Philip Johnson's Empire

Philip Johnson’s Empire: Network Power and the AT&T Building

Kazys Varnelis

 

If Philip Johnson was indisputably good at anything, it was networking. While it will be up to history to judge the merits of his architecture as well as his influence on the field, there is no question about Johnson’s native ability to capitalize on his connections in business and finance, art and architecture. In the words of Paul Goldberger, Johnson “was the man who invented networking.”[1]

He took up the role early and eagerly as he traveled through Europe with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, collecting material for what would become their landmark 1932 show, “Modern Architecture International Exhibition” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Not only would the show go down in history, the show reframed the reception of architecture. Throughout the 1920s, modern architects exhibited their work to a broad section of the public at expositions, trade fairs, and other such venues.[2] In bringing the show to a museum of art, Johnson removed architecture from the domain of building and technology and installed it in the context of connoisseurship, a move signaled by the label he and Hitchcock appropriated for the work from art historical scholarship, “the International Style.” Architecture became less a matter of performance and more a question of taste, with Johnson, the curator, as arbiter.

After a reprehensible foray into right-wing politics in the 1930s and time better spent studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the early 1940s, Johnson set about designing his Glass House as the principal base for his networking operations.[3] The Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building would become equally important in this regard a decade later. Arguably his best works, these two spaces were venues in which Johnson played out his role as networker par excellence in spectacular fashion, deploying as instruments of power not only the spaces themselves, but also the power of the gaze: As the setting where he staged his social interactions, the Glass House became the vanishing point of his own field of view, while the Four Seasons—the most important table in the most important power-lunch venue in the most influential city in the world—served as the focal point for his public appearances.[4]

But Johnson’s past haunted him, and he was not able to return to MoMA in any official capacity until the late 1940s. He told Peter Blake, who would become the curator, “some of my trustees can’t forget my Nazi past and would resign if I become the official director of the department.” Johnson’s activism on the behalf of the radical Right was a sore point for Edgar Kaufmann, director of the Industrial design department and an active foil to Johnson at MoMA. To counter his opponents, Blake later explained, “We maintained the fiction—I was the head of the department of Architecture and Industrial Design, and Philip was a sort of unofficial consultant. Nobody, needless to say, was fooled.”[5] Having consolidated his position behind the scenes and with the support of MoMA director René d’Harnoncourt, in 1949 Johnson officially rejoined the staff as director of the architecture department and remained there, making his mark on the museum not only through the exhibitions he staged, but also quite literally with his design for the annex building. This continued until 1954, when Johnson hand-picked Arthur Drexler (who had been ensconced as curator of the department since 1951) as his successor.

All the while, Johnson cultivated his network of patrons and artists, holding elaborate lunches at the Glass House for the cosmopolitan vanguard and high society, entertaining the likes of Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, Mrs. Bliss Parkinson, Edward M. M. Warburg, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. As Johnson expanded his connections and MoMA became the world’s most important showplace of contemporary art, Johnson became one of the biggest power brokers in the art world. By the late 1950s, being liked by Johnson meant that an artist had achieved a significant coup. Being bought by Johnson, in turn, meant that the artist had established himself. Johnson’s unique position can be gauged from a remark by a dealer —nameless, of course—to the effect that Johnson was the only collector to whom he would give a 50 percent discount as long as it meant placing an artist in his collection.[6]

But it was in architecture that Johnson’s power was virtually unrivalled. Already as a student at Harvard, he had established his house at 9 Ash Street as a salon, but the Sunday visits to the Glass House, his directorship at MoMA, and later his power lunches at the Four Seasons allowed Johnson to consolidate the position he had established in the 1930s. From the 1940s through the mid-1960s, he was the consummate power broker in the field, pairing young architects seeking work (such as Eero Saarinen and Paul Rudolph) with interested patrons whom he met through his MoMA connections. As a lecturer at Yale, Johnson exerted a substantial influence upon the school as well not least by inviting students to the lunches he hosted at the Glass House on weekends. If Johnson showed little modesty in reviewing his own book on his own work, Philip Johnson: Architecture 1949 1966, for Architectural Forum, it wasn’t a mere matter of narcissism, but rather an acknowledgment that as trendsetter and tastemaker in the field he had no equal.[7]

Virtually from that point on, however, Johnson came under attack and ultimately disappeared from the architectural vanguard for a decade. After a series of disparaging comments about Johnson’s work appeared in Architectural Design, Robin Middleton responded with an open letter to the architect that quickly turned into a withering attack of the sort that only the British can muster. I offer only an excerpt:

[Y]ou appear infinitely more intelligent and articulate than most American spokesmen for architecture, … not only are you impassioned and wise on the subject of architecture, but distinguished amateur that you are (and I mean this in the best possible sense of the term), you have been able to influence not only a wealthy and cultured minority in New Canaan and New York, but a far greater range of art conscious hangers-on than you realize. In America you are an authority on architecture—whether you or other architects like it or not. You are an architectural power. You have to be taken seriously. It would be much easier of course, not to take you seriously. A busy, eclectic architect, a master of techniques, a detail-at-a-time genius, a scholarly romantic, a demolisher of all over-earnest beliefs, a scandalmonger, you raise delicious questions—are you in fact in earnest? a charlatan? a mountebank? a juggler?—that are the very stuff of which architectural magazines are made. You are good copy, even in Fortune. But this won’t do. You are a devil’s advocate. Even if you had built nothing, your ideals would have to be denounced as heresy. …However, you have built, prolifically and diffusely, houses, churches, universities and museums—all in a span of seventeen years, and these words speak for themselves.

