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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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Philip Johnson
Philip Johnson
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Philip Johnson Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Dean of American Architects

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  Philip Johnson

What do you have to take into account when you're designing a building? Aesthetics? Function?

Philip Johnson: Yes. That's a very good question, because there are certain things that you damn well have to take into consideration and more people should. It was hard for all of us, but without that, you can't go onto the creativity of a structure. You've got to know what stands up in present-day technology and what doesn't, or your fantasies will be fairy stories and not designs for buildings. Another thing you have to know is function. Modern architecture was founded in functionalism as a goal and, as much as I fight that as the only goal, it became the only goal, and that's bad too.

The only goal is building a beautiful building, but if you don't know your functions, if the Seagram building didn't work and make piles of money for everybody, it wouldn't be a success because all skyscrapers are money-making machines. So a function of the building, what would rent the best, is always on your mind. You can say, "Oh it's just commercialism," but that commercialism is our non-religion. It's our custom of the day and that's what our period's all about: consumerism and business. The business of America is business, somebody said and, strange as that sounds, that's what it is. So you damn well have to be functional in all your work, even a church. You can't ignore function. I love to do churches because, of course, there is the spatial feeling of God that you have going for you that's a little more interesting function than the layers of office cubicles.

You have to know those things. You have to know structure, and you spend nine-tenths of your time on that. You say you know structure, but do you know connections? What happens when the water gets in that little place? Only years and years of experience... but that's nothing to do with the art. You've got to know all of that before you start. Painters have it easy; they've got to know what kinds of pigments will last. They don't know that even sometimes, but even that's not necessary. You repair a picture if it's bad, but in architecture, it falls down. That's a sociological crux. Then you've got the permits and things to go through with city hall that drive you up your wall. Then you have the clients. The care and feeding of clients is really one of the main obstacles, because you always have a client with some preconceived idea of what a house looks like, and all you want him to do is leave a check and go to Europe for a couple of years. Or leave two checks. But alas, life isn't simple. If it were, more people would be better architects.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

You said "You cannot not know history." What did you mean by that?

Philip Johnson: We were in a period in the early '50s or '40s that thought the whole thing could be solved by technological means. Science will take care of everything and no input of cultural history was of any importance. I never believed it and I still don't. So I claim that you've got to have a feel for the history of architecture. I started out as an historian, so probably I was just pushing my own interest. I felt that you can't not know it because it's there all the time, it's around you anyhow. If you ignore it, then you're denying the very input your buildings have to have. So you can't not know it. It's a good remark. I plastered it on the wall at Yale when I taught there.

You've been described as the most influential American architect in this century and as an enfant terrible. Which description fits you best?

Enfant terrible. I'm not the greatest influence at all, but I am nasty. I have a very bad reputation for always saying tactless remarks that are much better not being said. I really don't understand that. To me, I just tell the whole truth, but perhaps that isn't the right thing to do at that moment. But, I'm still here. If you can prove to me that that's hurt my career terribly, then I'd take it more seriously. But in spite of the horrible mistakes I've made in my life, well, I suppose some of them were inevitable, but you didn't have to be such a damn fool, Johnson. Still, I'm here. I enjoy being an enfant terrible, although I'm pretty old to be an enfant.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

What was the worst mistake you ever made?

My worst mistake was going to Germany and liking Hitler too much. I mean, how could you? It's just so unbelievably stupid and asinine and plain wrong, morally and every other way. I just don't know how I could have been carried away. It's like being carried away by a religious revival or something that enables you to cut people's heads off in the next county because they live in the next county. That's not good either. But that I should be psychologically so inept as to be swept along in something so horrible, it really wonders you. How could you? I never found a reason, I never found an excuse, and all I can say is how much I regret it because the racial part of is the worst. I can understand social fascism as done in Italy before Mussolini met Hitler, because that was, "If the trains run on time, let's not do it the communist way, let's do it our way." That made some sense and that's what I was doing here in America. But to be caught up in the racial thing was unbelievable, because like everyone else in the intellectual world, nine-tenths of the people I know are Jewish and the outrageousness of that kind of thing that could happen in a world and I didn't know it?! Where the hell was I?! A Harvard graduate! So much for Harvard! I was just stupid. Just unforgivable. That's the worst thing I ever did.

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