by Jamie Bartlett May 18, 2020 5 min read
David Bowie sang about him.
He was the inaugural winner of the coveted Pritzker Prize.
Accusations deemed him as a Nazi sympathiser.
Despite that, he later designed a Synagogue.
Architect Philip Johnson was, without doubt, a controversial figure of 20th century architecture and played a prominent role amidst the early postmodernist movement.
Even one of his most celebrated buildings, the Glass House, is widely debated as an imitation, yet remains a relic of architectural fandom; ultimately it also became the site where he passed away in 2005.
Between his political controversy or “starchitecture” limelight, Johnson’s character became legendary during the later stages of his career during the 1970’s and 80’s. Known for his infectious humour and openly gay orientation, he was a forerunner for the postmodern movement; a true icon of architecture and famous glasses wearer.
Johnson was easily recognised by his adornment of round black eyeglasses. In this photograph, circa 19080's, shows his preference for a very thick black acetate frame. | Image credit: Pinterest
Like his buildings, Johnson had strong foundations in architecture. Having graduated from Harvard in 1927, he ventured from his home city of Cleveland at the age of 21 to explore Europe’s most prominent Gothic buildings.
It was during his European tour when he met his lifelong friend, collaborator, mentor and equally famous contemporary, Mies van der Rohe in Germany, 1928. This marked the beginning of their long-lasting friendship which famously led to their future collaborations and vocational rivalry.
Mies van der Rohe (left) and Philip Johnson (right) pose by a scale-model of the Seagram Building in this photograph from 1955 by Irving Penn. This was one of the duo's most famous collaborations led by Rohe as the head architect for the project.
The Seagram skyscraper building at 375 Park Avenue, midtown Manhattan, New York. At 38 stories, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was commissioned as the head architect and collaborated with Philip Johnson who was assigned as the head interior architect. | Image credit: Jakpost.travel
During his career, Johnson’s work straddled two eras of architectural style. His early work, such as his much adored Johnson House, bears the stiff and sober modernist ideals favoured by that of his peer Le Corbusier and of course, his mentor Mies van der Rohe.
It has a strictly cubic external structure which utilises a minimal steel construction, entirely cladded in its characteristically large panes of glass. Congruous to the ‘international style’ of the mid-century, it’s rectangularity stemmed from austere pragmatism that lacked any kind of ornamentation or unnecessary decoration.
Designed, built and used as his retreat-home in the outskirts of Connecticut, it’s a lasting statement of Johnson's methodology. Arguably one of his most famous buildings, it remains as a shrine and has provided regular attraction to architectural enthusiasts since it’s public opening in 2007.
"The Johnson House"Ponus Ridge Road inNew Canaan, Connecticut | Image credit: architecturaldigest.com
"Don't build a glass house if you're worried about saving money on heating." Philip Johnson.
Johnson was a notable character, primarily for his work, but also for his political controversy and flamboyant personality.
Unavoidably, he generated a lot of press amidst claims of supposed Nazism which became intertwined with his rising fame as an architect. Later in his life, many of his photos document his bold choice of glasses which were integral to his austere appearance yet playful persona.
Self-admittedly, he modelled his bold glasses style upon those worn by Le Corbusier, clearly one of his largest inspirations. In a passage by the New York times, it’s reported that he commissioned his copycat spectacles to the French frame-maker Cartier in 1934. Seen in the images below, his frame was similarly round in a very thick full-rim.
Despite his reputably light-hearted demeanour, Johnson preferred a contrastingly stern aesthetic.
His glasses were usually always made in a very formal black colour in a pronounced geometric style. As you can see, this yielded his studious, owlish appearance; perfect for his profession of structure and form.
Thick acetate spectacles like these were popularised during the mid-century as glasses manufactures had embraced the use of plastics to make their frames. In the 1950’s his spectacles would presumably have been handmade from a type of cellulose acetate and traditionally pin-riveted by an experienced crafts-person.
Interestingly, Johnson opted for entirely straight temples (arms) which is a notable detail in his signature style of frame. Optically speaking, these linear sides are called blade temples or paddle temples which provided Johnson with the convenience of easily ‘sliding’ his glasses on or off.
Traditionally, glasses temples would normally have a downward curve called a ‘drop’ to secure behind his ear. Perhaps Johnson avoided this for ease, transitioning between different visual tasks such as closely observing drawings or gazing up at his building conceptions.
A perfect side-view of Johnson's glasses with their blade/paddle temples. These acted more like 'grippers' on the sides of his head and could be easily removed or re-positioned on his face. | Image credit: Tablet Magazine
A later example of Johnson's round-eye spectacles, circa 2001. These were almost identical to the ones he had made for him by Cartier. The main difference was the frame was slightly thinner and lighter, using double pin-rivets instead of the decorative, diamond shaped ones in the image prior. | Image credit: famousbio.net
His simplistic glasses seem to represent his purist tendencies in his architecture.
You only have to look at the linear intersecting windows of his work such as his the Kunsthalle Bielefeld or the Monastery building at St. Anselm's Abbey to recognise this geometrical trait.
Kunsthalle Bielefeld contemporary art museum in Bielefeld Germany | Image credit: The Link Berlin
"The Johsnon House" Ponus Ridge Road in New Canaan, Connecticut | Image credit: The New York Times
Seagram Building, New York City, New York, 1958 | Image credit: Canadian centre for Architecture
Sadly, Johnson passed away in 2005 whilst attending one of his regular retreats to his Connecticut house.
Since he began in the 1940’s, his influential work has spanned the decades through to his final design of the Pennsylvania Academy of Music building which was completed in 2008.
As a prominent leader in the transition to postmodernist architecture, we pay homage to his career and admirable list of visionary buildings. He was a man with great ambition and had undeniable style, both in his work and as an eyewear icon.
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