Your early buildings are beautiful contrivances, your Glass House, I am sure, is an object still of pilgrimage. But then there are post-Miesian designs, most of which I imagine, are unvisited by architects from abroad. What went wrong?[8]

What went wrong, in Middleton’s view, was that Johnson was trapped in an “exercise de style,” poaching at will from historical sources but turning them into “meaningless fictions and fantasies.” Middleton pulled no punches, concluding that “Each of your buildings is imbued with the dull complacency of great wealth,” while the public buildings undertaken in the 1960s were “conceived in the tradition of the great palace museums of Europe: they are remote repositories of great treasure, designed to emphasize as firmly as possible the distinction between those who can afford to buy and endow such collections and those who are graciously permitted to view them.”[9]

Middleton didn't flinch in pointing to Johnson’s wild inconsistency and the elitism of his designs of the time, and he wasn’t off the mark when it came to Johnson’s intents. In 1964, an article in the New York Times noted that Johnson "has been called a rebel and a reactionary—perhaps rebelling and reacting against the same thing: the architectural establishment. But as one observer has said, he now is the establishment.”[10] In an interview with Ada Louise Huxtable that year, Johnson confirmed that observation: “I’d like to be l’architecte du Roi. … I mean the country’s official architect for its great public buildings. … I want to take the dirty connotations out of the words ‘official’ and ‘academic.’[11]

If this was Johnson’s opportunity to be l’architecte du roi, his timing couldn’t have been worse. Middleton concluded that Johnson failed to grasp “the real problem of 20th- century architecture—to build an adequate living environment for an ever-increasing mass of people.”[12] Middleton’s critique only anticipated the rising complaints of a new, activist choir, the first generation to grow up under modernism, which called for architecture to be socially responsible but had little love for the forms of either the International Style or classicizing modernism.

With Fordist hegemony coming under critique, the proliferation of the top-down plan, and the erosion of ideological certainty among proponents of modernism, architecture students turned against the modernist faith with Oedipal fury. Johnson became increasingly unpopular at universities and even found an enemy in Louis Kahn, one of the few modernists widely admired by younger architects.[13] To be sure, Johnson was among the first to understand that high modernism’s days were numbered, as he experimented with monumentality as well as form making as an end in itself, and even dabbled in classicism. However, the generation of architects coming of age in the 1960s considered the work of younger architects such as Robert Venturi, Archigram, Superstudio, or Arata Isozaki much more radical than Johnson's eclectic historicist take on monumentality. Nor did his elder statesman persona convince them. Harvard charm and cultivated wit held little appeal for the generation to whom activist Jerry Rubin was speaking when he said “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Johnson was already twice that age at the time.

On the contrary, Johnson saw himself as l’architecte du roi and, after he made John Burgee a partner in 1967, undertook massive commissions for commercial real estate developers including the 1968 73 IDS Center in Minneapolis and the 1972 76 Pennzoil Place in Houston.[14] These were precisely the kind of "big" architecture that the rebellious youth of the day detested, and the classicizing modernism of his public architecture reeked of authoritarianism to counterculture critics. With university students radicalized by the New Left, Robert Stern observed, “Johnson became persona non grata at most campuses.”[15]

But a decade later, Johnson reinvented himself—with some help from Stern himself along with Peter Eisenman—as mentor and supporter of a generation of cutting-edge architects, his “Kids,” as he called them, a group that also included, in the 1980s, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Michael Graves, and Rem Koolhaas. In the process, Johnson would become a cultural superstar, an operator par excellence, at the center of a network that was stronger than ever. Like Johnson, his Kids shared a love for architecture as form. Johnson applauded this in the text that marked his re-emergence, the postscript to the second edition of Five Architects.[16] Four of them—Eisenman, Graves, Meier, and to some extent even Gwathmey—could count themselves among the Kids. But so could some of the Five’s opponents, the Grays, who came together around the 1973 “Five on Five” issue of Architectural Forum, most notably Stern, their leader.[17] This opposition was not a paradox. Rather it was strategic: a Kuhnian paradigm shift in which social activism, post-Archigram high-tech, and media-driven practice in the vein of Superstudio or Ant Farm were not so much argued against as marginalized by a new debate on the nature of architectural form. The leaders of the two opposing groups, Stern and Eisenman, were in fact longtime friends. As Stern described it, his friendship with Peter Eisenman was based on “the very oppositeness of his nature from mine … [he] is my perfect alter-ego: ‘If I didn’t invent Peter Eisenman who would have?’”[18] Eisenman, for his part, once stated that, “If Stern had not existed, I would have had to invent him, and vice versa.”[19]

But Stern and Eisenman were far from poles apart, as Stern would explain years later in reflecting on the conditions that brought the two together:

