The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Lost and Found
Archives are living, breathing and surprising enitities, which people sometimes forget until something unusual turns up, and particularly when it’s something that’s hard to believe escaped earlier detection or collection. That was the case in late July when a news post on the Architecural Record’s website reported that a “trove” of late-career sketches, tracing, and renderings by the influential and controversial architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) was going up for auction. All, that is, except for one big ticket item, a striking large scale, hand-drawn rendering of Johnson’s AT&T Building, the 1984 icon of postmodernism, which has been auctioned off for $70,000 to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and will be featured in an exhibition on post-modernism exhibition scheduled for next year.
There are already significant archives of Johnson materials in institutional collections—at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he played a central role in founding the architecture department, designed the Sculpture Garden and oversaw gallery expansions; Columbia University; and the Getty Research Institute. But this cache of materials--more than 25,000 objects documenting 120 projects from 1968-1992—according to further reporting in the New York Times in early August--includes materials related to such well known buildings such as the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., PPG Place in Pittsburgh, as well as to other major and minor projects that never made it off the drawing board.
The NY Times article tracked down ownership of the material, which had been in storage for years, to Raj Ahuja, one of Johnson’s former partners, who was awarded the materials in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy settlement with his and Johnson’s former partner John Burgee, in 1995. Burgee, interestingly, contends that the collection is not so important, “It’s mostly working drawings and drafting drawings,” he commented. “We purposely didn’t keep design sketches because they weren’t good enough. Philip was sensitive that he didn’t want his hand drawings shown anywhere.”
We’ll leave it up to other architects, historians, and collectors to duke out the material’s ultimate interest and/or value. But from an archival perspective, the story is a high-profile reminder of (a) how historical materials and artifacts regularly dis- and re-appear and (b) the not-so-distant time when architectural ideas were still being worked out on paper, before they went digital and became, perhaps, even more ephemeral and hard to keep track of.