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Review: ‘Man In The Glass House’ – The New Bio of Architect Philip Johnson

by Jerome Weeks 2 Nov 2018 5:52 PM

Like him or not, Philip Johnson was the biggest influence on modern American architecture. In a fine new bio, ‘Dallas Morning News’ critic Mark Lamster evaluates the man and his work.


Five years ago, I heard Mark Lamster was working on a new biography of architect Philip Johnson. In that case – I joked when we met – moving to North Texas wasn’t the best idea.

At the time, Lamster had been appointed associate professor at UT-Arlington and the new architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News. The move here wasn’t the best idea because, as I noted, over the years, Johnson had gifted us with some of his decidedly lesser works, such as the nobly-intended-but-persistently-lugubrious JFK Memorial and the nobly-intended-but-clumsily-wedged-in Thanks-Giving Square and the nobly-intended-but-life-threateningly-dangerous Fort Worth Water Gardens.

And then there’s the Crescent, which like many late-Johnson projects, wasn’t nobly intended at all. The upscale hotel-retail fortress manages to be lumbering and frivolous at the same time, Frankenstein’s monster decked out in French lace.

What’s more, judging from Johnson’s media profiles over the years – plus what seemed a youthful fling with fascism – I took the man to be vain and cynical. As Johnson himself snapped defiantly in 1983, “I don’t have any principles, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

For his part, Lamster responded to my joke by saying he wasn’t writing a biography of Johnson because he thought all his buildings are great. Or that he even necessarily liked the man. “I think what makes him interesting is that he was deeply flawed,” he said, and that Johnson deserves a new bio because he was a major force in modern American architecture.

True. And that attitude – clear-eyed, knowledgeable, on-target – is what Lamster brings to The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century. He’s also peppered his book with droll observations. When World War II began and a desperate England was gearing up its defenses against Germany, the visiting Johnson tutted: He didn’t much care for all those “baggy volunteer uniforms.”

The Man in the Glass House is worth reading partly because Johnson, who died in 2005, was such an outsized influence, such a conflicted character – and because capturing him between book covers is like hammering mercury. It’s a task Lamster pursues with deftness and determination. He will not let the man or his achievements and blunders get away with easy deflections. Towards the end of the 528-page book, this Javert-like pursuit starts feeling long — but then, Johnson stayed active well into his nineties.

This is the first time, for example, we’ve encountered a thorough account of Johnson’s totalitarianism. Not just his anti-Semitism or the ‘Grey Shirt’ uniforms he designed for his homegrown, American fascist party (no baggy pants for them). All that, we knew. But Lamster even looks into whether Johnson, during visits to Germany in the 1930s, was a Nazi informant. Or whether Johnson used Nazi funds for his political efforts back in America – a federal crime.

The Glass House, designed by Johnson, 1948-49. Photo: Thomas Nemeskeri/Flickr.

“There is no evidence, however, that he violated American law,” Lamster concludes – partly because Johnson was wealthy enough to underwrite such projects on his own. For him, fascism was about Triumph of the Will-style theater and Nietzschean elitism – and not politics, economics or military tactics, about which he knew little. Whatever his motives, by 1940, Johnson was the subject of five FBI case files. Not exactly a resumé to attract future clients.

Lamster’s title gives an indication of the brilliance, contradictions and self-serving manipulations he uncovers in this would-be übermensch. The Man in the Glass House refers to what is still one of Johnson’s most famous, beguiling achievements: the Glass House (1948-49), his transparent home that seems to hover on a Connecticut overlook. It’s obviously indebted to Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house in Illinois while rendering that master’s inspiration into a crystalline minimalism.

But the title also echoes The Man in the Glass Booth, the novel-turned-play-turned-film by Robert Shaw. That story follows a rich industrialist who’s apparently a former concentration camp commandant hiding out in a Manhattan penthouse. But – much like Adolph Eichmann, the inspiration for Shaw’s tale – he’s kidnapped by Israeli agents and given a public trial in Jerusalem. Even here, though – locked inside a bulletproof glass box – the mystery of his real identity persists.

‘Le Croissant Tres Grand.’ The Crescent, designed by Johnson/Burgee, 1985. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Johnson, Lamster writes, had similar issues with ‘apparent transparency.’ He’d admit to indiscretions or influences in order to hide other indiscretions or influences. He espoused historic preservation and the ideals of what we now call ‘the new urbanism’ – while he ignored them when his own projects called for bulldozing entire city blocks.

In short, Johnson’s is a deeply American story: He kept re-inventing himself as needed. Fortunately for him, he had the means to shed his skin and make his new identities matter.

Amid all this, Johnson did help produce masterworks. The Seagram Building in New York (1958) is perhaps the single most influential skyscraper in the country, a testament for contemporary materials being used for contemporary ends, making 38 stories of bronze, steel and glass soar. And, naturally, there’s the Glass House. Upon first sight, it can feel like a  beautiful truth, modernism in one of its purest forms.

