By Rowan Moore
Philip Johnson's 80s AT&T skyscraper on Madison Avenue is a Manhattan landmark. Now plans are afoot to turn it into a glass-fronted shopping arcade…
Philip Johnson, the most influential American architect for much of the 20th century, was a terrible man and a mostly terrible architect. If his most obvious crime was his warm embrace of Nazism in the 1930s, he was also manipulative, self-dealing and cynical. His buildings are paltry in their detail, strangely draining architectural form into a spiritless cipher of itself – “thin-lipped”, as the British critic Reyner Banham put it – often plain clumsy, tone-deaf to the poetries of materials and light, their sense of scale awkward. His buildings are derivative, albeit in such a brilliantly timed way that they appear to lead the movements they in fact follow.
His greatest genius and significance was as a cultural politician, broker and string-puller, a man who, with the help of his inherited wealth and network of connections, could launch or end styles and make or break careers. As the architectural historian Charles Jencks once said, some time before Johnson's death aged 98 in 2005, he “is a good whatever-he-is. Philip has ruined a lot of movements. He goes in and asset-strips.” He did much to create the hollow phenomenon of the starchitect, the man (it's usually a man) whose work, once he has been declared a great architect, must self-evidently also be considered great.