Barbs from the Beyond

Barbs from the Beyond

The Philip Johnson Tapes: Interviews by Robert A.M. Stern is a curious time capsule from 1985. Ronald Reagan was president, Communism had yet to collapse, Madonna was on her first “Virgin” world tour, and Robert A.M. Stern was just a callow youth.


Stern had built little, and was perhaps best known for his outrageous postmodern Llewellyn Park pool house with its chrome palm trees. Philip Johnson, on the other hand, at age 79 was considered by many to be at the end of his career. He had completed the now-derided Pittsburgh Plate Glass Building, as well as the AT&T Building and the faux-Dutch Republic Bank in Houston, in complete apostasy from his high-modern Miesian period of the 1950s, when he produced his best work.

Of course, Johnson surprised everyone and lived another twenty years, in that time sponsoring yet another about-face in his Deconstructivist Architecture show at MoMA of 1988. That these interviews were recorded with the understanding they would be published posthumously accounts for their often outrageous and unrestrained character.

Since his death in 2005 at the age of 98, Johnson has largely disappeared from the contemporary dialogue on architecture, except among those who, like Stern, personally knew or benefited from his largesse. He is remembered more for his influence as a critic and curator through his platform at MoMA (personally funding the Architecture Department and early exhibitions) and for his connections among the movers and shakers of architectural patronage.

This book does little to bolster his reputation; it tends to confirm Johnson as a shallow stylist who used great wealth and charm to maneuver in and out of numerous “nervous breakdowns,” to finance extended European sex tours in the steps of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, and to secure his own private architectural commissions.

The conversations revolve around whom Johnson knew and how he got this or that job, and allude to his public embrace of Fascist politics of the 1930s, with Johnson mentioning Hitler a number of times in not unflattering terms. Stern lets these references mostly go unchallenged, raising the question of whether Stern wanted Johnson to hang himself, or if he was being polite.

Apart from marquee names, as with Dante one needs a glossary to tell Ugalino from Oud, so the publisher has included footnotes to help the uninitiated distinguish who’s who in this opaque world of the past. What is more remarkable than any single statement by Johnson is the realization that he functions here as a kind of grizzled griot—an African storyteller who is keeper of an oral tradition. Johnson was so old that he was a literal connection to the founding fathers of modernism, and was one himself through his Modern Architecture: International Exhibition of 1932 at MoMA. He was a colleague to Mies, Wright, Le Corbusier, and Gropius. 

On the other hand, Stern, who admits he is a longtime friend of Johnson when these interviews take place, appears both bewitched and beguiled by the subject of his interview. Stern engages him in a non-confrontational, Larry King–style interview, more of a conversation, and rarely questions any of Johnson’s dubious statements. Johnson so often contradicts himself, even in the same sentence, that by the middle of the book it is hard to believe much that he says. Knowing Johnson’s sly and Machiavellian nature, one attributes this not to age but to his belief that history belongs to the conquerors, as most of his barbs are aimed at the dead.

He seems to have hated almost every architectural contemporary, with the exception of Mies, and above all was fascinated by those with great wealth. Of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, he says: “She was a woman of position and power at birth, so I was in awe.” His antagonisms create some ridiculous pronouncements, such as, “Eero and I were very, very peculiar friends. We both respected each other enormously throughout our lives, but neither of us thought very much of the other’s work. I guess we were both right.” As it happens, Saarinen’s star has steadily risen, while estimation of Johnson’s built work has severely declined.

On Paul Rudolph: “He’s apparently gone completely to seed now and become grossly fat, with terribly blotchy skin… And so he’s sort of disappeared now.” Stern does not dispute this. Of course, history has reversed itself and Stern, as dean at Yale, has overseen the restoration of Rudolph’s once reviled Art and Architecture Building.

As to the vitriol in these sessions, we really shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this is the man who once said of Frank Lloyd Wright: “I know he is still alive and I thought, therefore, that this in a sense is the right time to speak out, because were he dead, that old maxim of ‘nothing about the dead, but the good’ would tie my mouth—and I don’t want to wait until that time and have to make only pleasant statements.”