In response to:
Prince of the City from the December 22, 1994 issue
To the Editors:
I don’t make it a practice to respond to reviewers, but Martin Filler’s “review” [“Prince of the City,” NYR, December 22, 1994] of my biography of Philip Johnson prompts me to reverse that policy, since in ways both large and small it misrepresents what I have written. Filler has chosen—which is his right—to devote most of his attention to his own views about Johnson rather than to mine, but since he has used my book in his arguments, I think a few things need to be cleared up.
Filler recites the facts of Johnson’s political past, all taken from what I wrote (but not so credited), then decides that I gave Johnson a pass by drawing the disappointingly modest conclusion that he was a “trifler.” Filler cites a quotation from my text, but abridges it. More completely it says:
The debate over [Johnson’s] political activities of the later 1930s tends to overshadow a major irony: The amount of power he yearned for was inversely proportional to the amount he actually attained. In politics, he proved to be a trifler, the dilettante he earlier feared himself to be, a model of futility who sought to find a messiah or to pursue messianic ends but whose most lasting following turned out to be the agents of the FBI—who themselves finally grew bored with him. In short, he was never much of a political threat to anyone, still less an effective doer of either political good or political evil. The audience to which his writings appealed proved small and inconsequential…to the extent that his actions can be made out, they were decidedly unheroic, meriting little more substantial attention than they have gained.
The characterization of Johnson’s politics of the 1930s as repellent is spelled out in more detail in my book than in Filler’s essay, but it is not inconsistent with the view that Johnson ended up a trifler at the game, not a potent, heavy-duty villain.
Further to the matter of Johnson and fascism, Filler erects several bridges between politics and architecture that do not support the weight he puts on them. The resemblance he cites between Johnson’s Sheldon Memorial Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Paul Ludwig Troost’s House of German Art in Munich rests on an unsubstantiated subjective assertion. He is also apparently unaware that the ornament on the gate of Johnson’s Roofless Church in New Harmony, Indiana—akin in Filler’s mind to that “of Nazi villas”—was applied, against Johnson’s wishes, by the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, who, as a proud Jew, was hardly likely to seek inspiration in Nazi decor.
There are other things wrong in Filler’s piece—details in quantity that he could have gotten right—or at least disputed—had he paid better attention to what I wrote. To wit: Johnson did not help Mies van der Rohe emigrate to America. (On two separate occasions, enumerated in the endnotes, Johnson denied having known in the 1930s of Alfred Barr’s role in arranging an American commission for Mies that the record shows led to Mies’s permanent move to the United States.) Nor, as I tried to suggest, is there any proof that Johnson as early as 1930 was preparing the famous 1932 exhibition of modern architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. Filler also leaves the reader with the impression, already well amended elsewhere, that the name International Style was thought up by Barr alone. I was at pains to show that the origins predate Barr’s usage and involve more people than Barr. And while I did not write much about the cost of the house Johnson built for himself in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Filler’s claim that it was “hugely expensive” seems contradicted by its price tag of $24,000, hardly princely by 1942 standards.
Filler’s devotion to his biases carries over to his apodictic insistence that “there can be no hope of understanding Johnson’s place in the architectural landscape of his time without reference to its central figure,” whom he identifies as Louis Kahn. Surely Kahn (to whom I do refer, more than once) was a great architect and greater than Johnson, but whether that makes him as important to Johnson’s “place” as, say, Mies, or architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock or museum director Alfred Barr or for that matter, Friedrich Nietzsche, requires better argument than Filler gives it. He spends several paragraphs in a variation of the old Moses-Aaron moral: Kahn was awkward and Johnson smooth, Kahn had to struggle while Johnson had it easy, Kahn was inarticulate, Johnson verbally facile. Such a scenario is the stuff of a Disney movie. Kahn doesn’t merit reverence simply because he came from the school of hard knocks, nor is Johnson to be scorned for having been born to privilege and having taken productive advantage of it—indeed, given his legendary energy, the implication that he could “avoid concentrated work” is just plain unfair.
Filler gets closer to the heart of the matter when he contrasts, though again somewhat deceptively, the “nihilist” position Johnson ascribed to himself in the 1990s with Kahn’s belief—of 1961—that architecture can embody noble values. Yet in fact, when Kahn made his statement (“We are not contributing to the making of our institutions greater…Architecture, at least, can do its part in making the spaces in [an institution] great),” Johnson was discussing architecture more often than not in almost identically high-minded terms (several instances cited in my text). What Filler fails to add or explain is that Johnson in the ensuing three decades has looked at the mess all of us have made of the planet and decided that neither the words nor the works of the most loftily motivated architects and patrons can keep the modern commercial world from constantly riding roughshod over the noble values, except in isolated instances. The low priority of high ideals is, practically speaking, built into the contemporary system.
