Philip Johnson in Memoriam

Helping the Unknown Young Architects

Remembering some of the round table conversations we had while we worked on designs.

The things I wanted to share today are not normally associated with Philip Johnson. Last week I made some comments on Glass House, which took two years to design. And, as he said, it takes a minimum of a year to have a great design with hard work, study, conversations and constant revisions.

Remembering Philip JohnsonWe all know Johnson’s intelligence and tenacity in following the latest painting, sculpture and literature and critics, and his competitiveness in getting projects.


He did choose to use his intellect to spar with his intelligent friends carefully all throughout his life. That is how he kept himself ever “current” and not dropping off the design edge like some do eventually as we mature. We would be working on an issue for the project that I was assigned to and I would come to his office and sit with him around the big round table. Every so often, the telephone would ring and his peers would call to tackle a thorny issue in their lives with clients, and he would act like an elder statesman, making relevant helpful comments and encouragements.

For instance, there was a time when we had to find a new head for MOMA and the search went on for quite some time. It turned into a global effort, and it was most fascinating time for me to listen to the names that were considered and why.

Remembering Philip JohnsonEvery now and then he would also dwell on his luck and fortune being associated with MOMA in it its conception and traveling with Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Alfred Barr in Europe, gaining invaluable insights to what is strong design and what is fleeting.

But mostly the fact that Hitchcock clearly understood the “new European” architecture better than anyone, and saw the deeper intellectual and sociological implications. This was what Philip admired most.

This is what he wanted the next generation to understand, appointing and supporting younger intellectuals.

He would point to a small drawing by an obscure Norwegian architect and be almost in tears from admiration. He embraced Zaha Hadid immediately and gave her critical guidance and help, without which she would never have made a good start. Frank Gehry he admired, dialogued with and advised for decades.

In the ‘60s, Robert Venturi’s groundbreaking house for his mother was most important project since Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright. Johnson then sought to bring Edwin Lutyens’ genius to the forefront to support Venturi’s mother’s house.

Philip Johnson in MemoriamOthers who benefitted included Daniel Libeskind in his early efforts in Berlin. We even proved one time that his structure was viable as the jurors in a Berlin competition had said it was not. We changed a hotel design so that we would test the structure to prove it was also economically viable.

But most importantly, he was trying to find a way to support young unknown architects. He kept asking me what could be done.

At that point I said to him that I had originated the NYC Architecture League Young Architects program in 1982, as I was part of a small committee trying to find ways to do just that. I had found that most buildings that we admired in history books were done by architects when they were younger than 30, so we devised a competition structure that allowed only young architects to submit their efforts. Looking back, I think this is probably the most valuable and important “matter” for mankind I brought to life in my own life staring 1983.

Hopefully in the next 20 years, I will find a way device a method for our Congress and Senate to finally understand that only architects and engineers can COOL the world and avoid the up and coming environmental disaster – dramatic changes in climate and water level increases of 50 to 100 feet eventually.


Tapani Talo, AIA