Mark Lamster | Essays

Philip Johnson’s Plan for America


We are in a sad state, are we not? The oil spill, the economy, wars, plague, pestilence, aspirational bicycles that cost three grand. For goodness sake, we can't even put away a second-string African nation at sports. What are we to do? Buck up, I say. We Americans are a can-do, optimistic lot.

In looking forward, however, we might look back to the past. Some forty years ago, when we were similarly embroiled in intractable conflict and our nation's urban cores were in dire straits, an unlikely man appeared with a plan to save us: Philip Johnson, house architect of blue-chip, blue-blood America. Some of his ideas are more progressive than you might think. Others, downright barmy. It might please today's Tea Partiers to know that, at least on certain days, Johnson thought the Federal Government wasn't up to the job of rebuilding our cities. Such a task, he suggested, was the business of business, namely General Motors. GM was the biggest company on earth, and fresh off the unveiling of its Saarinen-designed HQ — so a design patron of some standing. Give GM $20 billion, and let them build a city. That was his idea. But how to pay for it? This is the part that will satisfy the liberals. I'll let him explain. “The money? There are lots of lovely taxes that can still be used if mere printing is not enough. We love to tax what we consider sinful. We’re still Calvinists and we tax liquor a hundred percent, cigarettes a hundred percent. I suggest a tax on our other popular sins. For instance, automobiles are surely as sinful as drinking. Perhaps a thousand a year per. And I have in mind another tax — a tax on war. This would be put into the Constitution, you see, so that the Congress couldn’t cancel it.”

So there you have it. Me? I'd leave GM out; it's got enough problems these days. But taxes on cars and war? Johnson, that Connecticut Yankee, had a bit of Berkeley in him after all. Happy Fourth of July weekend. PS: That Jasper Johns flag was gifted to MoMA by none other than Philip Johnson. The museum's curators wanted the picture, but the trustees were afraid to buy it themselves for fear it would be interpreted as an un-American work (ridiculous as that might seem today), so Johnson was asked to do it for them.

Posted in: Architecture

Jobs | July 13