Prince of the City

Philip Johnson: Life and Works

by Franz Schulze
Knopf, 465 pp., $30.00

Philip Johnson: The Glass House

edited by David Whitney, edited by Jeffrey Kipnis
Pantheon, 174 pp., $35.00

The Oral History of Modern Architecture: Interviews with the Greatest Architects of the Twentieth Century

by John Peter
Abrams, 320 with compact disc pp., $67.50

Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words

by Hilary Lewis, by John O’Connor
Rizzoli, 200 pp., $50.00

If, as the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, “the monuments of wit survive the monuments of power,” then Philip Johnson might be remembered by future generations after all. Johnson, who will begin his ninetieth year next summer, is unlikely to be regarded very highly as an architect, however. During an exceptionally fortunate career of more than half a century—propelled by personal wealth, social connections, quick intelligence, ambition, skill at self-advertisement, dazzling charm, a sturdy constitution, impeccable timing, and an instinct for gravitating toward the powerful—he has produced only half a dozen structures of any real distinction. Some great architectural reputations rest on even fewer works, but they are not contravened, as in Johnson’s case, by a much larger proportion of poor designs.

Johnson’s carefully cultivated image as the perpetual enfant terrible of his conservative profession has been based both on his legendary role as co-curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s epochal Modern Architecture: International Exhibition of 1932, which had a revolutionizing effect on American architecture equivalent to that of the 1913 Armory Show on American painting, and his support of a new generation of avant-garde architects from the 1970s onward. Yet throughout his career he has been bound to convention, albeit high-style convention, ceaselessly shifting his style to suit his perceived sense of the Zeitgeist. Symbolic of Johnson’s establishment role in sponsoring those younger architects has been his series of private, black-tie dinners for them at New York’s Century Club. His work has been good in direct proportion to who it is he has been copying.

Johnson first became a disciple of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Berlin in 1930, when the young American was in Europe gathering material for the forthcoming MoMA show and its accompanying publications. (He collaborated on the exhibition, its catalog, and a more extensive book with the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock.) Johnson came from a rich Cleveland family which gave him an independent income; he was then twenty-four and had graduated from Harvard with a degree in classics and philosophy. Unschooled in architecture but inspired by a chance meeting with Alfred Barr, founding director of MoMA, Johnson threw himself into the pursuit of the new way of building (which Alfred Barr named the International Style) and founded the museum’s department of architecture. Johnson declared Mies the greatest living architect, not least of all because among the top modernists he lent himself the most readily to copying well.

Johnson took up the formal study of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1940, after a decade during which both he and Mies had been seriously compromised by their dealings with the Nazis. Mies had sought commissions from the new German government, and Johnson had been the enthusiastic co-founder of an American fascist group beginning in 1934. Mies left Germany for good in 1938 and was teaching at the Armour (now Illinois) Institute of Technology in Chicago. But Johnson had no intention of submitting to the …

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Letters

Prince of the City’ May 25, 1995