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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,
Vincent Scully 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

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PJAR Architects
American Masters
Pritzker Prize
Architectural Digest

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Philip Johnson
Philip Johnson
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Philip Johnson Interview (page: 3 / 8)

Dean of American Architects

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  Philip Johnson

Architecture sometimes seems like politics or religion. It's full of movements and orthodoxies and heresies and controversy. You always seem to be right in the middle of it all.

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Philip Johnson: I love that, you see. I didn't lose that just because I switched from philosophy to architecture. I'm still a thought kind of an architect more than a genius type. I'm not a genius. There are some, and I love them, but I like the give and take and the change and the prophesying what's happening and catching onto the next train by the caboose. Caboose? You don't have 'em anymore do you? Just seeing what's going to happen, and figuring it out with the young. Where are we at? Every one of my articles is a struggle, a "where are we at?" thing. History's in the making right now. It's very exciting and it's changing all the time. So to be in on it is my biggest pleasure. I always thought everybody felt that, but again, I guess everybody's different.

What brought about this turning point in 1939?

Philip Johnson: The war. It was pretty obvious to me what was coming and I didn't have any part in it. I wasn't connected. I loved the Germans and I didn't see any particular sense in it, but my country was terribly important and I realized that we weren't in danger perhaps, but that the next battle line was the war. Of course I wanted to be in it and I finally succeeded, but I was too old. They called me Grandpa. But they did draft me and I had a very nice time indeed.

What took you so long to take up architecture?

Philip Johnson: I was a damned fool. That's not hard to explain.

Everybody's their own kind of a damn fool. I'll bet even you think now and then of opportunities missed and think that you could have done perhaps better? I'm full of regrets. Piles and piles of them, but you must not let that bother you. You'd just shoot yourself, which would be nice, but it doesn't pay out. What's the point? So if you can find something to do the way I did, then it keeps you alive. That's the reason I'm alive and active at 85 with lots of work and traveling all over the place. I'll work until I drop, which will be a long time from now.

What were some of the pressures that affected you? What were some of the things you had to overcome?

Philip Johnson: The political side, the war. I was not an athletic type, and the other soldiers were children half my age. It was a traumatic experience. Would I make it? It tested me as nothing else could.

The military is the most important single profession in this country, except for architecture. If it weren't for the military, I couldn't do architecture. So I admire the military very, very much. That isn't popular either among Harvard intellectuals. You know, you try to get to get out of fighting in wars if you can. No! That got me out of my namby-pamby spoiled kid position in the world. My family had money, which is a very bad handicap. I didn't realize that. I thought it was kind of nice. I had a car when I was a private in the Army and drove up to Washington every single night from the camp. Terrible.

The arduous part of the day was so arduous and so collapsing. That I lived through it at all was a triumph. It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened. That was a moment of the purest pleasure that I could get along with these kids. They didn't hate me. They did call me grandpa, but I wasn't condemned the way I was condemning myself all the time because I wasn't physically fit. I was a stupid intellectual, you know. The type that wore glasses and went around reading. When I had to stay up all night in the army watching a machine or something -- they put you on the funniest duties -- I read Madame Bovary in French, you see. Just it was easier and it was a lovely language. I can't read it now, but I mean, it was so concentrating, that atmosphere in a camp.

I'll tell you what happens when you get crushed together like that with a bunch of men: all their character comes out much quicker, much sharper. I led a lonely life with my family. I was a spoiled kid. And then to be thrust in with all these decisions that you have to make every two seconds with the armed forces, anyway, whether you're with your captain -- whom we naturally hated because he was an evil figure -- or the lieutenant, which was a hero figure because the captain didn't like the lieutenant at all. If you are a novelist, how could you do anything except join an army? So I agreed with Napoleon that it was fine to fight for your country.

So it was after the war that you began your career as an architect?

Philip Johnson: Yes, right away.

And had some trouble passing the New York State exam?

Exams are so stupid. I couldn't be bothered to work for them, so I kept flunking them. They were too simple-minded. So I went to a cram school. The cram school of course said, "You idiot, look at that piece of paper." I said, "Yes. It's a fine piece of paper." He said, "You've only got six lines on it." I said, "Yeah, the paper's so beautiful, what do you want to spoil it for by covering it with all these lines?" They said, "Look, you've got to pass the exam. You stop your damn theories and cover the sheet with extra trees, then. It doesn't make any difference, just fill it up. Put more bricks in or something." And then another clue, "How do you know how to get into that building?" And I said, "It's right here." They said, "No, you take a red arrow. And it doesn't matter if it's the only red thing you've got on the sheet, put that in, so the examiner will see it." I said, "Oh, I see, he knows where to go in." Those simple little tricks I had trouble at. I passed it by doing -- they wanted a house in the suburbs. So I did it, just out of my memory. I took a suburban house. Don't like them, would never build one, hated the whole thing. I used to go to an exam and do what I wanted to do. Of course they didn't like it, because I was always doing something different from other people. Anyhow, by knuckling under I had no trouble. You learn lessons, you see. Always give in. I mean at the proper moment -- when you have to.

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