The Things Historians Do

Philip Cortelyou Johnson (July 8, 1906 – January 25, 2005)

… was descended from the Jansen (a.k.a. Johnson) family of New Amsterdam, and included among his ancestors the Huguenot Jacques Cortelyou, who laid out the first town plan of New Amsterdam for Peter Stuyvesant.*


Johnson was the son of a wealthy Cleveland attorney Homer M. Johnson, and an equally wealthy and cultured mother, Louise Pope (Johnson).


He entered Harvard in 1923 without taking the qualifying exam.


The following year his father divided a large amount of his fortune between his children, his daughters receiving cash, and Philip given stock in Alcoa Aluminum.

Cheers Dad!

This was the source of a lifelong financial independence. 

Nice one.

Johnson interrupted his education with several extended trips to Europe.

As one does.

In 1928 Johnson met with architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was at the time designing the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. The meeting was a revelation for Johnson and formed the basis for a lifelong relationship of both collaboration and competition.*
About the same time, Johnson met Alfred H. Barr, Jr. a graduate student at Harvard who had just accepted the directorship of the Museum of Modern Art, and Johnson read an article by another Harvard student, Henry-Russell Hitchcock  (1903-1987) on the subject of modern architecture.*
Barr saw in Johnson’s wealth and enthusiasm the perfect person to lead a department of architecture in his new museum.*

A good call.

In 1930 Johnson finally graduated with a degree in classics, and he and Hitchcock traveled to Germany to study modern architecture for the Museum of Modern Art.*
Alfred H. Barr, Jr. asked Hitchcock to mount a show on modern architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, together with Johnson. Johnson and Hitchcock traveled to Germany in 1930 to study modern architecture for the Museum of Modern art.[*]
Johnson returned from Germany as a proselytizer for the new architecture. *
He [also] returned with enthusiasm for modern architecture and, somewhat ironically [huh?], a glowing view of Adolf Hitler.*

In later life, Johnson was to adopt and then drop whatever architectural style was in fashion, so wanting to be on the team that looked like winning was more the rule than the exception.

In 1932 Johnson funded the new department of architecture and became its first curator.*

Alfred H. Barr Jr. was not stupid.

In 1932, Johnson mounted the exhibition “The International Style,” with a catalog written by Hitchcock, who had coined the term, for the Museum.*

There was no way this new style was going to be introduced to America as Functionalism because Functionalism had a social agenda that many would have seen as communism. (Actually, not much has changed regarding that.)

In the book accompanying the show, coauthored with Hitchcock, Johnson argued that the new modern style maintained three formal principles: 1. an emphasis on architectural volume over mass (planes rather than solidity) 2. a rejection of symmetry and 3. rejection of applied decoration. The definition of the movement as a “style” with distinct formal characteristics has been seen by some critics as downplaying the social and political bent that many of the European practitioners shared.[*]
1932 - MOMA's International Style Exhibition

Is it me or does this show look a tad hokey? I don’t think I could accept the taste and style directives of anyone who placed image panels over the gaps in moveable partitions, who couldn’t think of a better way to present a sheet of plans, or who thought that bit of draped cloth was a good idea. Is this really the only surviving image?

I’ve just finished reading the ‘book accompanying the show’, and can safely say that any ‘social and political bent’ many of the European practitioners may have shared, was deliberately, ruthlessly and thoroughly omitted.

For such an influential book, it is mercifully short and has many illustrations. (Oh if only all architecture books were like that!) It is very clearly laid out. It is dogmatic – it doesn’t aim to convince, it just tells people what to do.  The famous preface I’ve referred to before by Alfred H. Bar. Jr. is not even five pages long. Its opening sentences are

Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Johnson have studied contemporary architecture with something of the scholarly care and critical exactness customarily expended upon Classical or Mediæval periods. This book presents their conclusions, which seem to me of extraordinary, perhaps of epoch-making, importance.

Now I’m not sure whether an extended jaunt to Europe counts as scholarly care and critical exactness but, even in his first sentence, Barr implies that this contemporary architecture is on par with Classical or Mediæval architecture. Perhaps he learned this trick of from the 1927 English translation of Towards a New Architecture that must have been kicking about by 1931-2. The two longest chapters dwell on what this new style has in common with Classical.

I. The Idea of Style: 4 pages
II. History: 11 pages 
III. Functionalism: 3.5 pages
IV. A First Principle – Architecture as Volume: 8 pages
V. Surfacing Material: 4.5 pages
VI. A Second Principle – Concerning Regularity: 11 pages
VII. A Third Principle – The Avoidance of Applied Decoration: 8 pages
VIII. Architecture and Building: 5 pages
IX. Plans: 3 pages
X. The Siedlung (a German word close in meaning to ‘residential subdivision’): 6 pages

That’s a total of about 64 pages and at approx. 300 words per page that makes, say, 20,000 words.

Chapters I and II deal re-introduce the idea of The International Style as something with the nobility and gravity of Classical or Mediæval architecture, but this carries on into III which is basically an attack against a rigid interpretation of functionalism and, as such, a de-facto justification for stripping Modernism of all social or ethical content and rebranding it as The International Style.

