Philip Johnson Biography

Philip Johnson, a renowned American architect, was a pioneer in postmodern architecture. With a passion for the field, he dedicated his life to advocating for architecture through his works, writings, and words. Collaborating with esteemed architects like Mies van der Rohe and John Burgee, Johnson reached new heights in his designs and gained both work opportunities and popularity. His clients, including wealthy New Yorkers, entrusted him to create their houses, while his own masterpiece, the Glass House, showcased his exceptional talent. Johnson’s architectural essays were a signature feature of his estate, and his influence can be seen in iconic structures such as the “Sony Building” and the “Crystal Cathedral”. Recognized as “the best openly-gay architect in America”, Johnson’s fusion of art, minimalism, and functional aesthetics revolutionized the field of architecture and left an indelible mark on the world.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Philip Cortelyou Johnson
  • Died At Age: 98
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: David Whitney
  • American Men
  • Harvard University
  • Died on: January 25, 2005
  • Place of death: New Canaan
  • U.S. State: Ohio
  • City: Cleveland, Ohio
  • More Facts
  • Education: Harvard University, Hackley School, Harvard Graduate School of Design
  • Awards:
    • 1979 – Pritzker Architecture Prize
    • 1978 – AIA Gold Medal
    • 1975 – Twenty-five Year Award – Glass House

Childhood & Early Life

Philip Cortelyou Johnson was born in Cleveland, Ohio on July 8, 1906. His father was an attorney and he was one of four children. He was the only son of his parents and was descended from the Jansen family of New Amsterdam. His ancestor, Jacques Cortelyou, laid out the first town plan of New Amsterdam. Johnson received his early education from Hackley School in New York. He was a bright student and was admitted to Harvard University without an exam in 1923. At Harvard, he studied history and philosophy. Johnson came from a wealthy family and inherited a significant amount of wealth from his father in 1924. This inheritance allowed him to live a life of self-indulgence. During this time, he also began exploring his sexuality and took time off from Harvard to travel and discover Europe. It was during these trips that his interest in architecture began to develop.


During his travels, Johnson became fascinated by the architectural wonders of ancient monuments. His meeting with architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1928 further enhanced this fascination. The two became lifelong friends, collaborators, and competitors. In 1932, Johnson became the director of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. He toured Europe with his architectural mentor, historian, and critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and together they created a show called “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition.” They also co-wrote “The International Style: Modern Architecture Since 1922.” During the Great Depression in 1934, Johnson tried his hand at journalism and politics. He covered the Invasion of Poland in 1939 and observed the Nuremberg Rallies in Germany. He returned to the USA, enlisted in the army, and participated in World War II. After the war, he studied architecture at Harvard School of Design and graduated with a B.Arch. in 1943. Johnson returned to MoMA as the director of the architectural department and held the position from 1946 to 1954. This position allowed him to advocate for modern architecture to the world. He designed his residence, The Glass House, in 1949, which was a minimalistic glass and steel paneled design. He also designed the Kneses Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, New York, to absolve his past association with Nazi sympathizers. Johnson worked on the Seagram Building with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and this marked a shift in his career, leading to more projects. He became a member of the National Academy of Design in 1961 and a full academician in 1963.

Major Works

One of Johnson’s major works is the Glass House, also known as the Johnson House. It is a historic house museum that showcases modern architecture and reflects Johnson’s postmodern influence. He also collaborated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the design of the Seagram Building, a skyscraper in Park Avenue. The building is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Johnson also designed The Four Seasons and Brasserie restaurants housed in the building.

Awards & Achievements

Johnson received the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects in 1978, which is the institute’s highest honor. He was also the recipient of the first Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1979, often referred to as the Nobel Prize of architecture. In 1987, the University of Houston conferred upon him an honorary doctoral degree.

Personal Life & Legacy

Struggling with his homosexuality for most of his early life, Johnson came out in 1993. He was in a 45-year-long relationship with art curator and gallerist David Whitney until his passing. Johnson was initially influenced by his WASP family to be anti-Semitic, anti-black, and disrespectful towards women. However, he later disassociated himself from these views and many of his clients were from the demographics he had previously shunned. Johnson died of natural causes on January 25, 2005, at the age of 98. He was residing at his Glass House retreat, where he had lived since 1960. His partner David passed away the same year at the age of 66. The Philip Johnson Glass House is now a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is open to the public.

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