As even Johnson admitted, his house and the Seagram owe a great debt to Mies van der Rohe’s “International” style. Mies was the lead architect on the Seagram, but Johnson was heavily involved in courting, promoting and advising him. As Lamster makes clear, this would become one of Johnson’s chief roles: He would be the conduit for modernist architecture to enter the mainstream. Along the way, he transformed an avant-garde, leftist, European aesthetic into the quintessential, upscale style of the American Corporate Century: sleek, structural, efficient, simple-looking and bold.

Sad but not in the right way: The JFK Memorial, Philip Johnson, 1970. As the plaques note, Johnson wanted to revive the ancient Greek ‘cenotaph’ – or ’empty tomb’ – as an evocation of all that we lost. It didn’t work. Photo:

In From Bauhas to Our House, Tom Wolfe mocked the utopianism of many modernist architects, including Johnson. Their purist’s disdain for old-fashioned, decorative flourishes on buildings was an aesthete’s idea of a proletarian revolution. It was, Wolfe argued, a push for the plain and functional as a symbolic chopping-off of fancy, crowned heads.

Unsubtle as usual when it comes to parsing politics and art, Wolfe didn’t recognize that Johnson loathed socialist architects like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier with their blocks of workers’ housing (Johnson “frankly had no interest in the average American family,” Lamster notes drily). His modernism was not radical or utilitarian; it was intended to be chic and sophisticated like a jeweled watch. And it certainly didn’t bother about ‘fitting into’ the cityscape. A Johnson building is typically designed to stand out proud and dashing, to gain attention against everything nearby – as if a skyline were a competition and he’d won.

Ironically, and all too quickly, Johnson’s grandstanding, ‘glass box’ style was cheaply co-opted for almost anything: hospitals, banks, college administrations, apartment towers, department stores. It is still the bottom-line-minded urban world we live in today: glass curtains on tall steel frames everywhere.

In a Paris Review interview in 1981, author Donald Barthelme objected to a central tenet of modernist architecture. The son of the architect who designed the Hall of State at Fair Park, Barthelme was a literary post-modernist avant la lettre. His beef against modernism was its sense of coercion, the idea that if people would live in beautifully-designed buildings, we’d all lead beautifully-designed lives. We should just live as the designers would have us live and not mess up all the clean designs. Our architectural surroundings certainly influence us, and sensibly laid-out cities can make our lives more congenial and efficient. But cities are rarely logical; they’re wonderfully messy, human accretions. And you’re not a better person because you sleep in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. That conflates morality with taste and consumerism. Which, by now, is practically a basic principle of American cultural life.

It certainly was the very air that Johnson breathed. Yet his life and work bear witness to Barthelme’s point about polished art not really reflecting, influencing or redeeming our messy lives. As meticulous as he was with designs, Johnson couldn’t run an office (once in charge, he didn’t like sharing the spotlight). In general, he enjoyed upending things, blowing up accepted practices. It was the source of his incredible energy and inventiveness; it also made him seem like the entitled, pouty, slighted child he was, fighting to gain attention and acclaim. (He did have serious daddy issues: His lawyer-investor father disapproved of Johnson’s homosexuality.)

In this light, it’s odd that Lamster doesn’t report what Johnson thought of Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead – though perhaps Johnson never read it or ever saw the laughable, 1949 film adaptation. If he did, Johnson probably would have hated its overblown style. And its hero, the uncompromising architect Howard Roark, was inspired by one of Johnson’s bête noires, Frank Lloyd Wright.

On the other hand, Rand’s architect, the towering genius who deserves to brush aside the principles of lesser mortals, certainly chimes with Johnson’s own aims: “Submission to an artistic dictator,” he wrote about how to run a design team, “is better than an anarchy of selfish personal opinion.”

Pennzoil Place in Houston, designed by Johnson. 1976. Photo: Pennzoil.

It should come as no surprise that Johnson morphed into a corporate opportunist and aesthetic magpie. By the ’70s, he found big-money havens in Houston and Dallas. And by then, like many other designers, he’d been trying to bust out of the ‘glass box’ for years. He produced a remarkable variation on it by splitting one in two for Houston’s Pennzoil Place (1976). But it was a signal: The possible variations on that theme were running out. He soon turned to rummaging through history for decorative nuggets he could paste onto office buildings and impress his clients with their fancy new headquarters. This was his substitute for real opulence. He surfaced towers with sleek stone or gave them elaborate entrances, barrel vaults, sconces and ziggurat rooflines (Houston’s Republic Bank Center).

Once upon a more dogmatic time, Johnson dismissed the Chrysler Building’s detailing as so much kitsch. Now, such retro embellishment was what he peddled. Even as post-modernism was becoming what Lamster calls the most reviled style of the 20th century, Johnson completed his apotheosis. His famous Chippendale-roofed AT&T building put him on the cover of Time in 1979. That same year, he was the first winner of the Pritzker Prize. He’d become “the most prominent skyscraper architect in the world.”

