An Open Letter to the Dean

Our irrepressible columnist takes an irreverent look at the legacy of architecture’s most famous (and irrepressible) gadfly.

Dear Philip,

May I call you Philip? Everyone else did, friend or foe, letting it drop off their tongues in a way that suggested nights logged in your guesthouse or a recent turn at one of your Four Seasons lunches. Were you the first architect to lose your last name to fame? “Corbu” hardly counts; Mr. Wright was never “Frank,” except perhaps to his many wives; and though Mies was “Mies” alone, I think this was just a convenience to avoid the tangle of his “van” and “der.” No one wanted to cozy up to him. But you did.

I always wondered about your relationship: Father-son or master-apprentice? Pals? Allies? Did you talk about the war? The story’s not really clear in books, and no one has debriefed all the camp followers who might provide a more vital history. But I’m sure that’s coming soon. Mostly I wonder if it bothered him that you were given coauthor credit for the most influential building of his late career, even though your physical contribution was limited to a restaurant interior—your restaurant interior—the triumph of which was primarily to be found in its drapes. Of course I never met him, but was Mies a man who cared about drapes?

I suppose this letter comes a little late. And with so many well-wishers sending bouquets your way, I’m sure it will be lost in the fuss—though if you take all the mentions of your “acerbic wit” and the influence of the 1932 show at the Modern out of the pile, there’s actually very little being said. Charles Gwathmey, with his admirable candor, really said it all: “He was responsible for helping so many of us to launch our careers.” Still, I know you’re busy; the belated thanks alone must be deafening. And I’m sure there are those still seeking favors. I’m not—I just have one question.

See, just as my children will never know a world without the changes to architecture culture (and the places it shapes) that your acerbic wit, deracination of Modernism, and endless pimping helped bring about, I never knew a world without you. Your projects were everywhere when I was a kid just getting tuned in to architecture. What’s that building next to the old public library on Copley Square, I’d ask, the one that sort of mimics its scale and arches but repeats the moves at such a low resolution that it could only be perceived as a mockery? Oh, that’s the new Boston Public Library—Philip Johnson did it. And the stumpy tower down by the Artery, one of the tallest in town, the one with the Palladian windows trimmed in cheap aluminum on every face, all the way up from the ground to that overbearing windowless top? That was “a Philip Johnson” too.

Did you like Boston? You nearly destroyed it. I know at some level it was all fun and games—“architects are whores,” etc., etc.—but how could you have been so blithe and willing a whore? Some do such work by necessity, saving for a better future, and escape to it if they can. Your original plan for two identical mock palazzi in pink panel stone rearing over Trinity Church on Boylston Street? You gave it all up there. At the very least the proximity of H. H. Richardson’s deft synthesis of history and your wan restatement of it must have given you pause. Isn’t Trinity, like Chartres Cathedral, a building that you would rather sleep in, despite its creature discomforts, than a bed in one of your friend Walter Gropius’s Harvard dorms with back-to-back bathrooms? Had the city development authority not stopped the insanity—they do that sometimes in fragile Boston—giving the second Boylston Street tower to your star student Bob Stern (his best skyscraper by far, don’t you think?), the Back Bay would have had to integrate an insult in its way more damaging than the Prudential Center. For you it was another quip and one page less to fill in your next monograph. The students saw that too, and they took it to heart.

Daniel Libeskind, paying homage a few days after, said you told him you felt “architecture” first in your stomach. You told me (and I’m sure the world) that the test was if it made you cry. What a spectacle of aches and weeping you must have been at Bilbao, which you told me (and I’m sure the universe) was the only great building built in the twentieth century. Over the top, perhaps: I think I just caught you on a day when you were feeling very warm about Frank Gehry’s genius. You were the first to admit that you never had it. It’s strange—everyone used to go on about your “taste,” by which I think they meant good taste, though to see it manifest—filling whole blocks and quadrants of the sky in city after city after city—I think maybe they were just praising your stamina in applying it.

The “whore” line is nice. But if I had to pick a favorite among your many catchphrases, it would have to be “galloping off in all directions.” You said it, remember, about architects in the 1960s, applauding the confusion in the profession that you had done so much to sow. Later you also said it about yourself. Scholar, pol, architect, pundit, don—you couldn’t even build yourself a single house. But there was something that pulled a lot of your buildings together, a shared mood. It was in the tops of your towers, where if they were clad in stone you would just let the stone keep on going for a floor or five after the windows gave out. It was there in your Boston buildings. Then driving down I-95, I’d see the same ominous device used to finish a tower on the Yale campus, in New Haven; and then in New York, the same macho top on AT&T, or before that playful apostasy, your library on Washington Square. I didn’t think “fascism” then, but I felt it. So in a way I guess, despite the distractions, you’d done the job of an architect. Your friend Frank once said that the hardest thing to do in architecture is to express an emotion. I think, between Basque tears, you might have wanted to set him straight on that: you know very well that the hardest thing to do in architecture is to change it. But you never wanted to speak about your power. In fact, as I recall, you denied you had any until you were caught out. Then you reveled in it.

Which gets me to the point of this letter: I haven’t heard any tenth-hand stories of deathbed pronouncements, but the talk of who will fill your shoes, as you know, has been going on for at least a decade. I know you’re very busy, sir—too busy with friends to be harassed by reporters. But if you could answer one question I’d be eternally grateful: Did you name an heir? Don’t trouble yourself too much getting back to me. It’s just that I’m curious, that’s all. And I’ll take your silence for a “no.”

Best, Philip

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