Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Modernist

Today, it's become fashionable to mock those tall, black skyscrapers, which are as much a void of transparent glass as they are structure. Hallmarks of a movement known as the International Style, which was to a large extent born in, nurtured in, and eventually became synonymous to the city of Chicago, they are now reviled.

Philip Johnson, though, knew that these towers represented something truly revolutionary in the history of architecture. In fact, he helped write the manifesto for the movement. And a true believer in the movement, he lived it; a tranquil structure, his Glass House was at one with its surroundings and much harder to criticize than the straw men of the tall, black structures in the middle of crowded city blocks, and so often used to prove the guilt-by-association of him and his contemporary, Mies van der Rohe.

Though Johnson, with the rest of the architecture world, would eventually move on to Postmodernism, most famously with the AT&T Building (now the Sony Building), it is for his involvement in these tall towers he will most likely be remembered.

And before we judge them--and him--for their environmental wastefulness, for their stripped-down lack of decoration, for their "too much sun" and "big black monstrosities," let us remember that they are the products of their time, a period in which there was no "green" architecture, in which the city as we know it was just being created, in which the necessity of aesthetic--of anything--was being questioned by the Modernist project. A post-war time in which America could achieve anything, and the limits of human achievement were the limits of the imagination.

Johnson pushed the bounds of the available engineering techniques of the day, and of the way we thought about architecture. His reduction of architecture to its basic elements was a necessary step. Without him, without Modernism, we would be less aware of what we as humans--with skyscrapers representing one of the pinnacles of our acheivement--are capable of. And our skyline would be much the worse for it.

Philip Johnson died yesterday. He was 98.

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