Crown Chakra

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.

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5 Responses to “Crown Chakra”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    I didn’t know he had a past in modernism! Unfortunately Johnson was responsible for the post modern horror PPG Place in downtown Pittsburgh. It must have seemed like a really good idea in 1981.

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  3. Elizabeth Says:

    It’s a shame that people rarely get to enjoy that first exterior view due to the big brick walls. Did you scale them? Straight Torquer, are you a ninja?

  4. thb Says:

    You did it! This is one of my favorite haunts. Something about the circular rooms, always listening to the strange echo and the amazing Pre-Columbian art calls to me again and again. Johnson’s remarkable experiments with glass come to a soothing solution in this space. I often yearn to visit this realm and have such important memories from my many visits therein beginning in the 1960’s. Thank you, thank you for bringing this to our attention with such intimate photos. One feels to be about to enter in. Crown Chakra indeed!

  5. Jo-Ann Neuhaus Says:

    Wow, I’m old enough to know that Johnson was a modernist; he worked on Mies’ Seagram Building on Park Avenue in NYC. Also there is his glass house — right out of Mies — on his estate in Connecticut; not certain but i think one can make an appointment to visit it. The estate is interesting because it shows his evolution to a degree with the other buildings he designed and added over time.

    Here in DC, you can see a Philip Johnson house that he designed for Kreeger when Kreeger headed Geico. It was designed to hold Kreeger’s collection and is now a museum. It’s on Foxhall Road, NW.

    Another interesting fact that connects Johnson to DC. Stuart Golding, who competed and won the competition to renovate the Willard and develop the adjacent site, told how he first asked Philip Johnson to be its architect. I can’t remember why Johnson turned it down but he sent Golding to Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer. Malcolm Holzman was the firm’s principal on this project and he and his team designed the building you see today — very post modern and probably one of DC’s best post modern buildings.

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