|PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST|
July 9, 1996
Many of the buildings Americans have built, worked, and lived in during the latter half of the 20th century come from the architectual roots established by Philip Johnson. His Glass House, "international style" office buildings, and post-modern architecture changed the urban landscape--and always created controversy. Charlayne Hunter-Gault discusses art, life, and his 90th birthday with the architect.
Charlayne Hunter Gault reviews the master builder's influential works.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Philip Johnson, thank you for joining us.
PHILIP JOHNSON, Architect: Glad to be here.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Happy birthday.
PHILIP JOHNSON: I've heard that too much recently.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, let's move on to something else. When I last spoke with you, you were 77 and described as being at the high point of your career. How do you describe 90?
PHILIP JOHNSON: Ninety is the best year because I now know what I'm doing. I now know that architecture is forever, and I'm going to spend all the time I can--I've only got about 16 years left--I don't know why but I've set 106 or something like that as a retiring point, which only leaves me 16 more years, so I'd have got to hurry.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what are you doing? You seem to know what you're doing. You didn't know before?
PHILIP JOHNSON: What do I know that I didn't know before? I didn't know about this wonderful new material out there, using concrete. I mean, I always built straight--you know, like--a straight line--flat roofs. Now I build any way I like. I mean, concrete you can mold, you can press it into--after all, you haven't any straight lines in your body. Why should we have straight lines in our architecture? You'd be surprised when you go into a room that has no straight line--how marvelous it is that you can feel the walls talking back to you, as it were. It's hard to explain, but I've only built one building this way. It's just delicious. So, I know now that the rest of my life I'll be working on these strange buildings.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what does architecture do for you?
PHILIP JOHNSON: The same thing as music, it moves me. It gets right down here. I like it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So we're supposed to be moved by it?
PHILIP JOHNSON: Yes, indeed. Well, otherwise why do an architecture. Anybody can build a building, putting some doors into it, but how many times have you been in a building that moves you to tears the way Beethoven's Eighth does? Maybe it doesn't, but I mean, I don't know what kind of music you like, but whatever it is, you know what you like when you hear a piece of music. It ought to be like that when you're looking at architecture.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you think you've succeeded?
PHILIP JOHNSON: Well, the Glass House I live in. It is wonderful to be in the country in a glass house, because no matter what happens out there, you're nice and safe, you know, cuddled in your little bed, and there it is, raging storms, snowing--wonderful.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You've done so many things over time, skyscrapers, glass buildings. What is it that moves you to create?
PHILIP JOHNSON: I haven't the slightest idea. What makes artists paint? What makes composers compose? I mean, what did Mozart have in him to make that glorious music? I have no idea. And I don't know--my own work--I don't know why.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: From time to time you've gotten bored with what you've done and repudiated it.
PHILIP JOHNSON: I don't get bored. The times change. I've a new take on that. As you said--I got bored with the last thing I was doing. I say, well, times have changed. They make new solutions for new times.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But then do you look back and-- the boxy glass buildings that you--I thought at one time--you got bored with?
PHILIP JOHNSON: I did get bored with that and things like the AT&T Building, you know.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What did they--
PHILIP JOHNSON: This stick building, things like that. But the fact that you have a name for it--or Chippendale--a term of endearment--they hated the building as much as they think they do--you wouldn't give him a name--a nickname. But it really was a nickname already--it had a certain fairness in people's minds.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you think your role has been in the world of architecture?
PHILIP JOHNSON: Very peculiar. I'm a commentator. I'm an exciter-upper. I'm a sniffer-arounder.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: A what?
PHILIP JOHNSON: A sniffer-arounder.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What does that mean?
PHILIP JOHNSON: (sniffing) Like a dog. You know, sniff around.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What are you looking for and what--
PHILIP JOHNSON: Good architecture. I'm--that's what I do mostly is to help the young I find one or two or three of a generation that I like to push, then I get a big kick out of their being good, one or two of them even better than I am, but of course I'm not going to tell you which ones.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you pass on anything to them, any of your wisdom?
PHILIP JOHNSON: Wisdom. I haven't any wisdom--just a child like everybody else. I'm not as great as Frank Lloyd Wright.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you have an example of something that you can say if someone said, well, give me the quintessential Philip Johnson statement.
PHILIP JOHNSON: Things change. I mean, my essential philosophy of life, for instance, is Pontarae -- that's Greek for everything changes. And strife is the mother--father of all things. In other words, it's always a combat. It's always a struggle, and it's always a personal thing, and it always is, and you feel better when you are struggling, when you're working. In other words, if you really want to rot, just stop working entirely. You couldn't do it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is that the key to your longevity?
PHILIP JOHNSON: The key to my longevity is in the first place, my father and mother were old when they died. (laughing) That's the first thing. The second thing, I have some money still. It's pretty well gone, but I'm spending it as fast as I can.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That helps longevity.
PHILIP JOHNSON: Spending money? No. Money helps. I think money is terribly important, but you can't say that. It doesn't suit the PC mentality.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I want to know--do you, yourself, have any regrets as you look back?
PHILIP JOHNSON: Yes, oh, heavens.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is your biggest regret?
PHILIP JOHNSON: I went into politics when I was young. What a fool--I'm no good at that. Why don't I know what I'm good at? But a lot of people make that mistake when they're relatively young, but I was almost grown up.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That was when you were--
PHILIP JOHNSON: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --involved with the Nazis and Huey Long--
PHILIP JOHNSON: And Huey Long.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And Father--
PHILIP JOHNSON: Father Coughlin--and all that mess--I was just being ambitious and--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Ambitious for what?
PHILIP JOHNSON: Power. Because I didn't like the way this country was going. I didn't like the fact that this was a rich, rich country, and there were people actually going hungry. It's hard--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And the Nazis were a response to that?
PHILIP JOHNSON: They were partly a response for that. They call themselves, and they worked--they got ahead in the first place by being socialists, you see, but--and then when that changed, I didn't get out. I worked--it's one of those regrets so strong you can't put it into words. It's just unbearable. You don't sleep.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, how do you want to be remembered?
PHILIP JOHNSON: I hope remembered by my a.) my buildings or b.) my status in the architectural profession on what I've contributed through the museum and other public matters to change architecture, to go on to the next step.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And in 16 years, when you will have completed whatever it is you think you will have completed, what will be there?
PHILIP JOHNSON: Well, I just think that I won't be feeling so good as I do now in 16 years. I don't know why 106 sticks in my mind because I was going to be 100 and then I was going to live in Rome, which is of course the greatest city in the world for every architect, and then I could just enjoy it, couldn't I? I wouldn't do that. I'm going to go till they carry me out in a little pine box, but until then I'll be working, you see, but why I think 16 years--oh, I think I'll still be able to get around. I'll see you again. The last one was 10 years, was it?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mm-hmm.
PHILIP JOHNSON: See you again in 10 years, and we'll just count this up.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I'm going to take you up on that, Philip Johnson.
PHILIP JOHNSON: Thank you.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you. And I know you don't want to hear this, but, Happy Birthday!