Thursday, October 14, 2010

The AIA forbids animadversions on one's peers

For the Slabber

A shrewd policy for any guild, ever since Die Meistersinger. But Philip Johnson seems to have worn the advice of both institutions with that lightness of being impregnable which infallibly incurs the sharpest wrath, the moment he is not present to answer. What had Capote said we might get away with, against the gentleman who just left the room? At his death, Johnson was deluged with learned opprobrium of that marginal kind; but you cannot look at the history of architecture without knowing there are shards aplenty of spite, to pique the entrails of rawest envy for all time. And who'd be hurt less, than Johnson?

Johnson's feeling for humane deference in architecture was never more evident than in his public dealings with his arch-nemesis, Frank Lloyd Wright. But it is his gift for gentlemanliness which makes that clear, by overwhelming the American Institute of Architects' edict against malice with layers of the most cultivated appreciation and awe. If you would like to know how to be Frank Lloyd Wright, be Frank Lloyd Wright, because there will not be another. If you would like to know how to be his judge, look to his undaunted admirer; and know the ethics of manliness.

So let's go back to Taliesin West, with the architect who was our best critic, without whom the international style would not only not exist as an expression, but would have offered no counter-reformation to the vacuity of post-Modernism. A warning is appropriate. He will pinpoint greatness with the calmest irreverence and the most clarifying hilarity. He will be Philip Johnson, wherever he goes.

I am very interested in Frank Lloyd Wright and would like to say a few things which have been on my mind for quite some time. I’ve known Mr Wright for a number of years. I know he is still alive and I thought therefore that this, in a sense, is the right time to speak out because, were he dead, that old maxim of “nothing about the dead, but the good” would tie my mouth -- and I don’t want to wait until that time and have to make only pleasant statements.

Mr Wright has been annoying me for some time. (I didn’t say that he wasn’t a great architect). He says that my house, especially the Glass House that you may have seen pictures of, is not a house at all - it’s not a shelter, it doesn’t have any caves, it’s cold and it doesn’t give you a feeling of comfort; it’s a box. He once said (he’s much cleverer, of course, than all the rest of us so you can’t say these things as well as he does) that my house is a monkey cage for a monkey...

I don’t hope to keep up to him in anecdotes but I claim that it is a perfectly beautiful house to live in. And I would like to counter with a few remarks about some of his recent houses. I claim that they lack a lot of other things that are very valuable for living: they lack elegance completely, they lack all sense of clarity, they are confused in design, they have no consistency structurally. In the last house he did down our way, he was going around so many corners that he didn’t have time to hold up the beams, so he said to the boys, “We’ll put up a Lally column there.” Unfortunately it happened to be in the living room.

He makes the strangest use of materials. He will combine cinder blocks, to which he has now taken a fancy, with mahogany: the roofs, the facias are all mahogany, the decorations all copper, but the house is made of cinder block, an awfully unpleasant material in the evening with a silk dress...

Mr Wright is very careless about how his buildings are held up once he has the way of looking at them settled. We would not dare - even his admirers - to build a building as casually as he does. Fortunately his son-in-law is an excellent engineer and will see to it afterwards that there is enough steel put into the wood to insure the cantilevers from drooping too much - but they still droop...

There is a man who creates space for its own sake and has never paid attention to any other things. Have you ever been to Taliesin in Arizona?

I think that it is an experience which you can afford yourself. And I would plead with you to go before he is gone. He is 88; he is as brilliant and cantankerous and magnificent as ever. But the spirit will be gone out of the place when he is gone.

He has developed one thing which I will defy any of us to equal: the arrangements of secrets of space. I call it the hieratic aspects of architecture, the processional aspects.

You drive up from Phoenix, about 20 miles out, up a dusty desert road, wondering why you came because it’s terribly hot, and you go up a slight rise. Finally you turn into a piece of particularly dusty, nasty and ill-kept road. But there is a little sign that says, “Frank Lloyd Wright.”

You come to a conglomeration of tents and stones where the car stops. There is a low wall and you realize after you have been there and come back again, that he has been pushing out the spot where the car stops, further and further from his place. I’d like to recommend that to you and me. The car, of course, is one of the deaths of architecture. It’s out of scale, it makes noise, it doesn’t please the eye. And you cannot, from a sitting position, even look at architecture. It has to be by the actual use of the muscles of your feet.  

He now makes you walk about 150 feet, until you get closer to this meaningless group of buildings. You’ve seen the plans many times and I’m sure you don’t understand them any more than I did before I’d been there. 

As you approach, he starts you off on a slight slope, with the mountains to your left, and so up the first steps you go, away from the buildings instead of toward them. And how he takes your eyes and makes them follow! You go down the steps this way, but the buildings are over there. 

Then the steps turn at right angles and you go up between two low walls, very much narrower this time. You have the sensation you are always changing your point of view on the buildings.

You turn, you pass his office, you climb four more steps and pass a great stone that he has put there with Indian hieroglyphics on it, which he found on his place. There is no door in sight. There is a tent roof on a stone base but no door; there is nothing in sight. You just begin to wonder.   

