First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.
9 Ash Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Date completed: 1942
Getting the Gig:
Most architect's early careers are littered with unbuilt concepts and experimental dead-ends, a paper trail of ambition that finally comes together for a long-awaited first project. Philip Johnson was the rare architecture student who was not only able to realize his thesis project, but see it finished before graduation. Of course, few students could boast of the credentials and connections he had in the early '40s, when the then 35-year-old was enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
A critic, writer and early advocate of Modernism who had already worked at MoMA, Johnson had coined the term "International Style" and sponsored Mies van der Rohe's first visit to the United States (and got him to design his New York apartment). Few could also claim to have the means to purchase land and fund construction. Johnson's father had bought stock in ALCOA, the American aluminum company, when he was young, and the proceeds from that investment, along with his family's fortune, gave him incredible freedom (he was a millionaire in his '20s).
If that didn't make him stick out enough among his classmates, his plan to purchase an acre lot on Ash Street and construct his thesis project, a small home inspired in large part by Mies's court house concepts, was soon going to set him apart even further.