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Review: An engaging biography records the polemical life of architect Philip Johnson

Review: An engaging biography records the polemical life of architect Philip Johnson
Philip Johnson at 72 in 1978. The architect and architectural kingmaker is the subject of a new biography by Mark Lamster. (AP)

If there is an architect overdue for soapy miniseries treatment on a streaming service, that architect would be Philip Johnson.

Born in 1906, Johnson was the trustafarian from Cleveland who inserted himself into the upper echelons of New York City’s architecture world through social connections, an ample wallet and sheer force of will — and proceeded to dominate it, in one way or another, throughout the 20th century.

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He was a kingmaker: host of exclusive design salons and the founding curator of the influential architecture department at the Museum of Modern Art.

He was also a king: a designer of important Modern and Postmodern buildings — the ethereal Glass House in Connecticut and Manhattan’s controversial AT&T tower, among them — who appeared on the cover of Time magazine and nabbed the first Pritzker Prize.

New York's Seagram building at dusk in 1958, designed by Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson.
New York's Seagram building at dusk in 1958, designed by Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson. (Esto-Ezra Stoller)

And that’s just for starters. Johnson was good looking, with a penchant for well-tailored suits. He had a rapier wit. He liked power lunching at the Four Seasons, the elegant restaurant inside Mies Van Der Rohe’s Seagram Building, which he helped design. His homosexuality was an open secret in social circles — he and curator David Whitney were partners for 45 years — but he was taciturn on the subject in public lest it interfere with big corporate commissions. Johnson, after all, came of age in the 1920s, well before the days of queer liberation and ACT UP, when his gay classmates at Harvard were openly persecuted by a homophobic university president.

Johnson could be wildly insecure, had a habit of churning through friends and struggled with bipolar disorder. In the 1930s, as a young man, he also had a “flirtation” with Nazi politics, as some of his obituaries, in 2005, gingerly put it. In actuality, he was kissing Nazism full on the mouth — a story that materialized in bits and pieces in media reports over the years and which appeared in Franz Schulze’s 1994 book “Philip Johnson: Life and Work.” It was a dalliance for which the architect never paid any real professional price.

In my version of the miniseries, Johnson would be played by Ben Kingsley at his most calculating yet vulnerable. Peter Sarsgaard would be equally dastardly.

Until there is a miniseries, however, there is Mark Lamster’s engrossing biography, “Philip Johnson: The Man in the Glass House,” published by Little, Brown late last year. In this epic biography — it checks in at 500-plus pages — Lamster, the award-winning architecture critic at the Dallas Morning News, not only weaves a compelling, clear-eyed portrait of a complicated and frequently unlikable man, he articulates a larger narrative about life in the United States over the course of the 20th century.

“His story, like the American story, was one of darkness as much as light,” writes Lamster in the opening pages, “a story of inequity and bigotry, of the perils of cynicism, of human weakness and venality, of rampant corporatism, of the collapse of wealth and authority into the hands of a plutocratic class.”

Mark Lamster's "The Man in the Glass House."
Mark Lamster's "The Man in the Glass House." (Little, Brown)

The book covers all the transformative moments of Johnson’s life and career: the emotionally troubled Harvard philosophy student who became enamored of the work of early Dutch modernist Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud. The chance meeting with MoMA founder Alfred Barr that ultimately resulted in Johnson running the architecture department there — and where he organized the 1932 exhibition “The International Style: Architecture Since 1922,” which helped set the baseline definition for Modernism in the U.S.

There was the fraught decision to return to Harvard at the age of 34 to get the architecture degree that would set him up for a career in design — one in which he would evangelize the aesthetics of a stripped-down Miesian Modernism then, decades later, dispose of it in favor of more flamboyant and historicist styles.

Lamster chronicles the late years too, when Johnson began to crank out the behemoth corporate towers that helped turn the profiles of American cities glassy and cold. Early on in his career, Johnson had described skyscrapers as evidence of “American megalomania.” Decades later, when asked about his penchant for designing them, he famously retorted: “I am a whore and I am paid very well for building high-rise buildings.”

Through this architect’s life, Lamster weaves an engaging tale of architecture in the 20th century: the moments of triumph and innovation, but also the maleness, the clubbiness, the snide competitiveness. (On an early visit to Johnson’s Glass House, Mies, upon seeing the home illuminated, likened it to a “hot-dog stand.”)

The book also gets in a pair of absorbing SoCal episodes: the story of a young Frank Gehry, so nervous about meeting the eminent Johnson, he smokes weed to calm his nerves — so much, that he remembers little about it afterward. And there’s the story of how Johnson’s design for the Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral (now Christ Cathedral) in Garden Grove came to be.

