Jan Svenungsson

"Roll onto the square", At a large scale, Statens Konstråd, Stockholm 2000
(ed. Catharina Gabrielsson)

In January 1998 I was in New York. One day I travelled north to visit a Swedish family in one of the rich commuter cities of Connecticut, which I had never been in before. As the car drove in to Westport it occurred to me that New Canaan might be in the neighbourhood. New Canaan was, for me, a name exclusively connected with photographs of a little house made entirely of glass photographed against a background of a paradisiacal autumn landscape. Glass House by Philip Johnson was built in 1948 as the architect's own home. It is one of modernism's most reproduced and most famous buildings — designed expressly for this purpose.

— New Canaan is right by us, my friends explained. Let's go and look for your house!

We travelled along narrow roads among houses and mansions and began to ask our way. Most of the people that we spoke to had never heard of either Philip Johnson or his house. But at last we found it. I was bowled over. One could see it from the road! It lay so open, a property that, besides the glass house, also contained a series of remarkable buildings produced at various times in contrasting styles. Only a dry-stone wall marks out the area and the monumental entrance gate was open. Without thinking we walked straight in and had proceeded a good way onto private ground before we realized that we should not be doing this. As we hurried out again I caught a hasty glimpse of a strangely shaped red and blue windowless building close to the gate. There was not a straight wall to it and the construction seemed most of all like a Fritz Lang expressionistic complex abstract sculpture. This was the Gate House, erected in 1995 and it was the elderly architect's (l) pride and joy (2). This is the only building on the estate that cannot be seen from the Glass House.

What I did not know then, in 1998, was that the perverted origin (if one can say this) of the Gate House is precisely the building that dominates the view from my own window where I live by Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. The proudly named Philip-Johnson-Haus is hardly a masterpiece... Seen from my perspective as an artist it is remarkable that the building has been erected at all. The artist who does not believe in his own work has difficulty in persuading others of its qualities. Are things different for an architect?

In order to be able to monitor the special crossing point for foreigners, named Checkpoint Charlie by the Americans, that cut off Friedrichstrasse — Berlin's former artery — in the middle, during the sixties the East Germans demolished numerous buildings and created a large open space along their side of the wall. During the nineties this space has been filled with a number of new office blocks which all seem to strive as efficiently as possible to eraze the traces of the cold war. Between our building and Johnson's there is a small square which contains two further more or less conscious symbolic additions to this place that is so rich in significances. There is an 8 m tall sculpture by Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen called Houseball which is reputedly concerned with flight and exile and a mosaic in the stone paving, done by anonymous forces, and showing in full scale the floor plan of the church that formerly lay here. Seen from the window there is something unreal about the scene: both buildings and sculpture look like models, the mosaic like a painting.

When in 1990 Philip Johnson was commissioned to design a building for this site he at first thought that it would be the crowning glory of a long and, in every respect, highly changeable career. Berlin was the European city to which he had constantly returned at the end of the twenties and in the thirties; where he had started to formulate himself and his interests; in Berlin he had got to know Mies van der Rohe — and there he had also been struck by less than suitable political ideas that he later renounced. The wall had recently fallen and Johnson was now to build in Berlin for the first time. This was to be both an act of reconciliation and a leap into the future. But things did not turn out as he had expected.

At Potsdamer Platz certain significant exceptions have been permitted but almost all the extensive new building in Berlin during the last ten years has been subject to a strict code of regulations formulated by the city planner Hans Stimmann. The title of the code is "Critical reconstruction" and its aim is that the pre–war structure of blocks and streets should be preserved; that the traditional height of the buildings (22 m facade on the street) shall not be exceeded; that all new buildings shall contain a certain proportion of dwellings and that facades should predominantly be of stone — pure glass facades are not permitted.

In a sense Philip Johnson gave up immediately in that when his first, ambitious proposal was returned to him he rapidly changed position and designed an office building that met all the restrictions (3) — and that is dull. Most of all it is like an overgrown version of the tasteless buildings that have been erected at any of the Americanized shopping centres that have shot up, like fungus out of the ground, on the edges of all the former East German cities. Since the end of the eighties Johnson has claimed to be a deconstructivist — but this building rather re-uses aspects of his postmodernist eighties, even if they are used very lamely. The house is crowned by a sort of ribbon as though to hold it together and to prevent the suggested towers from falling apart from pure exhaustion. The only powerful architecture in the building is the lobby which immediately causes one to think of Anselm Kiefer's paintings of a room in Speer's Chancellery. It is difficult to decide whether this should be seen as an expression of revenge or love.

Johnson gave up the struggle for the building but he did not give up the media battle. Marketing of the Philip-Johnson-Haus had concentrated entirely on portraits of the architect in image and text. As a sort of guarantee the building site (the building was finished in the autumn of '97) was faced with a giant cut-out photo of Johnson wearing classical Corbusier glasses (4).

