NEW YORK, June 26 (UPI) -- Philip Johnson, dean of American architects, will be 96 on July 8 but shows no signs of slowing down as a practitioner of his art who can still attract important commissions.
Johnson's latest work, a glass pavilion formed of three tilted pyramids, is just becoming a New York tourist attraction. Placed between the Chrysler building and its later annex on East 42nd Street, the Chrysler Trylon, might escape the unwary eye in daytime hours but when it is illuminated at night it is sure to attract the attention of passersby.
The Cleveland-born, New York-based architect was initially a proponent of the modern International Style and a collaborator of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the style's foremost proponent, in designing the famed Seagram Building on Manhattan's Park Avenue in 1958. He later developed a more personal style that makes reference to historical design styles.
Johnson has not always been successful in his work, which some critics have attacked as copycat or just lacking in originality.
He has never quite been able to live down the controversy touched off by his derivative 1982 design for the AT&T headquarters on Madison Avenue which he topped off with a broken pediment that made the building the appearance of a towering Chippendale grandfather's clock in granite. But the resulting publicity made him the architectural flavor of the 1980s and his name a household word.
For the Chrysler Trylon he obviously has been inspired by ancient Egypt's most famous structures, but not for the first time. If he is copying anything, he is copying himself. The glass pyramids first made their appearance on his drawing board in the form of a children's museum for a mixed-use project in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The 22,000 square foot pavilion on 42nd Street mid-block between Lexington and Third Avenues is 73-feet tall at the tip of the tallest of the three pyramids, or a little over seven stories as stories in commercial buildings are counted. The Trylon is bookended on either side by granite cubes, anchoring them emphatically to the street level and giving them a sense of stability.
On a sunny day the semi-reflective glass, girded by 10-inch tubular steel supports, reflects neighboring buildings with mirror shard brilliance that meld and change as the passerby moves along the street. It is an altogether delightful and lovely kaleidoscopic effect that makes the Chrysler Trylon one of Johnson's most successful buildings, on a par the famous Mies-inspired glass house he built for himself in New Canaan, Conn., in 1949 that first brought him national attention.
The interior of the Trylon is less successful. The central space is broken by a powerful V-shaped column that inhibits the flow of the interior space into the apex of the pyramids, although there are some attractive vistas of the street and buildings outside from several corner angles. It would appear Johnson put more thought to the appearance of the outside than he did to the interior structure.
The pavilion would most likely be suited to an upgrade restaurant, but a lessee has not yet been found by the developer, Tishman Speyer Inc., whose spokesman, Stephen Rubinstein, said, "There has been interest, but we are still looking for the right kind of tenant."
Johnson, amazingly active for his advanced age, had only been out of Harvard University a few years when he was named the first director of the architectural department at the new Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1932 and wrote the definitive book, "The International Style: Architecture Since 1922." He stayed at MoMA until 1954 with a few years out for service in the U.S. Army during World War II.
He began to get commissions to build houses in the 1940s and larger commissions began to come his way, notably a Jewish synagogue in Port Chester, N. Y., that marked his first departure from Miesian architecture to historical allusion, and art galleries in Lincoln, Neb., and Washington, D.C.
Among his most notable designs were the New York State Theater at New York's Lincoln Center (1964) and the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles (1980).
Johnson was so popular with Texas real estate developers that there was a book written by Frank Welch titled "Philip Johnson & Texas." His most admired building in that state is the College of Architecture at the University of Houston, inspired by the architectural fantasies, most of them never built, designed by 18th century French architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux.
Johnson was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects in 1978 when he was 72, an age when most architects are slowing down toward retirement. But the wiry, outspoken, and sometimes pugnacious Johnson apparently has no intention of retiring and his architectural firm is still a busy one, currently working on the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, a building for the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in Lancaster, Pa., and the Spring Street Residential Tower in New York's SoHo district.