Volume 74, Number 39 | February 2 - 8, 2005

Philip Johnson, 98, famed architect designed Bobst

By Albert Amateau

Philip Johnston, the preeminent American architect who championed modernism and whose work includes the contentious Bobst Library, built for New York University on Washington Sq. S. more than 40 years ago, died on Jan. 21 at the age of 98 in the home he built for himself in New Canaan, Conn.

In 2001, he designed what he called a “habitable sculpture” for the Hudson Sq. area on Washington and Spring Sts., a 28-story residential tower with cubist angles that would have cantilevered over the 1817 John Brown House.

But the Hudson Sq. building, opposed by neighbors and Community Board 2, was never built because the developer, Nino Vendome, failed to get a variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals.

At a Dec. 2001 B.S.A. hearing, Johnson, at the age of 95, testified in a soft, but firm voice that the habitable sculpture was his “swan song.”

“It’s the best building I ever designed,” he said. “It is my last opportunity in New York to do something good for the city and something good for art,” he said, likening the design to “a vase of flowers.” Johnson ended his testimony at the 2001 B.S.A. hearing by saying he could go on for hours. “I love to talk. Talking is my favorite thing next to making buildings,” he quipped

The Bobst Library was a trophy building for N.Y.U., which gave Johnson commissions for other university projects.

“Philip Johnson was an enormous presence in the landscape of American architecture. His work on Bobst Library, Tisch Hall and Meyer Hall created an architectural idiom among our campus buildings that was singular and instantly recognizable,” said John Beckman, N.Y.U. spokesperson in a statement last week.

“It is hard to overstate the importance of the building of Bobst Library in the transformation of N.Y.U. from a good regional university to a prestigious national research university; it became, and still remains, the heart of this body of scholars. With his work on Bobst and our other buildings, he created an enduring legacy here, and became a member of our extended family. New York University grieves for the loss of Philip Johnson from the world of architecture and from our midst,” Beckman said.

But Village community leaders gave him no bouquets, neither for the habitable sculpture nor the Bobst Library. Neighbors said the height of the angular residential building was out of line with the rest of the district and compromised the landmarked two-story house where the Ear Inn, a local pub, is located. The B.S.A. did not grant a required variance and the developer commissioned Johnson’s firm to design a smaller more conventional building that did get approval but has not yet been built.

But Bobst, with its enormous atrium, forbidding red stone exterior and shadow that it casts on Washington Sq.’s southeast corner, found little favor with Village advocates.

“Philip Johnson was great for his time and place, but his place was not the Village or Hudson Sq.,” said Arthur Strickler, district manager of Community Board 2. “The Bobst Library is the ugliest building in the Village. It looks more like a fort than a library and it is a monumental waste of space,” Strickler added.

Born in 1906, Johnson started as a critic and a Museum of Modern Art curator who championed the new architecture of masters including Mies van der Rohe, with whom he designed the Seagram Building, and praised the innovative work of Le Corbousier and Marcel Breuer, with whom he studied at Harvard when he decided to practice architecture as well as write about it.

In the 1930s, he made a political right turn into fascism, expressing admiration for Hitler and working on behalf of Governor Huey P. Long of Louisiana, and with the anti-Semitic radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin. He abandoned those proclivities by the early 1940s and in the ’50s made a public atonement by designing a synagogue in Port Chester, N.Y., for no fee.

He won the first Pritzker Prize in 1979 as a modernist, but moved to a style that became known as post-modernism, incorporating historic elements like the “Chippendale” top of the 1984 AT&T (now Sony) building on Madison Ave. and the “Lipstick” building, so called for its flattened, ovoid shape, on Third Ave.

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