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Deconstructing Philip Johnson

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What the architect’s life—and myth—can teach us

Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. A new book by Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster examines Johnson’s life and legacy.
Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. A new book by Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster examines Johnson’s life and legacy.
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As in American politics, business, entertainment, and the arts, it’s a time of reckoning for the field of architecture.

The industry suffers from a lack of diversity and gender inequality, which penalizes women, especially those with children. And, earlier this year, sexual harassment allegations against Richard Meier brought the #MeToo movement to architecture’s proverbial doorstep.

Into this conversation enters Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster’s The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century (Little, Brown and Company). The book is a valuable account of Philip Johnson’s life, but it also goes beyond being an individual’s biography, setting an example for the historical treatment of flawed geniuses.

Philip Johnson fans will appreciate the book as an unflinching account of the man they think they know. History buffs will appreciate it, too, for its accounting of the events that set America on its current trajectory, laying the groundwork for a 21st century of steel, concrete, and glass.

“His career mirrored American life of the postwar years, marked by increasing corporatization and the concentration of power and wealth among a privileged few,” Lamster writes. “By the time of [Johnson’s] death, celebrity had become the chief form of public currency.”

Lamster tackles Johnson’s life largely in chronological order, listing all of the identities Johnson adopted: curator, politician, playboy, interior designer, journalist, propagandist, soldier, architect. A chapter on each of these roles would make a fine book—but it’s not the book Lamster’s written. Similarly, Lamster moves through each of the architecture movements embraced by the mutable Johnson: modernism, postmodernism, new classicism (or formalism) and deconstructivism. This would make a good structure for a biography, but it isn’t the one Lamster’s chosen.

Instead, in order to understand Johnson you have to understand operas, specifically those of Richard Wagner, whom Johnson admired so much that he exclaimed: “I had thoroughly convinced myself that I had slaughtered the whole world and that god and I were rejoicing in it,” after a performance. (This quote is included twice in Lamster’s book.)

Wagner, beloved by Hitler, changed the structure of the opera with his embrace of the leitmotif—a musical theme returned to repeatedly. In Lamster’s The Man in the Glass House’s, Johnson’s selfishness and privilege is the book’s leitmotif.

“He was a gay man with a fascist history living in a glass house, and he liked nothing better than to throw stones,” writes Lamster early in the book, establishing the transparency with which we will view Johnson’s life. This is the way to offer a moral critique of a seminal figure: you make it part of the score, not merely an aside.

We learn that in the period leading up to America’s entry into WWII, Johnson indulged his sympathies with Hitler and advocated for a racially “pure” America in his own writings. “That so many of his friends and so many of the artists and architects he admired were Jewish didn’t matter; he compartmentalized those feelings,” Lamster explains. Johnson toured Nazi Germany, as if on holiday, in a limousine “so rare…many presumed the chief passenger was Hitler, traveling incognito.”

Most heartbreaking, however, is a 1939 encounter between Johnson and Otto Eisler, whom Johnson once called “the best architect in Czechoslovakia.” Johnson dropped in, as if on a normal visit, while the Jewish Eisler was dealing with daily harassment from the Gestapo. Improbably astonished at Eisler’s situation, Johnson nevertheless did the bare minimum to help him escape, writing to architect J. J. P. Oud instead of presenting his case to any of the Nazi officials he was then cozy with. He also did not check up on him after the war (he survived Auschwitz). For Johnson, “violence was always a fantastic vision and never an actual threat,” Lamster writes later in the book.

Arguably, Johnson’s greatest contribution to the public good was his role in establishing an architecture program at the nascent Museum of Modern Art in New York (the museum opened in 1929). The 1934 show “Machine Art,” which Johnson curated, changed the course of design history worldwide through the display of household objects as fine art. “He set a faucet in isolation on a pedestal, as if it were a Greek statue. Other pieces he lined up on custom-designed walnut tables and on shelves of black and white Carrera marble… The message was clear: This new art of the machine was not just for the museum, but accessible to every American family,” says Lamster.

