The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster

The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster

Overview

A detailed biography of Philip Johnson in chronological order. The American Architect who became kingmaker during the rise of the modernist movement in the U.S.A. after WWII. A floored genius, a copyist, a playboy, politician and propagandist. This book sets the standard so far in my reading for an Architectural biography both in personal and professional detail.

I do not believe in principles, in case you haven’t noticed.

—Philip Johnson, 1982

The Man

You can fall over the names of famous Architect who succumb to the money and commissions of the dictators, whether fascist or communist, so they can get their ideas built. Corbusier’s collaboration with the Vichy government comes to mind, but the way Johnson, who even tried his hand at running a Fascist party in his native America, collaborated with the Nazi regime is particularly galling.

A closeted gay man he really should have known better but the logical end game of these ideologies he had no qualms about. Driving around in his car a hit and run waiting to happen, or calmly washing his hands of responsibility for example when visiting the Czech Architect Otto Eisler who as a Jew was being harassed by the SS, Johnson just breezed on through.

A kingmaker and self dealer especially in his role at MoMa which helped prop him up. Even in his many acts of kindness or generosity it’s hard to read as anything but cynical ploys.

The Buildings

But Johnson’s vision of this new architecture was deracinated. He presented modernism as a style, a new aesthetic, rather than a progressive way of thinking about the built environment.

– Mark Lamster

The ultimate stylistic polymath his moral vacuity is on show here too. Modernism came with a strong social progressive content which Johnson ably stripped from it and instead served up a codified style which getting bored of he changed again and again; modernism, postmodernism, formalism and deconstructivism.

As implied in this book he probably didn’t even do this consciously. Merely it was the idea of social progress and the meaning of Architecture being anything other than aesthics to him was absent.His buildings cover the gamut between genius and dumb, he produced both fantastic buildings and dross.

Five of the Best Johnson Buildings

  • The Glass House, New Canaan, 1949
  • The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, New York, 1953
  • The Seagram Building, New York, 1958
  • Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, 1961 
  • AT&T Building, New York, 1984

Five of the Worst Johnson Buildings

  • American Business Center, Berlin, Germany, 199
  • St. Basil’s, Houston, 1997
  • Riverside South, New York, 1998-2005
  • Hines College of Architecture University of Houston, 1985
  • 1001 Fifth Avenue, New York, 1978

Conclusion

An illuminating and engaging book about one of the great founders of Modernism, how he was able to keep on top of the profession for so long is carefully and ably illustrated in this book. A great book about a not so great human being.

Book Quotes

The two decided to collaborate on a book project, an illustrated guide to modern architecture, with photographs and brief descriptions of the newest buildings…..That they were more interested in how this architecture looked than in how the buildings functioned or the new way of living they embodied was reflected in their willingness to “sacrifice the best buildings if they don’t photograph well.”

Johnson now abhorred those purely functional architects who renounced any aesthetic impulse as a bourgeois conceit. Johnson’s new architecture could both embrace functional logic and achieve beauty. “While the architect accepts the machine age, he also transcends it,” he wrote. “The modern architect builds to reveal beauty of construction, plan, and materials.”

Beyond ego, Wright simply rejected Johnson’s way of thinking about architecture. For Wright, the idea of a style achieved by following a set of predetermined aesthetic principles was abhorrent. He saw architecture as something wholly different—an expression of individual artistic genius tailored to the exigencies of contemporary life and the natural environment.

Was Johnson a willing victim of the German propaganda machine or something far more sinister: the Nazi spy Shirer believed him to be? Ernest Pope, another American journalist who knew Johnson in Germany, corroborated Shirer’s assessment. In a 1943 interview he told the FBI he suspected Johnson was an informant for the Gestapo.

Modernism, which he had championed as a discrete style—“I do not believe in perpetual revolution”—would henceforth be understood as a form subject to perpetual revolution.

Johnson’s contradictory nature was more than intellectual gamesmanship. Duality was his essential makeup, the product of the psychological condition—a form of bipolar disorder—that had afflicted him since he was young. For much of his life there were two Philip Johnsons, one manic and animated by possibility, the other profoundly damaged, lost, diffident and insecure. Being gay in a time when homosexuality was unacceptable, and certainly unacceptable to his father, only exacerbated the problem. There had to be multiple Johnsons, one intimate and disguised, the other a public performance.

As important as what he favored was what he did not: architecture for families, architecture and the environment, regional and vernacular architecture, mass housing. Social responsibility was boring, and for Philip Johnson to be boring was an unforgivable crime.

Further Reading

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