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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: 8 / 8)

Dean of American Architects

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  Philip Johnson

Let's talk about modern art. What are the connections between modern art and architecture?

Philip Johnson Interview Photo
Philip Johnson: Of course there are connections. They're different professions which is why I like architecture better than art, but they're so intertwined that you can't separate them out so conveniently. When I was in college, I met the other man that influenced me enormously like Demos, the professor at Harvard in philosophy. That was Alfred Barr, the founder of the Museum of Modern Art, who got me more than excited by modern painting. Although I had been buying a few pictures, and I loved certain artists like Paul Klee or Pablo Picasso, I didn't have the passion that Alfred Barr did, nor did I have the knowledge. He was the greatest scholar as well as the greatest enthusiast and preacher on art that I know in history. Nobody today can touch him and, with him, I had my eyes opened to greater things in art than I had any experience of.

I had experienced only my knowledge of Mondrian because Mondrian, of course, had a very close connection with architecture. Some painters are more architectonic. The two great ones in recent history are Malevich and Mondrian. If you don't know those people and appreciate them, I don't see how you could be an architect. It seems to me that today, if you don't know the young sculptors or the young artists, that you're going to miss a shape or a form or a passage. You're going to impoverish your work as an architect. It's such a subtle thing. It's one of those things you can't talk about, Why should I be influenced by a vase made by Kenny Price, for God's sake? But you feel it, you feel at the depth a useable, malleable, actual shape. Or, why would I get so excited about my favorite painter for instance, is Caspar David Friedrich. He was a romantic painter. Single men on a dark sea may sound crappy, but I assure you it isn't. If ruined cathedral at sunset may be too appalling to think of, but those pictures, he could do it. Now you'd say, what's the message? I don't know what message, all I know is every time I go to a museum where there are Caspar David Friedrichs, I spend all my time there. Or in ancient art, Piero della Francesca. I'd go 150 miles out of my way just to be sure to see again a favorite Piero because, to me, he was the great Renaissance painter. Others have other favorites, but one is influenced through the viscera. Why Mondrian? Because he used a straight shape that influenced Corbusier and all the modern architects of our time, and Malevich. But you can't see it in romantic painting, you can't see it in religious painting.

No writer has ever been able to explain painting. In fact I gave up reading books on writing. Roger Fry fascinated me when I was young, but he couldn't explain Caspar David Friedrich because he was "significant form" for God's sake, with no significant form in that landscape. So it's best not to talk about it at all. It's magical. That's why they used to say there are many paths to the truth besides reasoning and words and talking. There's mysticism. How do you explain mysticism? How do you find God on your knees in front of a statue. I don't know whether it was God I found at Chartres Cathedral or not. Nobody ever told me that. Those things are mysteries. Why do we like mysteries so much? In this scientific age, we still keep that passion for the unknowable and the risks. Nietzsche, of course, still has my fascination. His strange interest in art and architecture is unique among philosophers. I can say why I like Nietzsche, because he's close to architecture. But painting is something I can't understand. I cannot paint. I cannot think in those terms at all. I've tried and tried, naturally, always tried. Just as many times I've tried to design a chair. This chair was designed by Mies van der Rohe. Well I can't design a chair. I did it a couple of times and they were not only uncomfortable, but very ugly. It's too bad. I feel very incompetent on my bad days and I certainly can't do painting. They're different arts, and yet they influence each other, and I don't know the answer to your question, what is the relationship?

What's the greatest challenge of the next century?

Anybody who makes a prognostication's a damned fool. I've done it and I know it's always, always, always wrong, because you make a prophecy, for a challenge you make an assumption that is based on your experience today. The greatest challenge in the next century in architecture? Just the continual anguish and reform and replanning and nobody, nobody knows what strange changes are going to take. The history of the past century, for instance. Nobody could have guessed what Le Corbusier would do, that what Frank Lloyd Wright did was to change the course of history, or Mies van der Rohe. And now the kids! We have a wonderful generation coming, twisting it all out of what an older person would think was shape. But they're doing it with such panache, with such verve, which such delightful humor, that a whole new panoply of architecture's opened up. That's why, as far as my feeling goes, it's all going to be good. The world can go to pot, as it seems to be doing very well thank you, but it doesn't affect architecture. The late Byzantine period may have been, toward the end of a bad period, but great churches that will always last and always inspire. So have the decadence that maybe is coming, but maybe not. If it's coming, architecture will go on anyhow. If it's not coming, architecture will go on anyhow and create it's own richnesses. You can't stop people from doing architecture. You can't stop people from writing poetry.

Philip Johnson Interview Photo

All right, the times go bad, the times go good, but the eternal things, like poetry or architecture, go on. And, they will go on. That is one of the great things about being connected to an art as great as architecture. It's your desire -- Plato's words -- desire for immortality. That's what keeps you going, not sex. It doesn't make any difference anyhow at my age, but it's not important as a drive, Mr. Freud to the contrary notwithstanding. Plato was right. Everybody has a desire for immortality. So when you die isn't very important. Because your immortality -- what did you do when you were here that made any sense?

[ Key to Success ] Passion

I can't think of any better place to stop. Thank you. It's been a privilege.

You're welcome.

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