Hey, at Least You’re Not Digging Ditches

Philip Johnson on the most humiliating moment of his life

Architects feeling the pinch from the ongoing recession (i.e. pretty much everyone in the field) may find some encouragement in The Philip Johnson Tapes, a new book based on ten interviews Robert A. M. Stern conducted with the eminent architect in 1985. Though Johnson is remembered as a veritable force of nature—a prolific builder, an influential patron, and an unflagging party host—Stern’s interviews also touch on the numerous personal and career setbacks he overcame along the way. One particularly bad stretch started in 1942, when the 35-year-old Harvard graduate student was drafted into the Army. There, the maladroit Private Johnson—known among his fellow recruits as “Granddad” or “Pop”—failed even at digging ditches.

I remember being told by a corporal who was digging ditches to get out of the ditch. I said, “Why? I’m supposed to be digging ditches. That’s what you told me to do.” He said, “You’re confusing everybody. You can’t dig a ditch. You’re making everybody else look like they can’t dig ditches. So you get out and sit over there until we get through digging this ditch.” That’s how poorly coordinated I was. That was the most humiliating moment in my life, I think. Those dumb asses. I was working five times as hard as they were, but probably just digging the earth and putting it back in the same place. I still don’t know what I was doing wrong. It was just unbelievable. One remembers things like that.

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