Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Phillip Johnson, RIP

Last week marked the death of Philip Johnson, architect, at age 98. Johnson is perhaps the single person most responsible for bringing Modernist architecture to the United States. As a curator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he vigorously promoted the new European architects Le Corbusier and Mies van de Rohe in this country, and even coined the name "International School of Architecture" for their modernist movement. Johnson had a late vocation as an architect, and became famous for the design of the "Glass House" home in 1948. Johnson was a prolific architect and even designed a building in Saint Louis, the General American Life Insurance Building. Johnson had the most success with the "glass box" high-rise corporate buildings that have dominated the skies of our cities since the 1950s. Later in his career, he developed a style known as Post-Modernism, that while still modernist in its use of abstract geometric figures and lack of decoration, jokingly added historical elements: the first was his comical Chippendale top of the AT&T (now Sony) building in New York.

So this was the man who perhaps should take the blame for planting the seeds that led to the modernist movement in church architecture...a movement that led to structures that are unrecognizably Catholic, and totally lack iconic and catechetical value. Johnson's most prominent church design is pastor Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral in California. This glass enclosed geometric space is quite compatible with Schuller's modernist "Positive Christianity" which almost deifies self-esteem and nearly denies the concept of sin. One of Johnson's final projects is the Cathedral of Hope, as yet unbuilt, that lacks straight lines and confuses and mixes walls, floor, and ceiling together, which seems appropriate to the church's pansexual advocacy ministry. It seems that Johnson -- one of the three or four most prominent architects of the twentieth century -- was an early advocate of the idea that atheists are the best church designers. This idea has become almost universal now, and we hardly even ask if our next church's designer is a practicing Catholic or not.

Some may say that now that the Philip Johnson stumbling-block is gone we can move on and restore our tradition in church architecture. Johnson was an atheist, practiced sexual deviancy, promoted Fascist ideology for a while, and remained fascinated with the obscene use of power. But we must not judge the state of his soul, and instead he should be prayed for. Should we assume that he chose his particular life-style, and never felt drawn to God? Of course not. As a boy, he visited Chartres Cathedral: "I remember saying to myself...that if I lived in Chartres, I would turn Roman Catholic to enjoy that cathedral, and if I turned Roman Catholic, I would go and live in Chartres. Because how else could I exist without this closeness to this particular thing? .... I don't see how anybody can go into the nave of Chartres Cathedral and not burst into tears..." What made him turn away? Why did he not say "Here I am, Lord"?

And from his acceptance speech for the Pritzker Architecture Prize: "The practice of architecture is the most delightful of all pursuits. Also, next to agriculture, it is the most necessary to man. One must eat, one must have shelter. Next to religious worship itself, it is the spiritual handmaiden of our deepest convictions...But today architecture is not often acknowledged as basic to human activity. Industry and science take up our energies. Our thinking is dominated by the word — in prose or in poetry. Our philosophy is semantic, our metaphysics irreligious. Our values beautifully inherited from Calvin and John Stuart Mill are utilitarian, our hopes consumerist, materialistic; our way of thinking non-mythic, rationalistic, pragmatic. We eschew old-fashioned words like God, soul, aesthetics, glory, monumentality, beauty. We like practical words like cost-effective, businesslike, profitable." He speaks truth here. But his artistic output seems to embrace the worst of what he speaks about, and I see no evidence of those old-fashioned values, which many Catholics are rediscovering lately.

And more strange words from an atheist: "There is a greater aim that an architect can have and that's a building that isn't materialistic, that isn't built for man, but built for God. We believe that this is what we are on earth for, to create shapes and space like this. We have a saying in architectural circles that you'll find all over Europe, often engraved over the entrances of many a church, deo omni potenti maximo - this building was built for the greater glory of God." But he also said, sadly: "Whoever commissions buildings buys me. I'm for sale."

I've read stories of prominent atheists who knew that they were pursued by the Holy Spirit throughout their lives, and yet continued on their path. Were they rejecting God out of pride or because of despair of God's mercy? It is strange how many reject God for emotional reasons.

Johnson's greatest wish was to be asked to design another Chartres, but he never got the call.

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