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If you like Philip Johnson's story, you might also like:
J. Carter Brown,
Dale Chihuly,
Frank Gehry,
Maya Lin,
James Rosenquist,
Robert Schuller,
Fritz Scholder,
Norman Schwarzkopf
and Wayne Thiebaud

Philip Johnson's recommended reading: The Republic

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Philip Johnson in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Meet the Architects

Related Links:
Philip Johnson / Alan Ritchie Architects
architecture.com
Greatbuildings.com

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Philip Johnson Interview

Dean of American Architects

February 28, 1992
New York, New York

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  Philip Johnson

What made you want to be an architect?

Philip Johnson: I don't know. Because I couldn't do anything else probably. I wasn't very good at anything.


My mother was interested in architecture. She wanted a house by Frank Lloyd Wright when she was young, but my father didn't see it the same way, naturally, for obvious reasons, so we compromised by not having one. I suddenly realized in the middle of my political work -- ran for the local state legislature and didn't want that. It didn't work at all. I was a lousy politician, terrible, had stage fright, everything wrong. I was like certain candidates for Mayor in New York, but we won't go into lots of things. So I said, obviously, I had missed my calling. So at the age of 34, I decided to really be serious about architecture. So I went to Harvard at 34. You see, my problem always was I couldn't draw, so I knew I couldn't be an architect. Harvard didn't care whether I could draw or not. It seemed like a good idea. By that time, I'd worked for some years at the Museum of Modern Art on architecture, so I decided what the hell, I might as well be one.


I majored in philosophy at Harvard, and I didn't know if I wanted to be a teacher or a theoretician or just what, but I was always interested in art and architecture to look at. I was mostly interested in ideas and politics and world events. So I suddenly realized -- in the middle of my political work -- I had missed my calling.

Was there an event, a moment early on that influenced you?

Philip Johnson: Yes. I was a young man, much more inspired than I thought I was. You don't know what you're doing when you're young.


You get very excited about something but you don't know you're getting excited about it and you think everybody's the same way. I don't see how anybody can go into the nave of Chartres Cathedral and not burst into tears, because I thought that's what everybody would do. That's the natural reaction I had. That and the Parthenon -- one in 1919 and one in 1928 -- gave me the realization that I had to be in architecture in some way. Those events were sort of a Saul/Paul conversion kind of a feeling that determined me to play some part in architecture. So when I joined the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, I started the Architectural Department and worked there for some years and wrote a book. When I went to Harvard, it was taught in the school, so I was allowed not to take that course. It was very funny.

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Philip Johnson Interview Photo
Philip Johnson Interview Photo
Philip Johnson Interview Photo


How old were you when you saw Chartres Cathedral for the first time?

Philip Johnson: I was 13.


So I thought, my goodness, if a kid like me can get this excited, I didn't think it was anything unusual. Mother didn't either. She was interested in art, she took me (to France during) the Versailles Treaty years and I remember saying to myself, and I wrote it later in letters, that if I lived in Chartres, I would turn Roman Catholic to enjoy that cathedral, and if I turned Roman Catholic however, I would go and live in Chartres. Because how else could I exist without this closeness to this particular thing?


Philip Johnson Interview Photo

You say you had a powerful reaction to seeing the Parthenon as well. Could you tell us about that?


I first saw the Parthenon in 1928. By then I knew more about architecture and the history, but the actual presence of those stones was entirely different than the books. If you've just seen pictures of the Parthenon you haven't the slightest idea of what it is. But to be on that particular hill, with the other great hills around you, and be standing with those stones practically in your hands -- because a lot of them are falling down -- was an experience that was second only to Chartres. I wrote an article at that time saying there was a pre-Parthenon Philip Johnson and a post-Parthenon Philip Johnson, because that was the strongest single point of my learning about architecture. I was already 22, I should have known more. I should have known in 1922 when I was 17, 18, that I was going to do that. But I thought everybody did, so I'd do what I was interested in at that time, which was music, philosophy and the Greek language. I thought one of those three I was going to be into. I had this terrible thing happen to me at the Parthenon, but it wasn't until I was 34 that I had sense enough to go and get my education. Education's terribly important. But at the time, I would have none of education. It was all feeling and being converted to a dedication.


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This page last revised on Nov 28, 2012 18:11 EST
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