May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Philip Johnson has said on many occasions that his ambition was always to be l’architecte du roi (architect to the king). Much of the American press has obliged his fantasy, dubbing him the dean of American architecture, a title last held by the prolific Richard Morris Hunt, who died in 1895.
Phooey. Johnson’s best building was his first, the renowned Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, finished in 1949. But even Johnson has acknowledged that it was a knockoff of the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe, who was Johnson’s mentor. With a few notable exceptions (the 1965 Kline Science Center at Yale and the 1973 IDS Center in Minneapolis among them), Johnson’s output has ranged from the cryptofascistically mediocre (the 1964 New York State Theater at Lincoln Center) to the campy absurd (the 1986 “Lipstick” Building on New York’s Third Avenue).
What Johnson did accomplish was to make architecture a topic of interest to America. His role in the 1932 Museum of Modern Art show “Modern Architecture” was critical to introducing European Modernism to this country (in the end a mixed blessing). And his relentless flitting among historical styles kept the architectural “discourse” lively through the 1980s, although it simultaneously contributed to a degradation of serious design.
Johnson can lay claim to the titles of catalyst, showman, master of self-promotion, and manipulator of credulous critics. But he is hardly the architect his acolytes claim.
Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue was an artistic casualty of his time. He was born in 1869, in the heyday of American architectural eclecticism, and died in 1924, just as European Modernism was about to sweep architectural history from the collective memory. But what Goodhue accomplished in the interim! And what he might still have done!
Starting off in the office of James Renwick, Jr., the designer of the elegant Grace Church in New York City (as well as the bigger but less elegant St. Patrick’s Cathedral a ways uptown), Goodhue became a partner of Ralph Adams Cram, that paragon of muscular Christianity expressed in stone. Together they designed the austerely rugged 1910 Cadet Chapel at West Point (note the cross in the form of a sword hilt over the door) and St. Thomas Church (1914) on Fifth Avenue, a sublime variation on the English Gothic.
But Goodhue had other avenues to explore and found them on his own, first in the so-called Churrigueresque, a variation on the Spanish colonial, for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, and then in the Byzantine, which he adopted for St. Bartholomew’s Church (1919) in New York City.
Goodhue’s masterpiece, however, was a curious mix of stripped sculptural forms for the Nebraska State Capitol, in Lincoln (finished in 1932). Rising with phallo-religious authority from the surface of the Great Plains, the building to this day has a monumental impact, which is skillfully mitigated by friezes (by the sculptor Lee Lawrie) of Indians and buffalo that seem about to come whooping and thundering to life.
In the capitol and in his 1926 public library for Los Angeles, Goodhue was on the track of an authentically American architecture, one based in European traditions but expressive of the special energy that was the mark of the country that had turned the tide of the Great War. Goodhue’s passing at the age of fifty-four removed one of the few American architects talented and flexible enough to have competed with the Teutonic forces of Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius as they muscled an aesthetically naive nation into yet another fling with foreigners.