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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: 7 / 8)

Dean of American Architects

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  Philip Johnson

You've taken your turn as a critic and certainly as the object of criticism. How do you handle criticism?

Philip Johnson Interview Photo
Philip Johnson: You try to develop a very thick skin. Hard to do. It hurts always. How could they misunderstand me so much?

Do you have any thoughts about the role of the architect in society?

Philip Johnson: I think it's marginal. I don't think it should be marginal. I think it's very important. I think it can influence the world. It can make you a better person if you're surrounded by good architecture, but the world doesn't seem to listen too much to that. They still create cities like Tokyo or Istanbul. Horrible places.

What is architecture's role?

Philip Johnson: Inspiration, like music. History, like music and painting, used to be called ennobling, but we don't care much about ennoblement anymore. What is it? It makes you feel much better. To be in the presence of a great work of architecture is such a satisfaction that you can go hungry for days. To create a feeling such as mine in Chartres Cathedral when I was 13 is the aim of architecture.

If a young person asked for advice about becoming an architect, what would you say?

Philip Johnson: I'd say, "Don't." I'm not an example for anybody. What to do?

Work at the apprentice system and travel a great deal to absorb the cultures of the world, of the past. You can add a few more to the ones that I had, is the East. The Near East I have learned a great deal about, but not the Far East. That should be included. I don't know how you do this. I don't know how you beg, borrow or steal - even that's all right to me - money to do this kind of fumbling around the world. That's very important, so you can get a feel for the way people actually live. And, you've got to be unfortunately, a salesman. How do you learn salesmanship? It's kind of hard.

Philip Johnson Interview Photo
Philip Johnson Interview Photo

How much is inspiration, how much perspiration?

Philip Johnson: About 99 percent is perspiration. Anybody can answer that.

Any doubts about your ability?

Philip Johnson: Oh goodness yes. I'm thoroughly discouraged right now. But that goes with the territory. You see better people around you all the time. Not to be envious and not to take that out in bitterness is a hard lesson, but you'd better, because you can't always be Frank Lloyd Wright. You've got to learn to live in this world just as you live in it. You've got to stand it.

Which awards mean the most to you?

Philip Johnson Interview Photo
Philip Johnson: None of them mean much. They really don't. What meant something to me is things like this: I was in Europe the other day and I picked up a wonderful new job. That's the reward of being famous. All the fame and publicity and all that seem to increase, and I don't know why, but it's very pleasant if it brings me another great challenge. With that, the next challenge, I can enjoy every single day of my life.

Anything you haven't done that you want to do?

Philip Johnson: Yes, I've always wanted to do one thing, but I knew it wasn't going to happen. So it stays as the dream: to build a city. Cities just grow like Topsy. Look at us here. Total disaster. Doesn't have to be. And I'm very sorry about that.

What's your dream city like?

Philip Johnson: It's all mixed up like Paris and Athens and few other places. I haven't let myself because I worked on some town plans and things that I thought were going to happen and were very disappointing. It's not in the cards these days, so I'm very satisfied by getting this little job in Europe. A few museums and schools that I'm doing. Wonderful time. And I'm doing a church. Very, very small, very unimportant, but very interesting.

Were there any books that influenced you as a young person?

Philip Johnson: Yes indeed, a great many. I got passionate about Nietzsche and Plato. I remember discovering Plato. That was my first love, and then Nietzsche, and I treasure them still in my bookcases. Later on, I became interested in architectural history and my passion in politics. Isaiah Berlin was, to me, the greatest theorist. It's books that really keep the mind filled. Another thing we should advise young people is to read. Read, read, read. If nothing catches your spirit, that's too bad. I must admit that the passion roused by a Plato can have no second. Not even poetry.

Why Plato?

Philip Johnson: He was such a great writer. He wrote the most beautiful prose and beautifully inspiring ideas. It sounds silly to use ordinary words when you get a genius like Plato, but he could think his way around all the plots and describe people and their characters at the same time. He created Socrates. Socrates was an unknown person, but he was made alive by this man's creativity. Now, I do not understand the finer points of Plato. It gets me down, but the comedies, the shorter dialogues can keep you going for a long, long time. Later, I turned on Plato, but that's a long story.

What reached you about Plato?

Philip Johnson: In a way it's like reading the Bible. It becomes so much part of your way of looking at the world that you don't realize it. I just felt moved, let's say, by reading Plato and, I confess, didn't understand it, but he seemed a wise man, saying great things and saying them beautifully. Poor Aristotle was short-changed because he was a lousy writer.

What about detective novels?

Philip Johnson: I read them as President Wilson did, if you please. Detective novels to keep me from committing suicide. They're wonderful relaxation; much better than television. But I only like the American kind and I read all of them five or six times.

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