Then the path takes you down a long walk, about 200 feet perhaps, with this tent room on your right, the mountains on your left. 

You begin to wonder what is happening when, at your right, you pass the tent room; the building goes on overhead. But the view separates - the two enormous piers - and you look again (a trick) through a dark room, a 6-foot room, out onto the terrace of Taliesin West: an enormous prow that sticks out over the mountains.

Now you’ve been climbing all this time and you never knew it because you never looked back; but for the first time, you realize you have been climbing and for 90 miles you look across the desert through that darkened hole. And again, of course, the steps start rippling. You go down three steps and then down three steps more and you are pulled out onto this prow of the desert. He calls it, his “ship of the desert.” That’s where Frank Lloyd Wright is usually standing to greet you with his purple hair, his cape, and you say, “Now I’ve arrived at this magic place.”

But you’ve just begun the trip. He then leads you through a gold-leaf concrete tunnel that turns three times and you are pushed out into the single most exciting room that we have in this country. It is indescribable except that you can say that the light, since it all comes from the tent above, has infiltered and mellowed. 

You are just beginning to absorb this room when he opens a few of the tent flaps and this is when it really hits you. You look out - but not onto the desert. You look out this time on a little private secret garden that he has built beyond this room, where water is playing unlike any water in the desert. The plants are 20 feet high in this garden, and there is a lawn such as you have seen only in New England.

You say, “Now I see what I’ve come to Taliesin for”; you have not. He makes one more turn, two more turns. This time the door is 18 inches wide and you have to go through sidewise. It is entirely an inside room, no desert or garden. One wall is of plants. To be sure, you cannot see them; that is, you cannot see through them, but that gives you the jungle light that comes into the room. There is a shaft of light that comes from 12 or 14 feet above (this is a very high room now). The room is 21 by 14 feet, all stone. One entire length of it is the fireplace; on the other long wall is a table and two chairs - and that is where you have come to be. You sit down with Frank Lloyd Wright and he says, “Welcome to Taliesin.”

My friends, that is the essence of architecture.

Andy Warhol, Philip Johnson, 1972
Estate of Philip Johnson

Philip Johnson
Speech to the AIA, Seattle, 1957

The Writings of Philip Johnson
Oxford University Press, 1979


  1. This was a wonderful, interesting and informative post. I have always been keen on FLW - ever since I discovered my favourite window in my parents' house was designed by him - and seeing movies like @Bladerunner' that featured his buildings.

    Thank you for sharing this =]

  2. Johnson's criticisms of FLW are all new to me (especially sloppiness in structure and materials), and really provocative. FLW has come to represent "organic" architecture in its unification of parts, so it's interesting to contrast their relative approaches to "clarity."

    To your point of admirer as critic, his Taliesin description is fantastic - he had me superficially "buying in" to everything people love about Taliesin, while subtly persuading me of its incoherence. It actually made me really self-conscious of my own work, which in retrospect has always been (to a degree) about sequence. For me, that seed was planted in the Veneto, so your more recent post is a fitting reminder of that tangency.

  3. DBC, this is kind of you to say, about a posting which is largely a transcription! One likes to confine that kind of thing to poetry, more or less, but I was remarking on Johnson's character and regarded extensive quotation as pretty obligatory. In an article about Robert AM Stern (shown in the meeting above, far right) in the October 17th edition of the Sunday magazine of The New York Times, we see Johnson alluded to in passing as a "curator architect," quite the strangest characterisation I've seen yet (apart from the slanders), despite his important support of NY MoMA. But he was first a historian of architecture, of the first importance, and that has not faded. As for living under the illumination of FLW, most of us have to get by with his "mere" influence - and yet are happy to do so, the more we discern its derivation. I've now run 2 mildly jesting postings on Wright without conceding (as Johnson extensively does, in the sources cited) the obvious....

    In the same year as Johnson's address in Seattle (1957), the city of New York was hosting the completion of 2 structures of virtually immortal significance, an office building at Park Avenue and 52nd Street and a museum at Fifth and 89th -- while, not to forget, Le Corbusier's convent of La Tourette was approaching completion in France. In the first, Johnson played a significant part, and in the latter Wright played the defining part. One cannot think of a visit to New York without taking time to assimilate the striking, and I think restorative magnificence of these masterpieces. In this speech Johnson, who did so much to create and to embellish the Seagram Building, is plainly anticipating the experience of visiting the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, even as he discusses the indirections of Taliesin West. This excitement, even disturbance in the back of his mind is part of what makes his judgments so acute, I think.

    S, it must be a pleasing sensation to be aware of the temporal contributions of travel (to the Veneto or anywhere) to an evolving consciousness of spatial sequencing at the same time. You select your destinations with good fortune or know how to travel very well - not necessarily the same thing - so we must hope to hear more of this!

    By "more recent post," I assume you allude to the subsequent posting, of October 15th. The mirror effect in the drawing, struck me as reinforcing the implication of self-awareness in travel, particularly in one's resting places. The plans from which this image was excerpted, however, furnish an extensive portrayal of sequencing and will probably be cited from time to time.