We were concerned with the break-up of the seemingly monolithic modern movement; and we were both contemptuous of the kind of stylish appliqué Modernism that we saw around us as well as the anti-architectural philistinism that was the unfortunate by-product of the student movements of the late 1960s. I was only too familiar with the latter, as much from teaching experiences at Columbia as from my own student days at Yale where its earliest manifestations could be seen in the back-to-the-woods, architecture-as-act movements of the 60s. Though Eisenman and I approached the situation from quite opposite points of view, we each saw the so-called revolutionary conditions of architecture of the 60s as ideologically confused, artistically debilitated, nihilistic, and anti-intellectual. Although these student movements supplied a necessary criticism of the then current scene and made it obvious the hypocrisy that afflicted our national political attitudes towards the war in Vietnam and the situation of minorities at home, it hadn’t led to anything positive in terms of architectural production. What had begun as a useful critique of a situation proved unable to develop a positive direction of its own; it had no firm commitment to form-making or even a coherent political or social programme. It was against things but not for things.[20]

Johnson was a natural as the ideological sponsor of this debate. Not only was the enemy that united Stern and Eisenman the same enemy that had brought Johnson low, but the movements these two protagonists advocated were united by their reference to Johnson. For if the New York Five returned to the architecture of Johnson’s International Style, the Grays did as well. Eisenman’s original title for Five Architects—a book that in fact remained untitled—was “Cardboard Architecture,” a term rejected by other members of the group for being too closely linked to Eisenman’s own theories. But it was Stern who first deployed the term—originally coined by Frank Lloyd Wright to disparage the International Style—with its valence flipped to describe the work included in his 1966 catalogue for the "40 Under 40" exhibition at the Architectural League in New York, for which Johnson was the patron and which included not only the majority of the Whites but also the Grays.[21] Stern had counted Johnson as a supporter since his days at Yale editing Perspecta, and Eisenman would soon see the benefit of working with Johnson as well, later observing that “Philip was always troubled by how people of the intellectual establishment viewed him. And [in the early 70s] I was somebody who clearly did not regard him that way. I reinvented Philip. In a sense, we were inventions of each other.” Johnson, in turn, introduced Eisenman to patrons who helped fund Eisenman’s projects, such as Oppositions and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies.[22] Sitting between Stern, whose architecture might anticipate Johnson’s future turn to postmodernism, and Eisenman, whose architecture might recall the International Style, Johnson served as what Kenneth Frampton once called “an ambivalent patron.”[23]

The rise to prominence of the Whites and the Grays must have been a delight for Johnson, both a final defeat of the modernist functionalism he had fought since the 1930s, and a repudiation of the more recent social critique that had marginalized him. In a lecture at Columbia University in 1975, he exclaimed:

The day of ideology is thankfully over. Let us celebrate the death of the idée fixe. There are no rules, only facts. There is no order, only preference. There are no imperatives, only choice; or to use a nineteenth-century word, “taste”; or a modern word, “take”: “What is your ‘take’ on this or that?”[24]

Johnson’s use of the terms “taste” and “take” is worth remarking on. For as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, taste is by no means innocent. On the contrary, it is a marker of distinction, an indirect indicator of class. Proper understanding of taste, Bourdieu explains, is based on a lifelong process of acculturation begun in childhood. The child of upper-class parents (Johnson being an ideal example) encounters art objects frequently and comes to understand that the most perfect art object is that which is disinterested, entering into discourse only with other art objects.[25] In contrast, the lower classes are deprived of such experiences and therefore unable to understand the class value of discussing art as art for art’s sake, and thus justify works by appealing to extrinsic, non-formal values such as age, the labor involved in their production, and subject matter.[26]

Bourdieu’s explanation of taste explains Johnson’s dislike of functionalism during the 1930s and after. Since the eighteenth century, architecture’s tie to functional use relegated it to the lowest rank in the classification of the arts, far from the apex occupied by the more disinterested and abstract arts of poetry and painting.[27] The product of an upbringing conditioned by late nineteenth-century values, Johnson would have been a classic product of the kind of cultured bourgeois élite that Bourdieu describes. But Bourdieu is also clear that the turn to art pour l’art is a compensatory measure for artists and academics who are, by nature, not members of the upper class but rather spectacles for the élite to observe. Especially after Johnson became a practicing architect, his social equals would, if anything, have viewed him as having taken a step down, perhaps explainable only as a distraction from his political activities of the 1930s. Unlike his undergraduate degree in philosophy, architecture would not, in general, have been an acceptable object of study for a child of old money who would be expected above all to keep his fingernails clean. Johnson’s strident advocacy of architecture as a matter of taste, not of function or social engineering, together with his repeated denial of his own seriousness as an architect allowed him to occupy the only position within the field that would have been socially acceptable for his class: gentleman architect, dabbling in architecture occasionally (and often unsuccessfully, as if on purpose), but really nothing more than an esthete whose primary role was that of a patron and tastemaker.

Likewise, cardboard architecture could be read, in Bourdieuvian terms, as a strategic replay of the International Style. Writing about art of the 1960s, Hal Foster describes the neo-avant-garde’s turn to the past as a way “to reconnect with a lost practice in order to disconnect from a present way felt to be outmoded, misguided, or otherwise oppressive.”[28] But if cardboard architecture understood the late modernist present to be obsolete, the return to the “heroic” period of the 1920s and 1930s took place under the trope of irony. For his dissertation, written under the supervision of Colin Rowe at the University of Cambridge, Eisenman produced the first thorough analysis of how modernist form of the heroic period was generated, but by the time he struck out on his own as an architect, Eisenman’s own work, along with the early neo-modernism of Michael Graves, willingly deformed the language and rules he had previously identified.[29] Similarly, Stern and Moore followed the project outlined in Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction, deploying the cardboard language of the International Style while introducing elements from popular culture and the history of pre-modern architecture. Bourdieu describes such recourse to pastiche or parody as a "heretical break," a strategic means by which cultural producers demonstrate their mastery of the past and thereby objectify it as a way of definitively breaking with it.[30] In doing so, then, the Whites and the Grays could join with Johnson to leave behind the modernist legacy, not only dismissing its claims to function and social engineering, but also paving the way for the more radical departures of the postmodernist and “deconstructivist” movements.

