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Architect Philip Johnson's Death Closes Illustrious, Often Controversial, Career

The death of architect Philip Johnson at 98 this week brought to a close an illustrious, prolific, and often controversial, career.

Philip Johnson's long life ended at the New Canaan, Connecticut compound of the glass house, perhaps his most noteworthy architectural achievement. He completed the stark glass rectangle in 1949 when he was still heavily influenced by modernist master Mies van der Rohe.

By that time, Franz Schulze, the author of Philip Johnson: Life and Work, says Johnson had already established himself as a curator, critic, scholar, and writer. In time, he would become a major architectural power broker and patron of the arts.

"What he did for the Museum of Modern Art as the first significant curator of the department of architecture and the exhibitions that he was responsible for, that is a career in itself and a very important one," he noted. "Of course, his writings are worth the attention of any scholar. Lastly, the work that he did as a collector of art, putting together this extraordinary group of things which now can be seen in both the sculpture and the painting gallery in New Canaan, that is a remarkable career."

In an interview some years ago, Johnson said he fell in love with architecture on a trip to France when he was 19.

"That is when I saw my first great building, Chartres Cathedral, and I burst into tears," he said. "I was forever hooked."

Johnson worked with Mies van der Rohe on the legendary Seagram building in New York and designed the building's restaurant, the Four Seasons, where he famously had his own table and ate lunch almost every day.

But Johnson, the champion of modernism, began to stray as he started incorporating classical architectural elements into his designs. Biographer Franz Schulze, an art historian at Lake Forest College in Illinois, says Johnson and other postmodern architects wanted to restore history to architecture.

"Some of the buildings he did in Houston, for example the Republic Bank building, has its origins in 16th century Dutch gable architecture," said Mr. Schulze. "This was true of a building he did in Chicago. He made that famous statement you cannot not know history."

New York's AT&T building is probably Johnson's most controversial. Its pink granite exterior, cathedral-like lobby ceilings and so-called Chippendale roof enraged modernist purists. But the architect called it the job of my life.

"Justifiably. That earned him the cover of Time magazine on which he was shown holding a model of the AT&T building as if he looked like Moses carrying the Commandments," he recalled.

Johnson said he wanted all of his buildings to be what he called "Wow buildings."

"In other words, when you walk in you feel as if you are going into a church," he said. "In other words you get the Wow! Feeling. And that is the whole aim of every building I do."

In more recent years, Johnson aligned himself with the so-called deconstructionists and even built a structure with undulating walls at the Connecticut compound.

"The future of architecture is culture," he said. "In other words, like my latest building in the country. It waves. No windows. But there are no straight lies. It is sculpted as if out of clay."

Philip Johnson seemed to court controversy most of his life, from a fling with fascism in the 1930s to his meandering through architectural styles. He spoke bluntly and was often referred to as cynical and self-serving. But in his long and productive life, he also championed American architecture and nurtured generations of young architects.

Franz Schulze calls him a man of many facets.

"He was perhaps the most complicated person I ever met in my life," said Mr. Schulze. "He did want to serve himself. He has this history of being an anti-Semite. He later on called himself a philo-Semite, in other words a lover of Jews. He did some very good buildings. He walked away from styles that he had developed and then in some other direction. He was a man of great wit, of great sophistication. He could be very nice and very pleasant and very accommodating and very helpful, very friendly. And he could also turn on you and simply walk away. His own history is remarkably various and his personality likewise."

Johnson left the glass house compound, containing his art collection to a preservation group, which will open it to the public as a museum.