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1906-2005

Philip Johnson

By Peter Eisenman

It must have been in November 1976. We were at the annual black tie dinner honoring new members at the Century Association in New York. The Century was also the site of regular Architects’ Circle dinners, also in black tie, over which Philip Johnson presided, leading conversations about architecture. This particular November night I was seated next to Philip. During the course of our conversation he asked me how things were going. I had just lost the commission for my largest and perhaps most important project to date, House X. The excavation for the foundations had been dug when the client stopped the work, saying that I had been dilatory about the production of the construction drawings. He also refused to pay me the money that he owed me. Johnson immediately asked me how much I was owed. Ten thousand dollars, I replied (which was a lot of money at the time). The conversation shifted to other, more congenial matters, nothing more being said about the money.  The next morning, promptly at 10 a.m., a messenger delivered an envelope to my attention. In it was a short note from Philip. It said, “Consider this a long-term loan.”  Attached to the note was a check to me for ten thousand dollars. Nothing more was ever said about it.

Some years later, having left the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies, I was working on a competition for the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio. It was early 1983. Several days before the competition was due, Philip appeared at the office, late in the evening. He wanted to see how his “kids” were doing. He gave us a tough critique, and then, as suddenly as he came, he left. He returned again the night before our submittal was due to inspect the final project and he was very excited about it.

A few weeks later, Philip and I were to be on an architecture jury together at Princeton for Michael Graves, who was also a competitor in the Wexner Competition. (Philip, by the way, had been on the jury that awarded Michael the Portland Building, his first major commission.) At 4 a.m. of the morning we were due at Princeton, after having given up hope that we would win the competition, I received the good news that our project had won. In the drive to Princeton I shared the news with Philip. All day we had to contain our happiness because we could not be the ones to tell Michael.

I think it was the last time I saw Philip. It was in August 2003. It was for lunch in his office in the Seagram Building with my wife Cynthia Davidson. Philip had been my best man at our wedding years before, and Cynthia had thrown a 90th birthday party for Philip and his closest friends in architecture at the Four Seasons, where we had often had lunch together. He could hardly eat or speak. But his eyes were alive, a bit teary, but they spoke for him. All he wanted to do was look at architecture, so we had brought along photos and drawings of our latest projects for him to see. When he saw something he likes he became quite animated. It was architecture that kept him alive. When he lost that, he may have lost the will to live. The most important thing that one could give a great man like Johnson is friendship. Philip was my friend.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2005.

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