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Fifty Years Later

James N. Carder
“What if the rarely discussed Dumbarton Oaks extension of 1963 is the key work?”

In 1979, Philip Johnson would be the first recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which he received in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room adjacent to the Pre-Columbian pavilion that he had created at Dumbarton Oaks over a decade before. After that honor, he would go on to ever greater experimentation in architectural planning and design, and the 1963 Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian pavilion (fig. 43) would be little discussed and all but forgotten by architectural historians and critics. In 2009, the architect Mark Wigley chose to examine this phenomenon in an article he wrote for a study of Johnson’s life work. In reviewing Johnson’s achievements, he asked the question: “What, for example, if the rarely discussed Dumbarton Oaks extension of 1963 is the key work?” He answered:

Looking at the plan, it seems too simple to be celebrated, too obvious, but if we are judging a kind of minimalism, the word simple, even simplistic, is no longer negative. Looking at the interior effect, it seems not simple enough, too rich to be celebrated, even too much gold. But are we so sure? Perhaps the reluctance of the field to discuss such a project, let alone celebrate it, has to do with our reluctance to leave behind the very narrowly defined image of modern architecture that Johnson and Hitchcock edited down for us. . . . Our fear of this work, and I believe it is a fear, is a fear of seduction by that which lies just outside the rules, outside the law. The gallery is some kind of frozen yet sensuous space, an erotic refrigerator. One can feel the abstract coolness but also the endless refinement of the surfaces negotiating the complex play between inside and outside. It is a sophisticated variation of the Glass House, a reaction to people’s reaction to the reaction to Mies, and it helps us to see how the seemingly antithetical figures of Mies and Soane could have been linked, and were in fact always linked before Johnson made the connection. . . . Mark Wigley, “Reaction Design,” in Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change, Emmanuel Petit, ed., foreword by Robert A. M. Stern (New Haven, 2009), 21617.

Philip Johnson at Dumbarton Oaks: Figure 43
Figure 43. Pre-Columbian Pavilion Re-Installation, 2008. (AR.DP.MW.PC.044)