Some modern critics and groups of architects both in Europe and in America deny that the æsthetic element in architecture is important, or even that it exists. All æsthetic principles of style are to them meaningless and unreal. …

Leading European critics, particularly Sigfreid Gideon*, claim with some justice that architecture has such immense practical problems to deal with in the modern world that æsthetic questions must take a secondary place in architecture.  Architects like Hannes Meyer go further. They claim that interest in proportions or in problems of design for their own sake is still an unfortunate remnant of nineteenth century ideology. For these men it is an absurdity to talk about the modern style in terms of aesthetics at all. If a building provides adequately, completely, and without compromise for its purpose, it is to them a good building, regardless of its appearance. Modern construction receives from them a straightforward expression; they use standardized parts whenever possible and they avoid ornament or unnecessary detail. Any elaboration of design, any unnecessary use of specially made parts, any applied decoration would add to the cost of the building. * Must revisit Gideon.

I’ve included this extensive quote because this is exactly what misfitsarchitecture is about. Hitchcock and Johnson go on to say that

It is, however, nearly impossible to organize and execute a completed building without making some choices not wholly determined by technics and economics. One may therefore refuse to admit that intentionally functionalist building is quite without a potential æsthetic element. Consciously or unconsciously the architect must make free choices before his design is completed. In these choices the European functionalists follow, rather than go against, the principles of the general contemporary style. Whether they admit it or not is beside the point.

Let’s say this is not the most rigorous argument in the world. It’s probably true that not every decision made when designing a building can be explicity justified in terms of technics and economics but there’s nothing wrong with trying

People wishing to “add beauty” should be made to prove that what they are adding
(1) Does not compromise the performance of the building,
Can be achieved without the use of additional resources, and
Actually is beautiful.

In Chapter III, Johnson and Hitchcock write

While the functionalists continue to deny that the æsthetic element in architecture is important, more and more buildings are produced in which these principles [of The International Style] are wisely and effectively followed without sacrifice of functional virtues.

Now, this is something Le C and Mies van der Rohe would say. Low-cost housing was not their thing. For Mies, ‘less’ meant more expensive. Chapter III segues quickly into 45 pages of what those principles are. This is where Hitchcock and Johnson really shine. The photo captions are presumably what the visitors who didn’t buy the catalogue, saw. VS probably isn’t the best example to begin with as it doesn’t have much social content in any case, but notice how the ground floor washbasin is not shown in the plan?


“The white second storey appears weightless on its round posts. Its severe symmetry is a foil to the brilliant study in abstract form, unrestricted by structure, of the blue and rose windshelter above. The second storey, as shown by the plan, includes the open terrace within the general volume. Thus the single square of the plan contains all the varied living needs of a country house.”

It’s easy to see how De Beistegui’s penthouse could appeal to a certain type of client with a lot of money (as it no doubt did to De Beistegui).


“Simple composition of rectangular forms and oval stair tower. THe hedges and the tree make a striking contrast with the white marble. The hedges are set in sliding boxes operated electrically. Thus either complete privacy or a magnificent view toward the center of the city may be enjoyed. The upper enclosed area, a sun bath, has a floor of grass and walls of pale sky blue.”

Hitchcock and Johnson excluded everything that did not fit their simple formula. Just as LC’s washbasin was excluded because it would generate too many questions, so too was the interior of De Beistegui’s apartment

deo-de-fr-appts-hotpartic-025as well as any images of the famous ‘sun bath’.


This next caption is typical. Remember though, these were the days before subjective pluralism – people actually listened to critics back then and if they said something was ‘skilfully composed’ then that was the way it was.

The supports of the center section are awkward in shape.

This is as good an example as any, of how it’s now all about shape. Never mind that there is probably a very good reason for that bit of extra thickness where the beam meets the column! It’s all about shape and form and contrast and correctness of proportion and placement of windows.

bauHere’s a good one. This functionality thing is a moveable feast – it is bad for structural reasons when it upsets the section of a beam, but not bad when it accidentally creates a dreaded formal symmetry.


Curves used for aesthetic effect are good, even when there is little justification other than to ‘underline the simple rhythm of the windows’ whatever that means. (We are witnessing here the birth of bollocks.)

good curve

And sometimes curves are bad even when, by looking at the plan, they seem to make sense.

bad curve

There is a particular fetish about ‘lettering’ (= what we now call signage). What strikes me is the audacity of the comments – who do they think they are?!



And on it goes, sometimes fretting over a projecting capping, a handrail that is too thick, a window frame that is too thin, or some lettering in an inappropriate font. What we are seeing is the birth of style over substance, the (re)creation of the beauty myth. This next one sums up their attitude towards function.


The marine character of the design is justified by site and purpose.

wtf!! Basically, Johnson and Hitchcock have now become Charles Jencks, skipping 50 years and The International Style completely. This is not as facetious as it sounds. Whatever bits of the social agenda of Modernism Johnson and Hitchcock didn’t kill off with this exhibition, Charles Jencks was to finish off with his Pruitt Igoe announcement. Both had an image of themselves as architectural kingmakers, etc. etc.

So what then does the allegedly fantastic reputation of The International Style exhibition and catalogue rest upon? It’s simply not true that, according to the established legend, Johnson and Hitchcock ‘introduced’ modern architecture to America. It was already being introduced in magazines such as Popular Mechanics.

Alumaire House, Albert Frey and Lawrence Kochner,
Long Island, NY, 1927-1932



August 1931

I recommend Enrique Gualberto Ramirez’s site for its excellent article on how The International Style was really introduced to America. The article says that the exhibition later toured shopping centres with a slightly different content. This no doubt helped to get people talking but magazines were already creating popular interest in this new architecture. I suspect that the real ‘worth’ of the exhibition was to announce the arrival of the new architecture to the American architectural establishment. What had hitherto been  perceived as novelty ‘futuristic’ houses with value as curiosities (and magazine shifters!) now became, by virtue of the Museum of Modern Art introducing it, MODERN ART.

I rest my case.