In return for Johnson’s patronage, Eisenman and Stern launched a barrage of positive publicity about him. In 1977 both wrote essays on the Glass House in Oppositions.[31] These were followed in 1978 by the ninth in the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies’ series of catalogs, Philip Johnson: Processes. The Glass House, 1949 and The AT&T Corporate Headquarters, 1978, and in 1979 by Writings, a collection of Johnson’s essays on architecture edited by Stern with an introduction by Eisenman and a foreword by Vincent Scully. The latter was published in an elegant edition by Oxford University Press, a name that instantly telegraphed academic respectability (and not incidentally, also the press which had previously brought out Five Architects).[32]

His status as leader of the avant-garde restored, and with large projects underway in Texas, Johnson was back in the public eye, and the stage was set for a period of immense power and fame. By 1979, he could boast that “When Neimee gives you the Cartee Blanchee, by God you know you’ve arrived.”[33] Indeed, by the end of that year Johnson had received not only the Cartee Blanchee from Neimee, he had "graced" the cover of Time magazine and been awarded the first Pritzker prize—the architectural equivalent of the Nobel Prize, an honor which Philip himself had long advocated be established for the field.[34] Above all, however, he was delighted by what he considered the commission of his lifetime, the headquarters for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company in Manhattan.[35]

Given the turn against postmodernism in the academy during the 1990s, AT&T has been singularly undervalued in Johnson’s oeuvre, a mistake not only because it is Johnson’s best postmodern work, but because it is also essential for a broader understanding of networks and Johnson’s role in them. For if the Glass House has been better received among architects, the AT&T building—bigger, bolder, and one of the most lavish structures ever constructed—sited on Madison Avenue between 55th and 56th, streets looms over the pilgrim who travels from the Seagram building to the Museum of Modern Art. And if the building is symbolic both of Johnson’s role as networker and the largest corporate enterprise in history, by the time it was complete, AT&T itself had been undone.

In the fall of 1975, AT&T contacted 25 leading architectural offices, Johnson/Burgee among them, to announce it was constructing a new corporate headquarters building and to solicit their responses to four pages of questions regarding a possible approach. According to Johnson, “It got here, but we threw it away. We don’t like questionnaires.”[36] Later he elaborated that firms have to spend vast sums to compete for such projects, and that Johnson/Burgee not only didn’t have the money, they also didn’t believe they stood a chance.[37] Burgee, on the other hand, suggests that they confused the request with an old "order" for an AT&T branch office in Chicago.[38]

Regardless of what happened, Johnson/Burgee found themselves on a short list of three firms charged with making a presentation to John D. deButts, Chairman of AT&T. In the trademark fashion of the office, Burgee and Johnson played on the former’s cool expertise and the latter’s wit, presenting only two photographs, one of the Seagram Building and one of Pennzoil Place, modernist projects that in retrospect seem unlikely precedents, considering the AT&T building’s turn to historical eclecticism. This bluff of a presentation played well to deButts, a strong believer in the force of personality. As Michael Graves later observed, “Bernini persuaded the Pope to be his patron, and Johnson did the same with AT&T.”[39] Company officials privy to the decision-making process suggest, “there was no close second.”[40]

DeButts knew that a new corporate headquarters would provide a symbolic center for a firm that had seen better days. When he took over AT&T in 1972, deButts was immediately confronted with a corporation in crisis. Bad management decisions during the previous decade had resulted in severe service problems in New York and other cities. Private line providers, most notably a small firm called MCI, were nibbling at the edges of AT&T’s profitable Long Lines network and initiating legal skirmishes. The corporation’s shares had been flat for two years, and AT&T was failing to make money for its investors. deButts set out to reaffirm the culture of the Bell System, a finely tuned Fordist hierarchy of loyal employees working in high technology, while reorganizing the company to make it conform better to market needs. After he pledged to set a firm course for the company during his first speech at a meeting of high-level AT&T managers, deButts became known throughout the Bell System for his “Decision to decide,” and was widely regarded as a strong leader for the company.[41]

But the new building was not merely a symbolic gesture. By the mid-1970s, AT&T was straining the limits of its aging corporate headquarters at 195 Broadway, and the world’s largest company anticipated further growth. Still, many in the organizational structure of Ma Bell subscribed to Midwestern humility, Grey Suit anonymity, and an engineer’s disregard for symbolism. This contingent wanted a practical building. L. K. O’Leary, one AT&T executive, wrote:

If we had our portrait painted, it should be by Norman Rockwell.

If we were ancient builders, we would have built the Roman aqueducts instead of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. …

If we were a state, we would be Midwestern, probably Iowa. …

If we were a tree, we would be a huge and utilitarian Douglas fir not a sequoia, and certainly not a dogwood.