Is that cynical? Probably. Johnson is a cynic, but he is no less a realist, and there is something to be said for realism in the face of the increasingly vast and unmanageable urban world of the late 20th century.
What else is he? An unreconstructed esthetic formalist and a social elitist who is little touched with compassion for humankind or the commonweal. It is hardly surprising that he has led a frequently amoral personal life, which is precisely why I discussed his romantic liaisons the way he reported them to me himself—with a candor Filler could find only “embarrassing.” Johnson is also an indefatigable power broker, whose talent for networking is awesome, not to say frightening, and whose unsentimental worldview is reflected in his admiration of such anti-Enlightenment thinkers as Nietzsche, De Maistre, Sorel, and Lichtenberg. Yet in his dedication to the arts and his own extraordinarily wide-ranging cultural achievements he is a demonstrably serious, thoughtful figure of historical significance. The seriousness is concealed by the famous wit and the notorious dissimulations and even the occasional intellectual brutality. But he is a man of measure, love him or not. The central message of my biography is that Johnson is a far more complicated and fascinating piece of humanity than Martin Filler manages to portray in his one-dimensional image.
Department of Art
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois
Martin Filler replies:
Franz Schulze’s more extensive citation of his assessment of Philip Johnson’s political culpability only reinforces my opinion that the author is insufficiently sensitive to the enormity of Johnson’s transgression, whatever Professor Schulze’s definition of “a potent, heavy-duty villain” might be. As I noted in my review, the comparisons between Johnson’s work of the 1960s and Nazi architecture were made by the architecture critic Charles Jencks, and far from representing “an unsubstantiated subjective assertion,” those affinities are supported by direct visual analysis.
Johnson, as Professor Schulze points out in his book, has a sometimes elastic notion of truth. Thus, although Johnson told Professor Schulze otherwise, the architect said to me in a 1988 interview that “perhaps my greatest accomplishment was getting Mies to this country.”* Given Professor Schulze’s statement that “according to Marga Barr and Philip, Alfred on his own thought of the same name” for the International Style, it seems fair to say that Alfred Barr named it. Even though Walter Gropius wrote a 1925 book called Internationale Architektur, and the term “International Style” had been used previously by art historians to characterize one tendency in fifteenth-century European painting, its best-known application can be traced directly to Barr’s decision, as director of the Museum of Modern Art, to use it for the 1932 exhibition.
The price of Johnson’s own house in Cambridge was indeed quite high for 1942: Frank Lloyd Wright’s comparably sized Goetsch-Winkler house of 1939-1940 in Okemos, Michigan, cost just under $6,600. Cost is always relative to one’s means, and Johnson was then a rich man. In Hilary Lewis and John O’Connor’s Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words, the architect says, “It was a little expensive. In those days, of course, it seemed like nothing…. The house, believe it or not, is prefabricated. This very tricky system worked all right, it just cost about twice what stud walls would have cost…. The most expensive way you could possibly imagine building.”
The surprising naiveté Professor Schulze demonstrates throughout his book is underscored by his characterization of my contrasts between Johnson and Louis Kahn as biblical (I think he means Jacob and Esau—“Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man”—not Moses and Aaron) and simultaneously suitable for a Disney scenario. In fact, it is precisely through personal presentation that many Establishment architectural commissions are decided. No, Johnson does not deserve “to be scorned for having been born to privilege,” and I do not believe I did so, but his dilatory professional practice during the first decade of his career shows little evidence, in architecture at least, of “his legendary energy.”
Professor Schulze does indeed mention Kahn six times, though his cursory treatment of the preeminent American architect of Johnson’s generation in a book of over four hundred pages does merit my phrase “only in passing.” Kahn is so generally accepted as the leading figure of the period by most architectural historians that in an essay on Johnson more extensive pleading on Kahn’s behalf seemed to me beside the point. As high-minded and reminiscent of Kahn as Johnson’s statements about architecture may have been (though Professor Schulze here chooses not to quote them), Johnson’s actions to me speak louder than words.
I, for one, do not consider Johnson’s homosexuality to be “amoral,” or even immoral. What I found embarrassing was not Johnson’s descriptions of his sex life but rather Professor Schulze’s writing. Finally, I did praise Johnson’s considerable contributions to the arts and acknowledge his significant role in late-twentieth-century American culture. It is a pity, however, that his first biographer was not up to capturing that “complicated and fascinating piece of humanity” with the subtlety, sophistication, and moral insight that the subject requires.
Martin Filler, “Philip Johnson: Deconstruction Worker,” Interview, May 1988, p. 109. ↩