have no excuse (for) such utter, unbelievable stupidity. ... I don't know how you expiate guilt," he said.
He said that it was his homosexuality that caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown while he was a student at Harvard. He said that in 1977 he asked The New Yorker magazine to omit references to it, fearing he might lose the AT&T commission, which he called "the job of my life."
Philip Cortelyou Johnson was born July 8, 1906, in Cleveland, the only son of lawyer Homer H. Johnson and his wife, Louise. He graduated from Harvard in 1927 with a degree in philosophy, then toured Europe and became interested in new styles of architecture.
In 1940, Johnson returned to Harvard for graduate school, studying under Marcel Breuer. He returned to MoMA, then left in 1955 to open his own design office.
His projects at times ran into criticism from preservationists and even fellow architects. In 1987, he was replaced as designer of the second phase of the New England Life Insurance Co. headquarters in Boston after residents complained about the project's size and style.
Critics unearthed a quotation he had made at a conference a couple of years earlier: "I am a whore and I am paid very well for high-rise buildings." Johnson said later that his choice of words was unfortunate and he meant only that architects need to be able to compromise with developers.
In 1979, Johnson became the first recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Early in his career, he reflected on what he had hoped to achieve.
"I like the thought that what we are to do on this earth is embellish it for its greater beauty," he said, "so that oncoming generations can look back to the shapes we leave here and get the same thrill that I get in looking back at theirs — at the Parthenon, at Chartres Cathedral."