If we could choose an epitaph (never believing such a thing would be needed) we would choose, ‘Millions of customers, but it served them well, and one at a time.’[42]

DeButts was no typical AT&T Grey Suit. Johnson described him as “a strong man. There were some on the board who didn’t like the design, but deButts could outvote the entire board.”[43] He wanted a “monument for the biggest company in the world,” a structure on the level of the Seagram Building, but not a glass box.[44]

The advocate of the “decision to decide” swiftly approved Johnson/Burgee’s now-familiar tripartite proposal for the structure: a 60-foot-high loggia loosely derived from the Pazzi Chapel, surmounted by a 37-story, 648-foot-high structure capped by the familiar broken Chippendale pediment, distinctly recognizable from across the city like a skyscraper from the 1920s. Like AT&T’s other recently completed New York skyscraper, John Carl Warnecke’s windowless 1974 Long Lines building in lower Manhattan, Johnson/Burgee’s proposal sheathed its fa?ɬßade in granite. But if Warnecke’s monolithic structure took function to an unprecedented level of abstraction and late-modern starkness (only possible, perhaps, because the structure houses telephone equipment and not people, and is designed to function autonomously for up to two weeks in the event of a nuclear holocaust), Johnson/Burgee’s structure revels in its historicist monumentality. Whereas Warnecke’s skyscraper was an early example of the use of a traditional material like granite for curtain wall construction, Johnson/Burgee’s AT&T building revived the pre-modern era's lavish use of the stone (some 13,000 tons of Stony Creek granite like that used to build Grand Central Station) for a fa?ɬßade consisting of panels up to 10 inches thick, and thus three times what was typical for the time, creating an impression of solidity and relief instead of cardboard thinness and surface effect, a gesture that required 6,000 additional tons of steel to support. In this respect, AT&T is an echo of Seagram, Johnson/Burgee’s thick granite a response to Mies’s regal bronze. The headquarters’ entrance loggia is unique as well, a forest of columns creating a public space. Johnson later explained that “The space was basically tailored to AT&T it is an imperial space. AT&T didn’t want lingerie stores in the lobby. They said ‘Make it the front door into our empire. Let’s make it so you’ll be impressed when you go by'.”[45]

Johnson said of AT&T that “They were an imperial company and they thought of themselves that way. Chairman deButts was a one-man democracy. He wanted to build. Nobody on the board wanted to build a building.”[46] On March 30, 1978, AT&T officially announced plans for its new headquarters, then estimated to cost $110 million (in the end the building would cost a good deal more, with some estimates ranging to double that amount). For New York, a city still struggling to recover from fiscal troubles in the midst of an era when corporations were fleeing cities for suburban headquarters, AT&T’s return to Manhattan from its offices in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, would be a great boon. According to Johnson, deButts was a New Yorker and hoped to relocate the firm to the city.[47] He stated his intentions to the press: “We would like the building to say loud and clear, ‘We love New York.’” Mayor Koch was enthusiastic, responding that the project was “of great importance to New York City’s economic growth and stability, as well as to our prestige as the undisputed communications capital of the world.” Although the granite fa?ɬßade was billed as an “innovative” response to the energy crisis, the building’s lavish budget surprised some observers. “Well, it’s no standard office building,” deButts retorted.[48]

The controversial structure was an attention-getter: Time Magazine featured Johnson on its January 7, 1979, cover in a pose evoking the image of Moses holding the tablets of the Law. Johnson, as the cover suggested, was the master architect of the day, and AT&T the new face of Big Business. If the decade had started with the radical high-tech of the Centre Pompidou, it was drawing to a close with the postmodernism of AT&T. Where Warnecke’s Long Lines recalled the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Johnson’s AT&T was the even more technologically sophisticated Baroque space in which the astronaut Dave Bowman awakens at the end of the film. No longer wearing technology on its sleeve, but nevertheless indebted to it, the AT&T building suggested that the new American corporation would be based on the solidity of cultural precedent, technology to be replaced by “family values.” The videophones promised in the 1960s were nowhere to be seen, and in their stead was a return to Ma Bell tradition, a concept AT&T soon marketed with "retro" telephones. Above all, this folksy American skyscraper communicated AT&T’s role as a "natural" feature of the country, specifically suggesting that AT&T was entitled to maintain a “natural monopoly,” the principle behind the company's belief that it was exempt from antitrust law.

But AT&T itself was far from solid, and the stone cladding of its new headquarters only thinly disguised an entity starting to crumble. Soon after deButts took over in November 1974, Attorney General William Saxbe declared that AT&T was abusing its status as a “natural monopoly” regulated by the FCC, and announced the federal government’s intent to dismantle the communications giant under Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. This was a piece of nineteenth-century legislation aimed at breaking up the imperial holdings of the robber barons into more fluid entities, thereby releasing monopoly capital into the economy, a statute used to challenge the monopolistic practices of Standard Oil and American Tobacco, which were dismantled in 1911, and subsequently (albeit unsuccessfully), in the 1980s and 1990s, against IBM and Microsoft.

Saxbe's was only the latest in a series of efforts to split up Ma Bell dating back to the days of banker J. P. Morgan’s involvement with the corporation, but the renewed effort on the part of the federal government, triggered by AT&T’s resistance to the inroads being made by MCI to carry specialized private-line traffic, was serious. DeButts wasn’t phased. He believed the lawsuit to be baseless and characterized the government’s stance as a national catastrophe, declaring, “AT&T would fight to the death.”[49] But for the first time since the Progressive era, the climate was distinctly anti big business. AT&T would not escape this time.

