Master Builder

From museums to skyscrapers, architect Philip Johnson has forever changed the Texas landscape. Not bad for a New Yorker.

August 2000By Comments

Texas is my favorite country,” writes architect Philip Johnson in his foreword to Frank Welch’s new book, Philip Johnson & Texas (University of Texas Press). And if Texas had a National Architect, the 94-year-old Johnson would have to be it. Among the more than twenty major projects he has completed in Texas over the last half-century are civic icons ranging from the Kennedy Memorial in Dallas to the Fort Worth Water Gardens to Corpus Christi’s Art Museum of South Texas. But Johnson’s magnum opus has been Houston itself, or at least the city’s skyline, which bears his signature as distinctly as the swoosh on a pair of Nikes. Johnson introduced Houston to modernism in the fifties and then famously changed his mind; his twin-towered, raked-roof Pennzoil Place, completed in 1976, started the postmodern revolution in commercial architecture and, along with his startlingly solitary Transco Tower in the Galleria area and his Gothic-style RepublicBank Center, gave Houston the world’s most progressive profile. For better or for worse—Johnson has never suffered from a dearth of detractors—the face Texas wears into the third millennium is, in great measure, the handiwork of an owlish, slightly built, discreetly gay intellectual who offices in Manhattan and lives in a glass house in Connecticut.

Any survey of Johnson’s Texas oeuvre would be welcome, but Philip Johnson & Texas offers a particularly salient point of view. Author Welch, a Paris (Texas) native, is one of our most distinguished homegrown architects, a devout disciple and much-honored heir of the late O’Neil Ford, the crusty Texas regionalist who, as Welch points out, “considered Johnson a lightweight and a carpetbagger.” Writing as a friend and fan of Johnson’s, Welch has a more generous opinion, but he isn’t reluctant to identify his subject’s professional flops and personal failings. And ultimately it is Johnson the personality who commands the stage Welch painstakingly constructs from archival research, scores of insider interviews, and enough insightful background on people and places to constitute a compact cultural history of Texas. A peerless raconteur, elegantly patrician yet disarmingly self-deprecating, Johnson captivated a small, influential circle of Texas patrons, forging a relationship that was nothing if not symbiotic. He gave them the cultural legitimacy they craved, and they reciprocated with opportunities Johnson could have had nowhere else: His first postmodern skyscraper in New York, the celebrated “Chippendale” AT&T Building, went up almost a decade after Pennzoil Place.

The psychologically fraught romance between Johnson and Texas began in 1948, when a French émigré couple, recently settled in Houston, asked the late New York sculptor-socialite Mary Callery to recommend an architect for the house they wanted to build on San Felipe Road, on the edge of the exclusive River Oaks neighborhood. The house would be "modern," something unheard of in staid River Oaks, with its eclectic collection of stately period-style homes. Callery told John and Dominique de Menil that for $100,000 they could get the real deal from no less than Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the high priest of the austerely ahistorical, unsparingly rectilinear form of modernism known as the International Style (Mies was also Callery's occasional lover); for $75,000 they could get a perfectly good knockoff from Mies's acolyte—and Callery's drinking buddy—Philip Johnson. The de Menils were neophyte art collectors who hadn't yet come into the full flush of their Schlumberger oil fortune and had hardly begun their radical transformation of Houston's conservative cultural landscape. Finding Johnson's price point attractive, they took a chance on the unlicensed, 41-year-old architect, who had already become a lightning rod for controversy without having designed anything more notable than his own house.

