Mark Lamster has written an absorbing new biography of the architect and tastemaker Philip Johnson (1906–2005). Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., is the sleek glass box where the privacy of hearth and home surrenders to minimalist design. It made him famous in 1949, and he died in it. He swiped the basic design from German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, never denied it, and made a glorious career borrowing, tweaking, and subverting the work of many others. Oh, and in the 1930s, he was a Nazi. Details, details, Johnson would argue. As Lamster shows, there’s quite a bit of devil in all those details.
Johnson was America’s first “starchitect,” probably, along with Frank Lloyd Wright — the only architects most Americans could name. Lamster is a renowned architecture critic who writes about Johnson’s projects with authority. The Seagram Building, the AT&T Building, parts of the Museum of Modern Art, and the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center are his best-known New York projects. Johnson worked throughout the country, though, specializing in corporate headquarters, museums, and homes.
Johnson’s architectural career had good and bad moments. His buildings are monumental and anonymous, with clean lines, symmetry, and lean forms. He was modern and edgy but not a pig about it, the first winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architectural achievement, and the designer of choice for any corporate mogul wanting a trophy building on the one hand but, on the other, not desiring to leave shareholders aghast. Many of his buildings, even churches and museums, look like malls.
Lamster profiles the man through events, choices, and character. Johnson’s Cleveland family was rich but not dysfunctional. His father settled a fortune on him when he was young. He was as out of the closet as a man of his time could possibly be. He spent time in the Berlin of Cabaret, went to Harvard, fell in love with architecture, and, with ample cash to toss to and fro, landed in the circle of Lincoln Kirstein and the founders of the Museum of Modern Art.
A 1958 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, surveyed Johnson and about 40 other architects in an effort to determine what qualities make people most creative. Johnson described himself as autocratic, bitter, boastful, bossy, complaining, cowardly, cruel, deceitful, irresponsible, intolerant, immature, moody, opportunistic, prejudiced, sarcastic, and unfriendly. Lamster is an artist in conveying Johnson as a living, breathing embodiment of every one of these qualities.
Johnson’s wealth opened doors, as did his Harvard and Cleveland connections. But, most of all, the Rockefeller family, the founding benefactors of the Museum of Modern Art, trusted him. For 40 years, MoMA was his platform. Start-ups are exceedingly fluid and porous, and MoMA, as venerable as it is today, is still reinventing itself. Johnson was a curator, a trustee, its architect, and one of its most important donors of art. Lamster’s story is about MoMA, too, and about New York City’s ups and downs.
The book has many wonderful moments. There’s Johnson’s road trip to Baton Rouge to meet Huey Long and foment a revolution together. Having flopped at that, he tried to run for the legislature in rural Ohio on an amalgam platform drawn from Father Coughlin, the Ku Klux Klan, the America First movement, and the local Rotarians. During World War II, at age 37, he was drafted: a gay curator-aesthete, called “Pops” by his colleagues in boot camp, writing home to his rich parents, wailing for “candy, candy, candy!”
Today, the shrillest among American left-wingers try, fairly or not, to tar anyone who disagrees with them as a Nazi or a fascist. I doubt many could say more than a few coherent words about what either term meant, much less about what they would mean today. In Johnson, we find the real article, as Lamster admirably and amply shows. In the 1930s, Johnson wanted to be the American Hitler. Why? Was it country-club anti-Semitism? Elitism inspired by Nietzsche? Naïveté in the extreme? An overfondness for Wagner, spectacle, or all those chiseled blond boot-steppers? We can speculate, but what we mustn’t do is compartmentalize, as did Johnson’s boosters and acolytes. His beliefs were horrid. The time and energy he spent trying to effectuate them were so considerable that forgiving and forgetting are bad options. He must have been an incredibly useful man for so many of his contemporaries to have overlooked or excused them.
Lamster concludes that “duality was his essential makeup, the product of the psychological condition — a form of bipolar disorder — that had afflicted him since he was young.” He argues that Johnson’s homosexuality further roiled an already turbulent personality.
I don’t buy any of this. I’m happy to say Johnson was a disgusting person with sparks of genius. He was a brilliant courtier. He knew how to make rich, vain, insecure people trust his aesthetic judgment. He was a talented networker who built countless careers, mostly by plunking work he didn’t want onto the plates of up-and-coming architects. He was a supremely adept self-promoter in the marketing capital of the world. He lived practically forever and in the richest time and place on earth. He was a superb detailer. Though the basic design of the Glass House was someone else’s, Johnson put it through nearly 80 revisions, mostly focused on elegant, small touches. Technically, he was barely competent and always had serious backup help. He was a master of seeing the big picture. Lamster balances that big picture, the small touches, and much in between with a flair Johnson might very well admire.