The major offensive came in the form of a lecture which he held in Berlin — in German (!) — in front of a prestigious audience that included Hans Stimmann. During the lecture — to which I suspect that he had devoted more personal attention than the building — he unfolded an ideal of urban planning which was counter to Stimmann's unifying retro-ideal at every point and which strategically made use of Schinkel as an exemplary model. As the high point of his lecture Johnson presented pictures and sketches of "Berlin Alternative" — the building that he had wanted to build at Checkpoint Charlie if only he had been given permission. This utopian construction consists of two complex forms that twist and turn in all directions in accordance with a plan that pays no regard whatsoever to its surroundings. The project was developed after a visit to Frank Stella's studio and the only architectonic point of reference I can discern is Frank Gehry's museum in Bilbao. At the time the lecture was held, the battle for Berlin had already been lost and, for this reason, Johnson did not need to worry about such trivialities as designing the building's inner structure or positioning the windows. The building remains sculptural form and media theatre — but it has acquired a lovechild in the form of the little pavilion in New Canaan.

The difference between Philip Johnson and me is that while he can enjoy the company of his uncompromising construction at home in the garden in Connecticut on a daily basis, my gaze rests instead on the bastard at Checkpoint Charlie. And this is really very interesting — for both of us! Since buildings cannot be transported anyone interested in architecture has either to seek them out or — more commonly — to consume them in medial form. In the very consciously designed monograph on Johnson's buildings of the nineties which is before me on the table (5), the building in Berlin has not been honoured with a single picture and with merely a few lines of text — while more than ten pages of text and pictures are devoted to the "Alternative" and the lecture. The little Gate House is given twenty pages including a series of pictures with a commentary explaining exactly how the walls were constructed. Medialization naturally strives to steer the conclusions of the reader or viewer. But for the beholder who actually lives in or close to or works in a built object a personal physical experience will take first place! One has all the time in the world — contrary to the situation when one seeks out a building on a journey and attempts with inflamed concentration to experience it in as qualified a manner as possible. These two situations do not have the same resolution. The screen is quite different.

With the exception of the lobby, the architectonic language of the Philip-Johnson-Haus lacks basic fixed points. It is a bad building because there is so little that engages one. And thus it is indifferent, not disturbing the viewer at a casual glance. But when one confronts a building on a daily basis one cannot avoid fastening on some aspect and for me this aspect is a mere detail (which in turn has influenced my consideration of all the other new buildings in Berlin): the building's "Stimmann-friendly" facade is, and is experienced as, a stage set. In New York, in front of the AT&T Building for example, this has never struck me. But for reasons already explained my experience/resolution in this instance has been different. In Berlin I note — and am thereafter unable to ignore — that the facade of the Philip-Johnson-Haus consists of very thin sheets of granite mounted with a gap of 7-8 mm on an interior construction which makes obvious the space behind the sheets. A hard knock and the granite sheet cracks — which has already happened in a couple of places (6).

Traditional sculpture in public places is mounted on some sort of podium or base and its modernist descendant tries very hard to find the precisely correct site where the spatial tension is maximized. Houseball, on the other hand seems just to have rolled onto the square and to have stopped there (7). It gives an accidental temporary impression and this feeling is reinforced when I look too closely at the material: the ball is made of glass-fibre reinforced plastic! This sense of something accidental is exciting when one knows that the work is permanent. But dirt collects in an ugly fashion in the folds of the sculpture — it is easily scratched — and one associates with Disneyland's colourful constructions: is this something positive seen in a longer perspective? I leave the question unanswered for the time being. Art can afford to be flexible. A painting can exploit a careless technique as a way of promoting its content — if the attitude is conscious. No one lives in a painting.

But the building loses even more authority. It is experienced as not quite real, but appears like a CAD drawing printed out on a stone-and-glass printer. Berlin is full of old houses that have survived the war with their stone fronts marked by bullet holes. Frequently the holes have been repaired with carefully carved pieces of stone set in stone. Strolling round and following these traces of the final battle and noting in which windows the enemy was visible gives a peculiar sense of historical actuality. The Philip Johnson building in Berlin will never be able to bear such traces in the future. The stone sheeting of the facade will break into thousands of pieces when shot at. The building will lose its contact with reality; now it is neither credible as a construction nor as an architectural vision.

Houseball, on the other hand, is a digital enlargement (8) of a 35 cm model which, in turn, goes back to a construction made as a prop for a theatrical performance in Venice in 1985. In this way the two fit well together, the building and the sculpture; both refer to a game. From my window the church actually seems less illusory. I do not really know how I should interpret this.

Jan Svenungsson