Born in 1906 to a well-heeled Cleveland lawyer and his culturally aspiring wife, Johnson was a sickly, friendless child who blossomed into a charismatic show-off at prep school and Harvard. By the early thirties Johnson had become one of modern architecture's most influential proselytes, co-authoring, with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the seminal tome The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 and serving as director of the new Department of Architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art. However, Welch astutely suggests that Johnson's attraction to modernism was an infatuation with the stark visual drama of what was then shockingly new, not an allegiance to the utopian, better-living-through-better-buildings idealism that underlay the sleek, stripped-down creations of purists like Mies. That love of style over substance led Johnson on a troubling political digression when he was bedazzled by the authoritarian pomp of a Hitler rally he attended in Potsdam in 1932. At a time when many American intellectuals were steering hard left (and overlooking Stalin's predilection for mass murder), Johnson took a similarly naive turn to the right, abandoning his career as a writer and a curator in an attempt to set up a fascist front called the Young Nationalist Party.

In 1940, reeling from the unfolding horror of European fascism, a chastened Johnson enrolled in Harvard's Graduate School of Design. After graduating and serving in the wartime Army, he set up a tiny boutique practice in New York and began building his famous glass-walled house on a wooded plot in New Canaan, Connecticut. The almost-finished house was poised to become a sensation in American design circles when Callery invited Johnson and John de Menil for cocktails at her Manhattan studio. But the relationship really clicked when Johnson flew to Houston and met Dominique. (Half a century later, after her funeral, Johnson would muse, "I owe her my career.") The flat-topped, unassuming house Johnson built for the de Menils wasn't pure Mies—he punctured the sheer brick street facade with windows because Dominique wanted the cook to have something to look at—but it was enough to galvanize a modernist movement in Houston, led by Johnson adherents like Howard Barnstone, Hugo V. Neuhaus, Jr., and Burdette Keeland, Jr. Johnson himself would return throughout the fifties, lecturing at the University of Houston and designing, again for the de Menils, the University of St. Thomas campus in classic Miesian style.

Dominique de Menil became Johnson's connection to a network of wealthy Texas women who succumbed to his chatty urbanity and became devoted clients. Ruth Carter Stevenson, daughter of Fort Worth publishing magnate Amon Carter, met the architect in the late fifties at a luncheon at the de Menils', and he quickly agreed to design the memorial museum her father had mandated in his will. Although the Amon Carter Museum, finished in 1961, has long been overshadowed by its downhill neighbor, Louis Kahn's sublime, barrel-vaulted Kimbell Art Museum (1972), Welch persuasively argues that the earlier building represents a true watershed. Coming on the heels of Johnson's collaboration with Mies himself on the definitive International Style box, New York City's Seagram Building (1959), the Amon Carter Museum was a daring break with Miesian orthodoxy. With its classical front porch of tapered limestone columns, set on an Acropolis-like height overlooking downtown, the Fort Worth museum was a visual expression of a Johnson dictum that would become the rallying cry of postmodernism: "We [architects] cannot not know history." Perhaps more important, in proving that an out-of-towner could design an attention-grabbing memorial to no less a Texas icon than the man known as Mr. Fort Worth, Johnson paved the way for Kahn and the succession of East Coast and foreign architects who would land Texas' plum civic commissions for the rest of the century. And as in Houston, Johnson became an important behind-the-scenes player in Fort Worth's cultural life, arm-twisting nationally prominent architects to take local jobs and recommending a New York chum, the late Ric Brown, for the Amon Carter Museum's board; Brown would go on to become the Kimbell Museum's revered founding director.

The Amon Carter Museum was a precocious prelude to the postmodern revolution. But Pennzoil Place, the postmodern shot that was heard around the world, hardly began as a calculated assault on modernism. Developer Gerald Hines was a mechanical engineer from Indiana who had begun building modernist low-rises along Houston's Richmond Avenue in the late fifties. Needing a second major tenant for a downtown high-rise planned for the Pennzoil Company, Hines asked Johnson to design a building with some sort of dual image that would satisfy the vanity of both tenants. Johnson produced a number of conventional designs, one of them quite Seagram-like; Hines and Pennzoil chairman J. Hugh Liedtke, a blunt Oklahoman, turned them down flat. Then, studying a site plan an associate had transected with a diagonal line, Johnson had an epiphany: Reflect the dual tenancy with two trapezoid-shaped buildings, mirror images set diagonally across the city block, sharing the same lobby, the towers dramatically separated only by a ten-foot-wide slit. When Johnson presented Liedtke with the model for this design, Liedtke objected to the twin towers' flat tops. Johnson snatched the sloped roof from the model's lobby and placed it on top of one of the miniature towers. "Yeah, that's it!" exclaimed Liedtke, a three-word critique that would transform cityscapes around the world.

