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New York State Theater No. 4 - Choosing an Architect

Johnson's History with Early NYCB

Philip Johnson was in some way the obvious choice of architect to design what was to be the dance theater at Lincoln Center. Johnson was born into a wealthy family in Cleveland. He had difficulty in academics and social settings despite his admittance to Harvard. He was slow to discover the direction for his life and career. However, when Johnson began to dabble in interior design in his twenties, “[Edward] Warburg became Johnson's first true client. Johnson found an apartment for him in a fourth-floor walkup on Beekman Place, just a few blocks from his own and from the Barrs.” [1] The name Edward Warburg may sound familiar if you recall that he was a co-founder of the School of American ballet in 1934. Johnson was involved with modern art world and was the first curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. He also attended Harvard with classmate Lincoln Kirstein. For more on Johnson read here.

Johnson and Kirstein

Johnson wrote, “Lincoln Kirstein and I were friends at Harvard. He was always interested in the arts and had many wonderful ideas, but spoke of one with particular passion-to build a theater for ballet in the United States that would house the premier dance company in the world. Lincoln's vision proved a great inspiration." [2]

“Johnson had other figures from his past that he could count on, […] There was also Lincoln Kirstein, who Johnson now considered his closest friend. […] his respect for Johnson's intellect and talent had grown to the point that he considered him America's preeminent architect. Their aesthetic proclivities were neatly aligned." [1]

"Given their friendship and shared sensibility, it was natural that Kirstein chose Johnson to design a theater for his ballet company. Johnson already had some experience in this direction: in 1946 he renovated the public spaces for the associated School of American Ballet, a small, pro bono job." [1]

"The discussions between Johnson and Kirstein about what a theater for dance might look like had begun back then, but with little agreement. Kirstein, the company director, cared little for public space; his concerns were for back of house functions such as rehearsal space, dressing rooms, and offices. Johnson cared not a whit for these things; he was not a dancer and had little taste for the medium. He made this clear to Kirstein in his letter of 1949. 'In regard to the attitude toward designing theaters, you say that I design too much for the ‘house’ and not enough for the action behind the proscenium. I see what you mean of course, but…I think it enhances the emotional pleasure of the parting of the curtains to be sitting in an emotionally arousing space…I would almost say that you cannot enjoy a spectacle if there is nothing but the focus of the performance. You must have ambiance.'" [1]


“On February 10, 1958, the board confirmed Philip Johnson as design architect for the dance theater. Four months earlier, he had accepted an invitation to do preliminary design studies. Johnson was co-architect with Mies van der Rohe of the Seagram building in New York. He was a trustee of The Museum of Modern Art with a long professional relationship to that organization. Among the Center's architects, Johnson was the most articulate, and in group meetings, he played a vocal as well as a creative role.” [3]

1961 Renderings of the future New York State Theater

[1] The Man in the Glass House by Mark Lamster

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