The Ohio-born Johnson, who was the Museum of Modern Art's first curator of architecture, was responsible for bringing European modernism to America, by arranging the visits of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Later, he collaborated with Mies on New York's Seagram Building.
Johnson's contributions to the performing arts included the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, along with the center's plaza; the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center; and the National Center for the Performing Arts in Bombay.
He designed the New York State Theater in 1964 for the New York City Ballet, in collaboration with choreographer George Balanchine, as a theater specific to the presentation of ballet. Balanchine and NYCB founder Lincoln Kirstein wanted a stage floor, for example, that would render dancers' footsteps inaudible to the audience; unfortunately, the opera performances in the theater suffered, and in the early 1980s the theater was given an acoustic overhaul.
Johnson also collaborated with Balanchine on scenic designs for the choreographer's 1981 Tchaikovsky Festival. With his partner John Burgee, Johnson created sets of translucent tubing.
He also created chapel architecture, adapted for the stage, for Peter Martins' and Robert La Fosse's staging of Michael Torke's Missa Sicca.
Johnson was the first winner, in 1979, of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. He went into semi-retirement in 1989, and retired officially in 2004.