In February 1979, just one month after Johnson made the cover of Time, Charles E. Brown succeeded deButts at AT&T. Where deButts was outspoken, Brown was restrained. Where deButts detested competition, Brown considered it a fact of life, but hoped to move the company into the information age. At one point, referring to the common conception of AT&T as "Ma Bell," Brown declared “I would appreciate your passing the word that Mother doesn’t live here anymore.”[50] Reportedly, Brown initially hoped construction on the tower could be stopped, but backed off when he realized that such a move would have generated too much negative publicity.[51]

As construction proceeded, Brown had greater worries than the cost of his headquarters building. The corporation came under more fire from William F. Baxter, new head of the Antitrust Division under the Reagan administration. Adamant that competition is the basis for economic growth, Baxter saw AT&T’s natural monopoly as an example of big government meddling and moved forward, making his intention clear during his first press conference: he would litigate this case “to the eyeballs.”[52]

The building was not yet completed when, on January 8, 1982, AT&T agreed to divest itself of its monopoly over local telephone services. Although the corporation was allowed to keep its long distance service, it would face increasing competition from competing carriers. In return, AT&T hoped it would capitalize on the ubiquity of its brand to sell personal computers, a plan that soon failed in the face of the rampant cloning of the IBM PC by cut-rate hardware manufacturers.

By the fall of that year, AT&T had decided that it would not use all of the office space in the new building, and sought a tenant to occupy at least half.[53] Failing to find a suitable skyscraper-mate, however, AT&T remained the principal tenant. Five years later, struggling to establish itself in the new post-divestment world, the company's imperial ambitions having been thwarted by more flexible, lower-cost networks, AT&T announced that it would vacate its offices, leasing up to 75% of the building.[54] Finally in 1992, in the wake of the failure of its post-divestment strategies, AT&T sold the building to the Sony Corporation, which closed off Johnson's imperial arcade.

The story ends in November 2005, when, having spectacularly failed to rebuild its position during the broadband boom, AT&T ceased to exist as an independent company and was bought by SBC, a “Baby Bell” that had been spun off during the divestment. The fact that SBC immediately renamed itself AT&T and has imperialistic ambitions of its own does little to ameliorate the fact that the old empire is gone, having lasted only a few months longer than the architect of its corporate headquarters.

The AT&T building is not only Johnson’s greatest commission; it is also the last great skyscraper. Top firms no longer need to aggrandize themselves with height. Instead, companies like Microsoft, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart shun corporate visibility in favor of anonymity, occupying faceless office complexes deep in post-suburbia, reflecting the banality of the products they market and the landscape they have given rise to. To be sure, Donald Trump calls press conferences periodically to propose another (usually fictitious) tower, and builders from Shanghai to Dubai work like mad to catch up to the West as the last gasp of delirious verticality pushes westward around the globe. But the skyscraper no longer signals the kind of iconic importance it once did. Already in 1971, Archizoom founder Andrea Branzi observed that skyscrapers are an artifact of the past, products of a superceded form of capitalism and concluded that the day would soon come when they would no longer be built.[55] In Branzi’s analysis, the concentrated metropolis was the product of a phase of Capital's accumulation, a "natural" record of its accretion. The skyline, in turn, made visible that accretion, demonstrating the force of capital to the world. But with the city thoroughly connected by telematics and with capital having colonizedthe whole world, Branzi concluded, the city has become a mere condition, the skyline superfluous, with urbanity existing not as a physical entity but as programming or organization.[56]

To be sure, cities will continue to attract corporations and individuals eager for the kind of dense variety of cultural life that only they can offer, but cities have ceased to be places in which corporations need to represent themselves architecturally, at least not in the manner that Johnson's building represented AT&T. If the city was once the foremost spectacle of production, it is now the foremost spectacle of consumption.

More recently, in Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri contend that the old world of imperial expansion, composed of centered hierarchies in accord and strife with one another, is giving way to the limitless field of Empire, a universal order without boundaries or limits, as flexible, all pervasive networks replace the hierarchical systems of the previous order. This is not so much a matter of revolution as capital adapting to its ever-increasing size and complexity. As recent research in network theory suggests, well-connected hubs—whether one is talking about the twentieth-century imperialist state, AT&T, or Philip Johnson the power broker—emerge naturally and work efficiently for networks up to a certain size, allowing information to be transmitted rapidly. For a time these hubs grow exponentially and in the process can become extremely powerful, as Johnson did. But studies suggest that such hubs also inevitably break down once the network reaches a certain threshold, at which point they become overloaded by the possibilities for making connections and begin to evolve into more distributed, or at least decentralized, topographies in which either individual agents or smaller, more nimble hubs establish connections to one another. The clearest example of this is the failure of the hub-and-spoke system used by airlines in the United States. At a certain point, flights became so numerous that hubs were overloaded, causing slowdowns for travelers and mounting costs for airlines, and it was at precisely this point that more nimble rival carriers could introduce point-to-point services that bypassed the ailing hubs and allowed them to flourish as the old airlines collapsed.[57]

This, too, is the legacy of AT&T: Its iconic skyscraper rendered obsolete before its completion, the company nevertheless refused to abandon its equally obsolescent imperial networks and was twice annihilated, first in 1982 and then in 2005. The federal government’s antitrust action was necessary to allow American telecommunications to grow, but the old centralized system of AT&T simply couldn’t compete with the more opportunistically organized rival carriers.

