Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Tilted Cross: How Architect Philip Johnson Kept Outdoing Himself for 60 Years

This Houston Chronicle photo shows the juxtaposition, at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, of two Philip Johnson architectural designs reflecting noticeably divergent creative styles and time frames. On the right is one of the sleek, black-steel, two-story walkways that connect Johnson's academic buildings, reflecting his subtle, minimalist style in the 1950s. But on the left is the Chapel of St. Basil, which, as a Chronicle columnist says today, is about as subtle as "Marilyn Monroe at a gathering of nuns."

In her column entitled The perfect finish: Philip Johnson's final work in Houston is a billboard for St. Thomas Lisa Gray reflects on the parallel growth of Johnson and St. Thomas: "Over the years, both the architect and the university changed radically, but they changed in ways that kept them right for one another."

Through six decades the university transitioned from buildings facing inward and each other, to the very public Chapel of St. Basil and now Johnson's entrance "billboard." The evolution of campus structures reflected the church's transition from the wagons-in-a-circle siege mentality of the 1950s to Vatican II's landmark document Gaudium et Spes, with its stunning affirmation, "The joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of people today, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ."

The same decades witnessed the maturing of Philip Johnson's architecture, from emulating the "Less is more" philosophy of his mentor Mies van der Rohe, then the "Less is a bore" mentality of postmodernist Robert Venturi, then finally distilling and outdoing himself, by designing a sign!

As I noted 9/27 about previous coverage of this "ultimate Philip Johnson work," today's analysis does not mention that Johnson was a gay man who had the same partner for 45 years. Two things remain remarkable about that. First, the maturation of his architecture seems to have gone hand in hand with the maturation of joy and hope in his personal life. Second, the university's outreach included adopting and celebrating the achievement of a man whose personal life was quite at odds with the official moral teaching of the Catholic Church. Both developments should be remembered. And be treasured. And be encouraged anew.

After describing possibly the greatest frustration of Johnson's career — how his design for the Rothko Chapel displeased Mark Rothko and had to be tweaked by others — Gray continued her homage to Johnson. Below is the second half:

Determined never to bore, Johnson appropriated any image, allusion or style that caught his eye. It was said that, though he wasn't original, he excelled in distilling other people's styles and ideas, boiling them down to their essences. He could out-Mies Mies, out-Venturi Venturi.

Transco Tower was the Empire State Building rendered in shiny blue glass. The University of Houston's architecture building, with its funny Greek temple on top, was so closely based on a design of French visionary architect Étienne-Louis Boullée that some called it a rip-off. For AT&T's New York headquarters, Johnson famously topped a glass skyscraper with what looked for all the world like the top of a giant Chippendale bureau — a wink at Venturi.

Those later buildings were "cartoons," as Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin put it, "two-dimensional corporate logos blown up to massive scale." Like good logos, they stuck in your brain, as catchy as pop songs.

Kamin's description fits the chapel that St. Thomas eventually got from Johnson: the va-va-va-voom Chapel of St. Basil. Other architects had conscientiously rendered the rest of the quad in a style that matched Johnson's original buildings, but he seemed delighted to break with his own past. Instead of brick and black steel, he designed the chapel's base in white stucco and topped it with a super-shiny gold dome. It presides over St. Thomas' quad like Marilyn Monroe at a gathering of nuns.

The chapel seems determined to be the life of the party. Its sexy dark entrance looks like a long slit in a woman's skirt. And the ball-shaped dome works quite literally as a logo: Its cross-topped outline looks great on T-shirts.

Just as logo-ready was the tilted glass cross on the chapel's west wall — the shape that Johnson reused on the new black-granite marker. Over on Montrose, that shape shouts that St. Thomas has lost its diffidence and now aims to stake out Catholic turf in a noisy world — or, in the words of its strategic agenda, to "assert our identity, academic brand, and image."

Over the years, Johnson had become precisely the right architect to do that. Accused of stealing other's ideas, he cheerfully stole the tilted cross from himself — a repetition that, like good advertising, strengthens the St. Thomas brand. Accused of designing buildings that are three-dimensional logos, he went one step further and designed ... a two-dimensional logo. A sign.

The Edward P. White Memorial Plaza is the ultimate Philip Johnson work — "ultimate" not just because it's among his last, but because after years of distilling other people's ideas, he got around to distilling himself. With this last doodle, he out-Johnsoned Johnson, and made a cartoon of his own cartoon.

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