- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

A design chameleon, architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) continually changed styles over his long career to embrace the new.

Mr. Johnson started out as a modernist, basing his 1949 Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s pared-down buildings. Tired of the austerity, he dabbled in abstracted neoclassicism before delving into postmodernism during the 1980s to create decorated high-rises such as the Chippendale-inspired AT&T; (now Sony) tower in midtown Manhattan.

By the time he was 90, the fickle New York architect had jettisoned historicism for jagged, angular and twisting geometries. His last projects are the subject of a playful, slight exhibit called “Philip Johnson: Architecture as Art,” at the Kreeger Museum, exploring the idea of buildings as habitable sculpture.

This setting is particularly well-suited to the show since Mr. Johnson designed the 1967 house-art gallery for Geico insurance magnate David Lloyd Kreeger and his wife, Carmen, during his neoclassical phase. (Other local Johnson-designed buildings include the pre-Columbian art museum at Dumbarton Oaks and 1300 I St. NW at Franklin Square.)

The more dynamic, sculptural designs in the exhibit seem daring — especially for a nonagenarian — but turn out to be as derivative as most of the architect’s earlier work. Mr. Johnson, who started his career in 1930 at the Museum of Modern Art, never lost his curatorial touch in unapologetically borrowing and refining trends to shape his buildings.

Through the decades, he treated his Connecticut estate as a museum of architecture with buildings representing each phase of his career. The exhibit begins with the 1993 gatehouse, nicknamed “Da Monsta” for its wild shape. This ragged counterpart to the serene Glass House was the last structure completed on the property, which is now run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The show includes a pair of lesser known designs for the grounds, a doghouse made from a wooden model for a tomb, and an unbuilt, barrel-shaped chapel inspired by a hornet’s nest. Who says architects have no sense of humor?

Iceberg-shaped glass pavilions, chain-link-covered garden follies and Stonehenge-like monoliths follow to reinforce Mr. Johnson’s interest in architecture as sculpture. A conical structure for a sheik’s garden in Doha, Qatar, inspired by sculptor Richard Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses,” is billed as having no function whatsoever.

Curator Hilary Lewis, a longtime chronicler of Mr. Johnson’s career, halfheartedly connects the architect to the art world by interspersing a few works by Andy Warhol and Frank Stella among the architectural drawings, models and photos. A serious collector of modern and contemporary art, Mr. Johnson was particularly influenced by Mr. Stella’s twisted architectural constructions. After seeing a design by the artist for a structure in Dresden, Germany, which unfortunately is not represented in the show, the architect created his own version of its tapering, curving shapes in 1993 for his “Berlin Fantasy” near Checkpoint Charlie. Neither German project was built.

As evident from an overwrought model on display, Mr. Stella is a lousy architect and Mr. Johnson wasn’t much better as a sculptor in lifting ideas from his artist friends. He mostly fails at convincing owners and zoning officials to construct his larger visions, throwing into question the practicality of their irregular structures. The biggest of these designs is the ongoing Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, a lumpish riff on Mr. Johnson’s 1980 megachurch for the Rev. Robert Schuller in Garden Grove, Calif.

Throughout the show, designs vacillate between what the architect calls the “structured warp,” evident in the Berlin and church projects, and “playing with Plato” by contorting basic solid geometries into more dynamic shapes. In developing them, Mr. Johnson credited influences from 1920s German expressionism and free-form buildings by his colleague Frank Gehry and younger deconstructivist architects, whose designs he exhibited in a 1988 show at the Museum of Modern Art.

A children’s museum in Guadalajara, Mexico, yet another unbuilt project, reflects the Platonic approach in pavilions based on the cube, cone, cylinder and pyramid. Models and a large photograph printed on a window blind capture the childlike appeal of the imaginary complex, which nestles under palm trees on an island reached from a rope bridge.

The last design in the show best reveals Mr. Johnson’s struggle to straddle the worlds of art and architecture. Simply called the “Habitable Sculpture,” this cubistic tower initially simulated artist John Chamberlain’s crumpled metal assemblages to resemble one of Mr. Gehry’s buildings. It was then developed into a 26-story apartment building for a corner site in Manhattan’s Soho district, losing much of its abstract appeal in translation.

A collision of various window styles and colored bricks, the collaged tower was understandably met with community opposition to its height and bulk, which would have overshadowed a row of smaller historic buildings. Mr. Johnson mounted a public relations campaign, complete with posters, to get his swan song built, but ended up replacing his controversial “sculpture” for a shorter box.

Named the Urban Glass House after the famous residence on his New Canaan estate, its rigid, transparent design took the architect back to his modernist roots and the practical considerations that differentiate architecture from art. Mr. Johnson died before the building was finished, but had he lived, this restless architect probably would have embraced the outcome — and shifted his direction yet again. As he says in a video in the exhibit, “the only absolute is change.”

WHAT: “Philip Johnson: Architecture as Art”

WHERE: The Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Road NW

WHEN: Through July 31; Tuesday through Friday tours at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

ADMISSION: $8 suggested donation for adults, $5 for seniors and students

PHONE: 202/337-3050

WEB SITE: www.kreegermuseum.org

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