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149 In November 1956, the de Menils had asked me to accompany them to the University of St. Thomas for the pre­sen­ta­tion of Philip Johnson’s plans for additions to Houston’s fledgling Catholic university.1 I had eagerly accepted their invitation in order to make my own assessment of the renowned architect they both admired so fervently. I wondered if out of airy nothingness Philip Johnson could extract a habitation for my homeless advocate for religious tolerance, Descent of the Holy Spirit. My heart was beating fast as I took my ­ front-­ row seat between Jean and Dominique. Pencil thin, wearing a ­ close-­ fitting dark suit, Johnson had approached the lectern with rapid strides and just as quickly drew back from it to address his audience informally. I could now observe the essential lines of his expressive face; they ­ were as if incised on metal rather than as drawn on paper or canvas. Energy sprang from him, as when a tightly coiled wire is suddenly released. The dos and don’ts of his architectural credo followed in rapid succession with precision and wit. ChaptER 17 Enter Philip Johnson 150 New Harmony, indiana One commandment, however, I should have taken with a large mea­ sure of salt: “When a client asks me how much per square foot a building or a ­ house will cost, I have no answer to that question. I should either simply roll up my sleeves and build a work of art that pleases me or ­ else look for a client who cares more about beauty than about concrete and dollars.” A de­cade later I learned that aesthetic concerns, sound engineering , and economic sanity could coexist as equal partners and not as unrelated entities. On that eve­ning of new possibilities, I had resonated more closely with Johnson’s deep commitment to art, quality of material, and right proportions than with his reference to cost per square foot. It was exhilarating to discover an architect who appeared capable of understanding my unorthodox hopes for an altar that was not an altar and a church that was not a church. This Houston visit, primarily for the St. Thomas pre­ sen­ ta­ tion, however, was not conducive to sharing my inward thoughts. My hopes resumed in March 1957, when Jean de Menil informed me on the flight from New York to Houston that Philip Johnson would attend the upcoming American Federation of Arts convention in early April.2 My longtime friend Preston Bolton, one of the local committee chairmen for the AFA and a Houston architect working with Johnson, invited me to come along when he went to pick up Philip at Hobby Airport for the first eve­ning’s activities—a cocktail reception and buffet dinner in the Emerald Room at the Shamrock Hilton before visiting the Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibit “TheThreeBrothers,”featuringtheworkofMarcelDuchamp,Jacques Villon, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. The next day, Thursday, April 4, Philip Johnson introduced the notable art critic Meyer Schapiro, who gave the keynote address, “The Place of Painting in Contemporary Culture.” During a break, I made my way forward to where Johnson was seated with the de Menils. Halfway there, I stood still, one foot on terra incognita, the other on familiar, safe land. How could I present my obsession—for an altar within a walled but roofless church—to an urbane, successful architect without appearing naked to myself and totally vulnerable, even ridiculous, in the eyes of a man I admired but hardly knew? I had underestimated Philip’s ability to intuit what others ­ were thinking and needing. Sensing my hesitation, he ­ rose from his seat, took my Enter Philip Johnson 151 Jane Blaffer Owen, Bernard J. and Becky Reis in the audience at the American Federation of Arts convention held at the Shamrock Hotel (second from left to right). Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, April 1957. Gelatin silver print, 9 1/4 × 13 7/8 in. (23.5 × 35.2 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston. Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos. arm, and led me from the green glare of the Shamrock Room to the shelter of an alcove within the Cattleman’s Club, a quiet place that served to negate the logo placed above the bar: “Rattle, rattle, ­here come the cattle.”3 My inhibitions dissolved and a torrent of ­ long-­ considered thoughts tumbled out. My attentive listener caught them skillfully and gave them form and substance. Although he possessed a vast knowledge of art and...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780253016638
Related ISBN
9780253016249
MARC Record
OCLC
903357020
Pages
400
Launched on MUSE
2015-03-20
Language
English
Open Access
No
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