In this regard, Johnson was a pioneer, the first to admit that networking was more important than the buildings he created. But Johnson’s network was hierarchical, based on the model of sovereignty, with Johnson as the singular power broker at the apex.

Just as there was only one Louis XIV, there can only be one Philip Johnson. If with the AT&T building architecture gave way to networks, the architecture network that Johnson built—imperial, sovereign, singular—is also a thing of the past. Under Empire, the global system of architecture culture is simply too large, too complex, and too dispersed to accommodate another Philip Johnson. To be sure, there will always be individuals with greater and lesser degrees of connectedness, but contemporary networks of power are distributed, as Mark Lombardi's flow chart diagrams demonstrate. The post-Johnson model of power is characterized by unprecedented scandals involving innumerable players, so that culpability is distributed through the network to the individual agents themselves. Even if it was still possible to map the flows of power operative in the imperial model, in the network culture that makes up Empire, it is now moot, a fact that Lombardi eloquently captures in the paranoiac connections of his drawings. In Lombardi’s diagrams, a chance acquaintance leads to implication in a scandal. Power emerges not from a center, but from the network itself, not just from the top, but from below too, from the innumerable bit players in global capital.

Thus, the center of power in a Lombardi diagram is everywhere, latent in every node, and even more so in the connections between the nodes. With this new topography of power, Bourdieu’s model of distinction is likewise wiped out. In network culture, relative wealth, education, and leisure time are no longer the purview of the Philip Johnsons of the world, but are increasingly available to the middle class. Far from being an institution for the élite, the museum is now a pop venue, beholden to blockbuster shows and theatrical architecture; it even understands itself as a prime destination for consumption. So, too, as neither the academy nor the gallery any longer satisfy the burgeoning demand for art objects, cultural artifacts, from the most auratic to the coarsest and most vulgar (often, as in the case of the Mona Lisa, the Egyptian bronze cat at the Metropolitan, or a Jeff Koons Pink Panther these are indistinguishable) have multiplied greatly and with them a myriad of taste cultures have blossomed. No longer is being an exponent of art for art’s sake a marker of distinction. On the contrary, given the social fragmentation that characterizes network culture, specialized expertise (knowing William Morris backward and forward, or being a connoisseur of 1970s New York punk rock, Morris Lapidus, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Delft porcelain) is recognized for its own intrinsic value. Distributed power and network culture go together.

But network culture is not revolutionary. If Hardt and Negri explain that as the multitude, we collectively hold the reigns that collectively bind us, then we have to ask, why do we continue to do so? Some may have more power than others, but regardless, today we are all implicated in its construction, we are all players. The distributed power of the society of control ensures that we maintain order among ourselves far more effectively than we ever would have under disciplinary power. Far beyond what Peter Sloterdijk called cynical reason, today we are all heroes and villains.[58] Today we are all Philip Johnson.

 

 

[1] Paul Goldberger, quoted in Kurt Andersen, “Philip the Great,” Vanity Fair (June 1993): 138.

[2] In this light, the decision to let the 1932 exhibition travel to department stores such as Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company in Chicago and Bullocks in Los Angeles was not the anomaly, but rather the norm.

[3] On Johnson’s political activities in the 1930s, a part of his life that we must consider in any accounting of his contributions, see my “’We Cannot Not Know History’: Philip Johnson’s Politics and Cynical Survival,” Journal of Architectural Education (November 1995): 92 104.

[4] “To be invited to visit the Glass House might seem like a sign that one had been admitted to a fairly exclusive club. Actually the club had a very exclusive membership: sooner or later, everyone of any standing in the arts, in the U. S. or abroad, would show up at the house if he or she happened to be within a hundred miles or so of New Canaan,” Peter Blake, No Place Like Utopia. Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 151.

[5] Blake, No Place Like Utopia, 108 and 128 133. On Kaufmann’s opposition to Johnson, see also Franz Schulze, Philip Johnson: Life and Work (New York: Albert A. Knopf, 1994), 181.

[6] Sophy Burnham, The Art Crowd (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1973), 38 39.

[7] See “Review of Philip Johnson: Architecture 1949 1965,” Architectural Forum (October, 1966): 52 53, reprinted in Philip Johnson. Writings, ed. Robert A. M. Stern and Peter D. Eisenman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 254 256. In the introduction to the piece, Robert Stern remarks “How much like a lunch with Johnson at his ‘corner table’ at the Four Seasons this magnificent piece of chutzpah seems! At top speed, running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, thinking and proclaiming, Johnson reviews his own books, and frankly bares his own intentions to make as certain as possible that history recognizes his achievement, that it looks at his oeuvre in the context of contemporary practice as well as in the context of the grand tradition of Modern architectural history taken as whole,” 254.

[8] Robin Middleton, open letter, “Dear Philip,” “Cosmorama,” Architectural Design (March 1967): 107.

[9] Middleton, "Dear Philip," 107.

[10] “Architect of Elegance. Philip Cortelyou Johnson,” The New York Times, November 16, 1964, 33.

[11] Ada Louise Huxtable, “He Adds Elegance to Modern Architecture,” The New York Times, May 24, 1964, Sunday Magazine, 100.

[12] Middleton, "Dear Philip," 107.

[13] Blake, No Place Like Utopia, 308.

[14] Franz Schulze, Philip Johnson, 305 310.

[15] Johnson, Writings, 258. On this time in Johnson’s life, see also the chapter titled “The Sixties: Laurels and Asses’s Ears,” Schulze, 273 286.

