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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 (page: 2 / 8)

Dean of American Architects

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  Philip Johnson

What were you like as a young man in Ohio?

Philip Johnson: A twerp.


I was a spoiled brat. I was insufferable, very unpopular at school, very unpopular with the girls. Couldn't dance, couldn't mix. I was a loner and family practically gave up on me, wanted to give up on myself. You know the usual, "Oh goodness, what good am I?" bit, that every young person goes through, but I thought it naturally was unique and that I alone suffered. I read books on suffering, The Sorrows of Werther and so on. I was a lousy kid. It was when architecture hit me that I became more sensible.


What kind of a student were you?

Philip Johnson: Good. Amazing. I was a patchy student.


Sometimes I couldn't do something like write. That was a writer's block kind of thing, exaggerated up to a disease. So I flunked everything to do with writing or any expression in writing. Of course, it seems funny later that I did produce a book or two, but at that time, it was an unbelievable hurdle. There were no psychiatrists in those days, so I finally went to a nerve specialist. You're too young to remember that they were called neurologists or nerve specialists. They were naturally shrinks, but they didn't have the Freudian overtones. He told me I was sick. I was manic depressive. Naturally, I was delighted, but I was in tears most of the time. Somehow you get over all these things. I never thought I would. It's the end of the world again, you know. But early unsuccesses shouldn't bother anybody, because it happens to absolutely everybody. Every one of us goes through this and it's a funny thing that they don't tell you when you're young that depression now and then is perfectly normal, that sense of failure is also normal, but so is a sense of excitement and delirium normal. And I may be talking only for artists, but I doubt it. I think everybody has these inadequacy feelings that are helped by religion or psychiatry or just plain grow up. That's all I did, was just grow up.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


Any books or teachers that helped you or influenced you?

Philip Johnson Interview Photo
Philip Johnson: Yes, my philosophy professor at Harvard, Rafael Demos. He was a Greek and we worked on Plato together a good deal. He was personally a great influence, but he didn't help my architectural feeling at all. I was going to teach philosophy. The head of the philosophy department at Harvard said, "Why don't you come and teach? Become a professor." Well I knew I wasn't any good at that! I got turned off of that by Whitehead, the great philosopher. He took me into his class, but I was hopeless. Couldn't understand the simplest things, apparently, and that got me off philosophy.

Any heroes, any role models?

Philip Johnson: That I knew personally? No. I must have, because I'm naturally a hero-worshipper type. Out of history, Napoleon, for instance. I still believe in the "great man" theory of history which, of course, is so much against the historiographers today that I never dare say so in public. I've got a new hero right now, General Schwarzkopf, simply because he's down to earth and straightforward and very, very funny. The man has an enormous sense of self-assurance and enormous competence in handling people and a very fast mind. Those are the things I admire most in people, and he has them all. But that's just a passing love of the moment. I had some bad times too.


My hero-worship got around to Huey Long. That'll suprise anybody, because Huey Long is a forgotten figure, a populist from the South who wanted to save the world from Roosevelt and from the Depression. Things were bad in the '30s. That I couldn't stand. I said, "What is it? We've got plenty of wheat and grain and trees, and why is there hunger?" Of course there was in those days. This depression hasn't gotten to that stage yet. But that was bad at that time. So I said, "What do I do about it?" I didn't want to be communist, which seemed to be what one's intellectual friends did. So instead, I became what was later called fascist, but it wasn't in those days; it was populist, and Huey Long was going to fix everything. So I drove down and met Huey and said, "What are we going to do?" And one of his people said to me, and I'll never forget this, he said, "How many votes do you control?" I was only asking whether I could even work with the man! In other words, he was so individual and chaotic that there was no way of getting along. So I came home and he got shot and that was the end of that. He was quite a figure.


Philip Johnson Interview Photo
I recall your being interested in Father Coughlin.

Philip Johnson: He was my substitute for Huey Long. Father Coughlin was more of an intellectual of course, but also not as basic, not as good.

You could not have graduated from college at a more challenging or unsettling time -- economically, politically, socially. It was the start of the Great Depression. What were those days like?

Philip Johnson: Tragic. I didn't see how art fit in. It was too close to me, the farms and people in debt and people plain hungry. You wouldn't believe it was possible in this country. Roosevelt didn't seem to be doing enough, although I voted for him six times... no, he didn't run that many times... but he was a great man. So art was not so important in those years, all of the '30s.

What were you looking for during that time?

Philip Johnson: Hero worship. Speedy solutions. I didn't see why we shouldn't get things going instead of dithering all the time and talking so much. The first time I joined any political thing was a milk strike in Cleveland. My farm was nearby and I fought with the farmers against the milk companies. Took radio time and made talks. Was finally threatened off the air by the milk companies. They got to the head of the station and said, "Don't sell that man any more time!" I hit a nerve anyhow. I had fun. I doubt if I helped the farmers much

Any lessons from those experiences in the '30's?

Philip Johnson: I put it out of mind.


That's what I like, is causes. I always overreact. If I go religious, I go on my knees for days, that kind of thing. That was a very short interval, but the cause was a good one. Once I discovered architecture as a need of my nature, then of course that enthusiasm knew no bounds and it's been the same ever since. The turning point was 1939. And ever since then, art is the only thing I've been alive for. I spend my waking hours. There's no such thing as leisure time, for instance. If your work is architecture, you work all the time. You wake up in the middle of the night. I got a wonderful idea last night! Still working in Berlin on one of those things and I know just where that window is going to be. I'm varying between that shape and this shape. I enjoy it more and more all the time. I've got to hurry now.


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