A Wag of Philip Johnson's (Middle) Finger

Few architects can claim to have two major projects in Boston’s exclusive Back Bay, fewer still on its grand thoroughfare of towers and luxury hotels, Boylston Street, and only one enjoys the prestige of two projects in Boston’s most renowned public space, Copley Square.  One of the most influential and controversial architects of the 20th century, Philip Johnson is the holder of this noble title, in addition to a Pritzker Prize and an AIA Gold Medal.  His two Copley Square projects – the Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library and the office tower, 500 Boylston – while less than two blocks apart could not be more distant conceptually and ideologically.  The BPL’s Johnson Building, while not terribly loved by Bostonians, is a culminating example of this prolific architect’s early work.  Its severe and austere massing, harsh poured-concrete, stark though dazzling atrium, and vast, open floor plans display Johnson’s absolute mastery of minimalist modernism and his ability to make brutalism a comfortable and even respectful style.  In extraordinarily stark contrast, Johnson’s 500 Boylston office tower designed in partnership with John Burgee is an effulgence of postmodernist ornamental expression, whose Palladian window form (and façade) and miniature St. Peter’s Square are so ostentatiously classical mimicry that closer inspection reveals the entire building to be Johnson’s critique of postmodernism as a whole. 

The main facade of 500 Boylston, displaying both the Palladian-form and detailed ornamentation. 

Johnson’s collaboration with John Burgee, which started in 1968 and ended on bad terms in 1991, was by far the most prolific time for both architects.  In 1984 they produced the highly controversial former AT&T World Headquarters in Manhattan that was, in most ways, a fairly straightforward modernist skyscraper apart from the glaring addition of a roofline designed to look like a massive pediment.  This neoclassical cake-topper heralded in Johnson/Burgee’s explicit interest in postmodernism, yet the AT&T building does not ignore Johnson’s purely modernist roots.  Only three years later the cake-topper consumed the entirety of the cake.  When Johnson/Burgee produced 500 Boylston, rather than simply employing a classical element as adornment they used a Palladian window as the basis of the tower’s form.   The tower is further cloaked in balustrades, pilasters, arches, quoins, columns, coffers, and nearly every other classical decoration imaginable.  The design shows no restraint; in direct opposition to Johnson’s building at the BPL it is a heavy-handed investigation of “going too far”. 

500 Boylston's plaza is a miniature abstraction of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican: oval in plan, enclosed by columned arches, with symmetrical fountains, each featuring an obelisk of sorts. 

It is entirely possible that what at first appears to be a stylistic dalliance is actually an architecture lesson dressed in classical clothing.  Johnson is trying to explore and indict what happens when one pushes post-modernism to its logical extreme.  With the simplicity of modernism as Johnson’s conceptual and stylistic foundation, the dogmatic ornamentation of 500 Boylston is almost too textbook to be taken seriously.  With this building, Johnson is teaching the architecture world that postmodernism at its peak is something garish and devoid of any real significance or meaningfulness. The building was intended to have an identical counterpart next door: two massive Palladian windows onto the architectural soul of Boston.  However, once the first tower was completed citizens, architects, planners, and preservationists all hated it and halted the construction of the second.  Even architecturally self-righteous and oft-parochial Boston could not stand to see its opinions scrutinized under Johnson’s towering lens.  Instead, Robert A. M. Stern was brought in to complete the neighboring tower as a quieter, less opinionated building. 

Elevation of Robert A. M. Stern's replacement (right) for the second tower at 500 Boylston. 

It is hard not to imagine Johnson finding some sense of vindication in this.  He succeeded in creating a building so meticulously true to what was called for that even its proponents were forced to sheepishly admit that they had done wrong and learned their lesson.  This brilliantly subversive act took down post-modernism simply by perfecting it.  500 Boylston, therefore, is a building that speaks not to the heyday of postmodernist expression, but rather to Johnson’s illimitable talent as an architect capable of mastering all styles, even those with which he disagreed, and bringing critical thought and valuable questions and lessons to every project he approached. 

The Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library with 500 Boylston in the far background.