[16] Philip Johnson, “Postscript,” Five Architects (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 138.

[17] “Five on Five,” Architectural Forum, May 1973, 46-57.

[18] Charles Jencks, “Dialogue With Robert A. M. Stern,” Robert A. M. Stern: Selected Works, Architectural Monographs 17 (London and New York: Academy Editions & St. Martin's Press, 1991), 131.

[19] Thomas S. Hines, “Citizen Stern: A Portrait of the Architect as Entrepreneur,” in Architecture and Urbanism Extra Edition: The Residential Work of Robert A.M. Stern (July 1982): 229.

[20] Robert A. M. Stern, “Notes on Post-Modernism,” in Robert A. M. Stern: Selected Works, Architectural Monographs 17 (London and New York: Academy Editions and St. Martin's Press, 1991), 113.

[21] Robert A. M. Stern, ed., 40 under 40: An Exhibition of Young Talent in Architecture (New York: The Architectural League of New York, 1966).

[22] Peter Eisenman, quoted in Kurt Andersen, “Philip the Great,” Vanity Fair (June 1993): 152.

[23] Kenneth Frampton, “Zabriskie Point: la traietorria di un somnambulo,” Casabella 586 587 (January-February 1992): 9.

[24] Philip Johnson, “What Makes Me Tick,” in Johnson, Writings, 260 261.

[25] Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel, The Love of Art. European Art Museums and Their Public (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1991), 37 39; originally published as L'amour de l'art: les musées d'art européens et leur public (Paris: ?É”?ditions de Minuit, 1969).

[26] Bourdieu and Darbel, The Love of Art, 39 44.

[27] For a more historical and consequently in some ways more serviceable account of taste than Bourdieu's, see M. H. Abrams, “Art-As-Such: The Sociology of Modern Aesthetics” and “From Addison to Kant: Modern Aesthetics and the Exemplary Art,” in Doing Things With Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989): 135 187.

[28] Hal Foster, “What’s Neo about the Neo-Avant-Garde?,” October 70 (Autumn 1994): 7.

[29] Peter D. Eisenman, “The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture,” Doctoral Dissertation, Trinity College, University of Cambridge, 1963.

[30] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production. Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 11.

[31] Robert A. M. Stern, “The Evolution of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, 1947 1948,” Oppositions 10 (Fall 1977): 56 67, and Peter Eisenman, “Behind the mirror: on the writings of Philip Johnson,” Oppositions 10 (Fall 1977): 1 13.

[32] Kenneth Frampton, ed., Philip Johnson: Processes. The Glass House, 1949 and The AT&T Corporate Headquarters, 1978 (New York: Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, 1978), and Johnson, Writings.

[33] Johnson quoted by Vincent Scully in his “Foreword” to Johnson, Writings, 6.

[34] Johnson was on the cover of Time Magazine January 8, 1979. On the Pritzker Prize, see Oral History of Carter Manny as Interviewed by Franz Schulze, Chicago Architects Oral History Project (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, revised edition, 2001), available at http://www.artic.edu/aic/libraries/caohp/manny.pdf (source last checked March 20, 2006).

[35] For Johnson on AT&T, see Andersen, 155.

[36] Craig Unger, “Tower of Power: the Extraordinary Saga of the AT&T Building,” The New York Times, November 15, 1982, 45.

[37] Hilary Lewis and John O’Connor, Philip Johnson. The Architect in His Own Words (New York: Rizzoli, 1994), 104.

[38] Schulze, Philip Johnson, 345.

[39] Unger, "Tower of Power," 47.

[40] Unger, "Tower of Power," 47.

[41] Peter Temin, with Louis Galambos, The Fall of the Bell System. A Study in Prices and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 74.

[42] Unger, "Tower of Power," 51.

[43] Unger, "Tower of Power," 51.

[44] Schulze, Philip Johnson, 346.

[45] Johnson, quoted in Lewis and O'Connor, Philip Johnson. The Architect in His Own Words, 106.

[46] Johnson, quoted in Lewis and O'Connor, Philip Johnson. The Architect in His Own Words, 109.

[47] Johnson, quoted in Lewis and O'Connor, Philip Johnson. The Architect in His Own Words, 109.

[48] Maurice Carroll, “A.T.&T. to Build New Headquarters Tower at Madison and 55th Street,” The New York Times, March 31, 1978, B4.

[49] James B. Stewart, “Whales & Sharks. The Unexpected Fates of A.T.&T. and I.B.M. May Offer a Lesson to the Clinton Justice Department,” The New Yorker, Feb 15, 1993, 37 ?.

[50] Temin, The Fall of the Bell System, 161.

[51] Unger, "Tower of Power," 51.

[52] Unger, "Tower of Power," 53.

[53] Diane Henry, The New York Times, September 29, 1982, D24.

[54] Albert Scardino, “A.T.&T. is Vacating Much of Its Tower,” The New York Times, March 27, 1987, A1.

[55] In this light, the work of Rem Koolhaas, so influenced by Archizoom and other Italian radicals of the time, might be interpreted as a project thoroughly absorbed in postmodern nostalgia: nostalgia for 1920s New York, nostalgia for bigness, nostalgia for late modernism, and so on.

[56] Andrea Branzi, “The Fluid Metropolis,” Andrea Branzi. The Complete Works (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 50 51.

[57] See Mark Buchanan, Nexus. Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002).

[58] Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

 

 

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