Still, taking the long view, Johnson’s personal and professional makeovers are eyebrow-raising. How did a rich kid from Cleveland, a sharp but unfocused Harvard student, a wannabe power broker eager to advise Huey Long or better yet, bankroll his own right-wing candidacy, a dashing gay man who enjoyed both Nazi rallies and slumming at Weimar Berlin cabarets, an exacting designer who earned his architect’s license in Connecticut because the requirements there were easier than New York’s – how did this character become a towering advocate for architecture? A friend of Jackie Onassis, the poster child for post-modern ‘starchitecture’ and the mentor for such next-generation talents as Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Richard Meier and Zaha Hadid?

As Lamster shows, his crucial step was becoming – of all things – a museum curator. In the early ’30s, Johnson was still in college, but he was already zipping through political, intellectual and architectural wardrobes, trying on whatever he found chic. He became part of an arts-centric Harvard circle that included Alfred Barr, who’d become the first director of the fledgling, Rockefeller-backed Museum of Modern Art. At MoMA, the post of curator – part academic researcher, part interior decorator – played to Johnson’s strengths and desires. He didn’t hesitate to use his money to gain influence. He loved to decide who was in and who was out – to be the tastemaker, to be the Pope. He also liked to be modern, to be ahead of everyone else but with flair, not intellectual rigor.

The Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, designed by Johnson, 1995. Photo: Jerome Weeks

And he loved putting on a show. He wanted to grab people’s attention and shape what they should think. All this made for a genius curator. Johnson put together several of the most influential shows of the 20th century, including “Machine Art” (1934) and the first survey of Mies’ work (1947). The New York Times declared Johnson an “exhibition maestro” – for what was only his third professional effort.

The young Johnson was driven by a desire for architecture to be showcased in a serious art museum and not treated, as it had been, like vacuum cleaners in an industry expo. Most importantly, he intuited that a museum exhibition should be more than just a display of artworks for us to appreciate. It should hammer home an argument – “to take what was academic and make it polemic,” as Lamster writes.

Meaning, an art show could be a classy form of propaganda. It could help Johnson promote the architects he approved of, the ones who could help promote him. Along the way, he could nab some commissions. His Rockefeller Sculpture Garden for MoMA (1953) remains a tiny but miraculous Manhattan oasis, a peaceful wedding of ponds, sculpture, trees and marble.

Johnson leveraged these conflicts of interest and insider dealings – plus his own talents and ambitions – into a late-blooming career as an architect. Ultimately, Lamster argues, Johnson was a hollow man, and by the end of this unvarnished look, it’s impossible not to agree. Within the first 30 pages of Lamster’s book, Johnson tells his mother “I have no convictions, concepts, beliefs at all. It is necessary for me to be at this stage a thorough eclectic.” A decade later, Frank Lloyd Wright dismissed him as “a self-advertising amateur and high-powered salesman.”

But there is something to be said for the salesman, the American showman – or the impresario, as Lamster also calls Johnson. Would the profession have achieved the prestige it did, would all of those talented designers have the careers they’ve had – without him? Possibly. According to Scott Timberg’s Culture Crashin the past decade, we’ve lost one-third of all architecture jobs in this country. Even high-profile firms have cut back. There may always be ‘celebrity designers,’ but perhaps the era of the starchitect is fading – mercifully.

So now, imagine someone who could put architecture and urbanism back into a serious, popular, national conversation like it was with Johnson. Or after Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. That would take something of a salesman.

Let’s grant that Johnson’s influence on the profession wasn’t entirely pernicious – and I agree with D Magazine‘s Peter Simek that much of it was pernicious. But there’s still the question of his own artistry, much of it wasted or junky. For me, some of Johnson’s most affecting designs – the sunlit atrium in the Amon Carter Museum, MoMA’s Rockefeller Garden, the Glass House, Pennzoil Place, the sadly-unfinished, tucked-away Cathedral of Hope in Dallas – these designs achieve two things. One, they’re modernist as architecture but also as modernist sculpture: They’re like something by Brancusi, Moore, Judd or Arp. They seem perfectly shaped, self-contained and beautifully balanced and proportioned.

Bizarrely enough, they also have some element of serenity. Yes, serenity. An early review of Lamster’s book described his Philip Johnson as “often joyless.” True. Even when Johnson is crackling with energy and purpose, there’s an unpleasant edge to him. It’s as if he couldn’t be happy unless he was putting something over on someone. Or getting back at someone. Or defeating everyone else.

But give the devil his due: In contemplating these architectural spaces, their shapes, the light on them, I can imagine this jaded, hateful, insecure, brilliant man having at least fleeting moments of peace. A sense of the ‘inevitability’ in his best designs. A serenity.

Because when I see them, that’s what I feel.