Initially, the architect had pitched Schuller a Mission-style church. Schuller sent him back to the drawing board, demanding something a little more California. Johnson responded with the rather corporate glass palace that exists today, a bright made-for-TV space that Lamster describes as “a genuine Chartres of televangelism.”

A trumpeter kicks off the ceremonies on opening day of the Crystal Cathedral on Sept. 14, 1980.
A trumpeter kicks off the ceremonies on opening day of the Crystal Cathedral on Sept. 14, 1980. (Deris Jeannette / Los Angeles Times)
The sun sets over the Crystal Cathedral campus in 2011.
The sun sets over the Crystal Cathedral campus in 2011. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

But it is Lamster’s thorough and pragmatic examination of Johnson’s political activities in advance of World War II that make for some of the most gripping (and surreal) reading in this highly readable tome.

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In 1934, Johnson gave up his perch at MoMA to hit the road so that he could launch a political movement inspired by populism — a movement whose xenophobic platforms were poorly articulated but whose aesthetics were on point (gray shirts and a rocket-shaped logo). His efforts didn’t amount to much.

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“In retrospect the endeavor has an air of satirical fiction,” deadpans Lamster, “or perhaps a psychologists’s case study in what we now call cognitive dissonance.”

But from there, Johnson escalated — following up his U.S. road trip with a visit to Nazi Germany. In 1938, after the annexation of Austria, Johnson went to a Hitler rally and described himself “carried away” by its appeal. The following year, he visited a Polish town that had been attacked by German forces, describing it as “a stirring spectacle.”

Perhaps the most chilling anecdote from this period is about a visit he made to the home of Jewish architect Otto Eisler, whom he knew from his architectural research expeditions to Europe. When Johnson saw him, Eisler had just been held for six weeks in a notorious Nazi prison for disrespecting Hitler. Lamster notes that Johnson did nothing to intervene on Eisler’s behalf, despite the fact that he knew Nazi officials in the propaganda ministry. He also never followed up with Eisler after the war. (The Czech architect attempted an escape, was shot, captured and ultimately sent to Auschwitz — which he survived.)

After Johnson returned to the U.S., it quickly became apparent that his pro-Nazi position was untenable. Investigated by the FBI (he passed off his activities as research), he quietly slipped away to Harvard to work on his architecture degree. Later, he took steps to atone for his misdeeds, designing a synagogue at no charge, doing work for the state of Israel and promoting the work of Jewish architects. Questions of Johnson’s Nazi stint would emerge now and again throughout his career, none with lasting consequences.

“He was never publicly confronted with the full evidence of his complicity,” writes Lamster, “that he was more than a Nazi sympathizer, but an unpaid agent of the Nazi state.”

Philip Johnson's Glass House, in New Canaan, Conn., completed in 1949.
Philip Johnson's Glass House, in New Canaan, Conn., completed in 1949. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

To some degree, this can be attributed to the cocoon of money and power that Johnson was able to build for himself — a high-level echo chamber that in some ways guaranteed his success, and that Lamster lays out in detail.

He used MoMA to promote his work, his friends and his clients — at one point writing a celebratory piece in House Beautiful about a work he had helped commission. Ada Louise Huxtable, who reviewed his buildings as architecture critic at the New York Times, had once served as his research assistant, and Johnson had commissioned her and her husband, an industrial designer, to create the tableware for the Four Seasons. When he was awarded the Pritzker in 1979, the jury included Johnson’s freshman roommate from Harvard and a direct subordinate at MoMA.

The cocoon helped protect the sort-of-secret of his sexuality too. Lamster describes a man of great sexual appetites, who ran in gay intellectual circles and whose Brick House, which he designed for himself in Connecticut, included a “palpably libidinous bedroom.” But who out of insecurity “assiduously avoided making public reference to his homosexuality” until late in life — and even then, was generally reluctant to engage with gay causes. It was only after prodding from Barbara Walters that he began to escort Whitney, his longtime romantic partner, to society events.

Johnson’s first love, it seems, was power and he would do little to risk his hold on it. He was the first “starchitect” — a very public enfant terrible who, as Lamster notes, had an “atavistic need to be the center of attention.”

Lamster’s “Man in the Glass House” makes Johnson the center of the American story — a story about boundless ambition, about idealism swallowed by greed, about the ways in which money is used as cudgel and shield. In this story, the goal isn’t always to be remembered for doing good, but to be remembered at all.

Mark Lamster

Little Brown, 528 pp., $35

Philip Johnson, left, with his longtime business partner John Burgee.
Philip Johnson, left, with his longtime business partner John Burgee. (Esto-Roberto Schezen)
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