An architect, curator and patron, the Cleveland native brought glass-box modernism to America, then led the postmodern revolt against that style with a skyscraper shaped like a Chippendale highboy. He then championed another stylistic shift, popularizing the fragmented forms of such notable contemporary architects as Frank Gehry. He was, at the height of his influence, known as much for his understated elegance, disarming wit and towering prestige as for his multimillion-dollar skyscrapers.
In 1932, Johnson helped mount a design show at New York's Museum of Modern Art that introduced Americans to the sleek, machine-age buildings of Germany's Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the Swiss-born architect known as Le Corbusier. It was the most significant architecture show of the 20th century, changing the world's skylines from mountains of stone to shimmering prisms of steel, glass and concrete.
In 1979 Johnson became the first winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, often referred to as architecture's equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
Johnson's projects ranged from his much-praised Glass House in New Canaan (1949), a serene steel and glass box that is part of a private estate containing several structures he designed, to the classically influenced New York State Theater at New York City's Lincoln Center to such sprawling religious structures as the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. Completed in 1980, that 4,000-seat mega-church was designed for "Hour of Power" television preacher Robert Schuller.
A sample of Johnson's singular style came in 1992 when, during a visit to Chicago, he held court at The 95th, then the name of the restaurant on the 95th floor of the 100-story John Hancock Center.
Wearing his trademark round black-frame glasses, which were set off by his neatly clipped white hair, and turned out in a double-breasted, dark gray Armani suit, with gold cuff links by Paloma Picasso, Johnson made the restaurant's crystal chandeliers and scalloped draperies seem tawdry by comparison.
Asked what he remembered most about Mies, who emigrated from Germany to Chicago in the 1930s, Johnson replied: "Mainly the martinis. He was a four-, five-martini man. He was much more entertaining after the martinis."
For all his quick wit and the glitter of his résumé, Johnson was hugely controversial.
Critics labeled him facile and easily bored, which explained, they said, why he flitted from one style to another, never mastering any of them. Johnson also was accused of anti-Semitism, drawing fire for his flirtation with fascism in the 1930s.
As Chicago scholar Franz Schulze documented in his 1994 biography of Johnson, the architect expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler during the 1930s and even attended a 1932 rally in Potsdam, Germany, at which Hitler spoke.
Later in his life, Johnson dealt amicably with Jewish clients and Jewish cultural figures, even designing a nuclear reactor in Israel that was completed in 1960. In the 1980s and 1990s, he helped promote the careers of Gehry and Peter Eisenman, two of America's preeminent architects, and both Jewish.
"Obviously, we forgave, but we didn't forget," Gehry said Wednesday. "Nobody forgets. But forgiveness for him was, I guess, easy. He was so powerful a force for the good in our profession that it overwhelmed all the negatives."
Born in Cleveland on July 8, 1906, to Homer and Louise Johnson, Johnson received a gift of Alcoa stock from his father, a wealthy lawyer, and went off to Harvard to study philosophy. As the once-risky stock split endlessly, he became a millionaire and indulged himself in European travel, taking his Cord convertible with him.
By 1932, that travel and his passion for architecture allowed Johnson, then ensconced at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock to put on a spectacularly successful show, "Modern Architecture-International Exhibition."
It presented the crisp, glassy structures by Mies, Le Corbusier and other European modernists, codifying those buildings as a style and stripping them of the Europeans' idealistic notion that architecture could change the way people live. The approach became known as the International Style.
During the 1940s and 1950s, under the spell of Mies, Johnson worked on the master's lordly Seagram Building in New York, an exquisitely proportioned corporate headquarters faced in bronze. Johnson designed the skyscraper's Four Seasons Restaurant, a classic power-lunch venue in Manhattan.
He also produced persuasive Miesian works of his own, such as the Glass House, which owed a great debt to Mies' Farnsworth House southwest of Chicago.
The International Style became dominant in the post-World War II boom years, so much so that the skylines in America and around the world became interchangeable forests of glass boxes. That led to a revolt in the 1960s by such architects as Robert Venturi of Philadelphia, who was later joined by Johnson.
In 1967, Johnson took another important step that would affect his future, teaming with the more practical architect John Burgee, who worked for the Chicago firm C.F. Murphy & Associates.
At first, influenced by minimalist sculpture, the Johnson-Burgee partnership did such distinguished variations on the steel-and-glass box as the IDS Center in Minneapolis, a 51-story dark glass tower.
Johnson-Burgee followed that success in 1976 with Pennzoil Place in Houston, a pair of twin trapezoids built by the real estate developer Gerald Hines, perhaps the single most important client in Johnson's career. Pennzoil won critical acclaim, in part, because its slant-roofed tops seemed to dance with one another as drivers whizzed by them on Houston's freeways.
In 1978, Johnson shocked the world when the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. unveiled his design for its corporate headquarters in Manhattan, a stone-clad building with the "Chippendale" top and a base with grandly scaled arches that mimicked the exterior of a much smaller Italian Renaissance chapel.
The historicist design, which represented a sharp break from the very flat-roofed, steel-and-glass modernism Johnson had once so ardently championed, incited furious critical debate.
Whatever one thought of it, AT&T (now Sony Plaza) introduced the postmodern era of skyscrapers and other buildings that often drew heavily from historical precedents.
Johnson engaged in another stylistic flip-flop, abandoning postmodernism for the approach to design called Deconstructivism, which fragments, warps and skews orthodox, right-angled geometry.
That shift occurred in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, "Deconstructivist Architecture," which Johnson curated. It featured eight architects, several of whom - Gehry, Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas - since have ascended to the profession's highest levels.
Although the show may have been farsighted, critics accused Johnson of appropriating its subject matter from younger architects.
Johnson's other designs included private houses, college campuses, public plazas, theaters, department stores and a civic center in Peoria. He also designed a brassy reflective glass exterior for Donald Trump's skyscraper at the southwest corner of Manhattan's Central Park in 1997. It replaced the original 1968 exterior.
After Johnson and Burgee split in the early 1990s, climaxing a long-running conflict over control of the firm, Johnson's output of large-scale buildings dwindled. But his passion for architecture did not. He did smaller buildings, including a Deconstructivist gatehouse at his Connecticut estate. And he continued working, though at a reduced pace, until last October, when retired because of failing health.
In 1992, Johnson was asked about a criticism frequently leveled at him - that his obsession with style had turned architecture into a succession of fashions rather than a field that responded to pressing human needs, such as decent housing. "I'm only interested in the cutting edge of architecture," he replied without apology. "Why do I change all the time? I think the world changes its mind faster than I do. I'm just trying to keep up."
He was asked if he would be remembered as a great architect -"No," he replied firmly - or as a great tastemaker.
"A tastemaker, perhaps. Or as a critic, rather. Or a cultural figure," he said with typical self-mockery. "It's hard to say what I do."