Volume 74, Number 41 | February 16 - 22, 2005

Notebook

Encounters with Philip Johnson, profligate architect

By Eliza Nichols
By George Capsis
In the early ’50s, when I entertained the idea that I would like to be an architect, a Park Ave. girlfriend invited me for the weekend to her family’s posh home in New Canaan and then coyly entertaining my architectural posturing suggested we visit the nearby, much-publicized homes of architects Marcel Breuer and Philip Johnson.
The Breuer house was a very modest plywood box on stilts and I remember looking in to see the hi-fi cables running from a coffee table under a rush mat to the speakers and thinking, couldn’t he have buried them in the floor when the building was under construction? But Breuer, while even then much publicized, was still a struggling refugee designer who obviously built his weekend retreat, costing out every nail.
And then we went to see Philip Johnson’s house of four glass walls overlooking a deep ravine with no other house in sight.
It was, and I guess still is, a very outrageous, very personal statement that only a very rich, very self-indulgent personality could make happen.
In 1963, I found myself as a partner of a design firm Robinson, Capsis, Stern designing buildings and exhibits for the New York World’s Fair, when the office of fair director Robert Moses asked if we could bail out the New York State Pavilion, designed by Johnson through his personal friendship with then Governor Nelson Rockefeller; the structure had gone outrageously over budget and there was no money for the exhibits.
There was another problem. Under the fair rules, it was necessary to include in the budget money to tear the pavilion down after the fair, but Johnson had long ago spent the demolition money.
The “building” was 16 100-ft. steel towers from which was hung a multi-color plastic tent-like roof, leaving it open to the weather, making conventional exhibit construction impossible.
We had a meeting with Johnson to discuss, among other things, whether we would be liable if we took on the exhibit contract and the city sued us to tear it down. Johnson giggled with delight at the prospect of the courtroom scene and we went away with no assurances that we would not, as he laughingly suggested, “All meet in court.”
Every weekend as I drive back to the city on the L.I.E., I view the decaying, soot-begrimed, 250-ft. observation deck tower of that New York State building, knowing that the city has no money, nor ever will, to tear it down and the remaining oval Stonehenge will stand for centuries as perhaps the most fitting monument to one of the most outrageous personalities of the last century.

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