In a considerably more humble expression of space this week, we explore the interior of the Phillip Johnson Pavilion. This serene and understated building houses the Pre-Columbian Art Collection at the Dumbarton Museum and Gardens in Georgetown. Philip Johnson designed the building in 1959 to be connected to the natural environment surrounding it. He accomplished this through large panels of curved glass which enclose a cluster of oversize circular columns. The playful building plan is composed of circles amongst circles. One can imagine the trace of the architect’s compass as he constructed the drawing out of relationships in geometry, proportion and human scale.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the building can only be experienced through a physical visit because it is exclusively auditory. Architects are know to play with spatial forms in light, but here Johnson explores the potent spatially of sound. The mathematics of the the domed roofs of the galleries is such that there exist pockets of sound amplification near the center of the rooms. As you are walking through the space, you become suddenly aware that your breath is amplified in your ears as if through headphones. The effect is startling and surreal.
Philip johnson occupies an impressively broad position in the history of architecture. As a young but influential curator of architecture at the MoMA, it was his widely viewed 1930 exhibition that introduced America to the “international style” (aka modernism) that was already in the forefront of Europe design. His was the voice that said most clearly to Mies, Corbusier and Gropius: “Come to America, build the city of the future, and we will love it.” Thus ushered several generations of architects focused on the aesthetics of technical minimalism and the poetics of honesty in construction. Incredibly, Johnson survived long enough in the echelons of architectural credibility that later in his career he became one of the pioneering voices in the pop-art/pastiche inspired movement of post-modern architecture in the 1980s that temporarily swept the earnest establishment of modernism aside.