Johnson’s position at MoMA was helped by the fact that he wasn’t taking a salary—in fact, he was funding the department. “The Depression had but a small impact on Johnson’s lifestyle; if there was somewhat less money to count on, it was still enough to live grandly, especially when other people could be purchased so cheaply. And buy them he did,” writes Lamster.

Even as the museum highlighted solutions for middle-class and low-income housing, alongside utopian concepts for urban planning, these subjects didn’t captivate Johnson. “When it came to the substantive economic and policy questions that might actually alleviate the housing crisis, Johnson had nothing to say,” Lamster writes.

This was true, even as Johnson tried to unseat Huey Pierce Long Jr. as the nation’s populist darling in the 1930s. (“For all his talk, Johnson never actually considered sharing his wealth in any real or significant way. But he was burdened by it.”) Johnson’s political activities attracted a ragtag crew of Nazis and Klansmen. When he didn’t get the mainstream popularity he craved, Johnson used his wealth to shroud himself in an aura of innocence.

And it wasn’t the first, or last, time he would do so: In 1940, he returned to Harvard to study architecture, and attempted to prove his patriotism by forming a campus chapter of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.

“I do not believe in principles, in case you haven’t noticed,” Johnson once remarked to fellow architect César Pelli. The inclusion of this quote in his biography certainly includes several layers of meaning.

When people talked—and they did—Johnson used his money to turn the conversation back to his high taste and patronage. He lived in performative spaces, even before he built the titular glass house, first turning over his New York apartment to the interior stylings of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, then convincing his Harvard professors to let him build a prefabricated house as his senior thesis.

That this house was in a tonier neighborhood than professors like Walter Gropius could afford did not go unnoticed. Nevertheless, Harvard awarded him the American Institute of Architecture’s medal of excellence for this self-financed project. When his wartime activities (including distribution of Nazi propaganda) caught up to him, wealthy friends interceded on his behalf. As he strategically shape-shifted between political alliances, Johnson also moved from genre to genre in the architecture field. This, he did with much more grace, and it’s why many love him today.

“As an architect, Johnson grew up with [the Seagram Building],” Lamster writes. Johnson’s role in ferrying the commission to Mies van der Rohe helped him step out from his idol’s shadow with the adjacent design of the Four Seasons restaurant. Shortly after, Johnson checked off more boxes with his first institutional commission: a synagogue in the suburbs outside the city. In order to ensure he won the project—and the favorable optics that went along with it—he offered to do the job for free.

“In his lectures he criticized America’s business-oriented culture and the so-called military-industrial complex… Johnson’s own hypocrisy undercut his criticism of American business culture. He freely admitted his own culpability in the system he decried,” Lamster writes.

The Man in the Glass House uses Johnson to link the ‘starchitect’ designation to America’s wealth inequality. “The boom times of the Reagan era had arrived, and city skylines across the country were being reshaped by towers with tacked-on columns and pediments and any number of historical references. For that Johnson was responsible, and nobody took greater advantage.” In 1979, Johnson was awarded the inaugural Pritzker Prize.

What is said in The Man in the Glass House is as important as what is left unsaid. “If you’d indulged every one of your whims that you had when you were a kid, you wouldn’t be here with a job either,” Johnson tells Charlie Rose in a 1990s interview. Lamster doesn’t point out the irony of this interview. He doesn’t have to. Lamster also recounts a limo ride Johnson shared with Donald Trump on the way to see Trump’s Atlantic City casino, the Taj. “You have to treat [women] like shit,” Trump counseled Johnson. We all know how that turned out.

Readers will likely finish Lamster’s biography seeing the concepts of American exceptionalism and the virtuosic lone starchitect in the same light: myths created by those with power to reserve said power for a select group.

As in a glass house, the author leaves Johnson’s dark history no corners in which to hide. The enduring cultural problems Lamster lays out should be treated with the same transparency—it’s time America got its own glass house in order.

Daisy Alioto is a writer and social media strategist in the Hudson Valley. She graduated from Bowdoin College in 2013.