As much minimal sculpture as architecture, Pennzoil Place earned a chorus of praise led by New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who called it "the building of the decade." Remarkably, Pennzoil Place combined commercial success with its critical triumph; using the garrulous Johnson as the centerpiece of his marketing campaign, Hines quickly sold out his trendy building. The numbers weren't lost on developers worldwide, who eagerly sought cutting-edge architects—previously deemed too outré and pricey for bottom-line commercial work—to deck out their towers with exotic "party hats." Johnson, who was awarded this country's most prestigious architecture award, the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, when the AIA met in Dallas in 1978, and who soon appeared on the cover of Time magazine cradling his model of the yet-unbuilt AT&T Building, became the leader of a pack of celebrity architects whose signatures on new office buildings commanded the same kind of premium that prestige clothing designers were getting for slapping their name on the rump of a pair of jeans.

Johnson's next bold stroke was the 1983 Transco Tower (now the Williams Tower), a deco-style shaft somewhat reminiscent of the Empire State Building but lacking its urban context; rising 64 stories from Houston's Galleria neighborhood (it is the nation's tallest building outside a city center), Transco symbolized the oil-fueled hubris of Texas' early-eighties building boom. Far more original, however, was Johnson's RepublicBank Center (now the Bank of America Center), completed the next year just a block away from Pennzoil Place. Three red granite tiers of steep, spiky gables inspired by sixteenth-century Dutch Gothic municipal buildings, the 56-story tower provides a striking complement to the dark glass abstraction of Pennzoil Place. Just a year later, however, the Crescent, Johnson's multi-building, mid-rise hotel-retail-office complex built for Dallas oil heiress Caroline Hunt, proved that historicizing could be a hit-or-miss affair. A bizarre attempt to paste ironwork filigree copied from a nineteenth-century Galveston villa over massive, French Second Empire facades, the Crescent ended up looking like a steroid-enhanced version of the ersatz chteaux endemic to the Dallas suburbs—a fitting monument to the collapse of the oil economy and the end of the building boom.

With his gift for reinvention, Johnson just kept on going. In 1995, after telling the Reverend Michael Piazza that he couldn't possibly design a new cathedral for his burgeoning congregation, Johnson granted the Dallas minister a few minutes to tell him about his church. Half an hour later, Johnson had enthusiastically agreed to design the 2,500-seat Cathedral of Hope for the world's largest gay and lesbian congregation. As planned (the project is halfway toward its $22 million fund-raising goal), the Cathedral of Hope will be an expressionistic, almost windowless concrete ark, a climactic monument to inclusion by the architect who so well expressed the aspirations of the state's elite.

The Cathedral of Hope may not be Johnson's last word in Texas, but it probably can be regarded as the coda to an epoch: The half-century Welch revisits with such panoramic perspective suddenly begins to look like the Texas Renaissance. The year the de Menils' house was finished, 1950, was also the first year the census found more Texans living in cities than in the countryside, and the state's wealth still came in great part from the land—agriculture and oil. The same peculiar combination of cultural insecurity and risk-taking élan that drove Johnson, a Midwesterner who has always seemed to fear nothing more than discovering that he has become passé, drove the generation of Texas patrons with whom he so strongly empathized. Today's new Texas fortunes are derived from information-age industries like high technology and the media, the insecurity is less gnawing, and the splendid cultural infrastructure built by the up-from-the-dirt generation is now taken almost as a birthright. But those museums and trendsetting skylines didn't just sprout from the soil. Welch's book is a timely reminder of how much our cultural landscape was transformed by the restless intellect and Zelig-like presence of Philip Johnson.

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