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 laborious curriculum set up by the former Bauhaus teacher in that provincial outpost. He was mainly interested in assimilating Mies’s perfectly rationalized, readily adaptable style—with its flat roofs, steel I-beam framing, and large glass and brick panels. And that he could do in the comfort of Cambridge, where he built himself a hugely expensive Miesian house, which also served as his senior thesis project.
Johnson put what he learned from Mies to the cleverest possible use in what is certain to be his best-remembered building, the celebrated Glass House of 1949–1950 in New Canaan, Connecticut. That minimalist structure, in which the walls are made of transparent glass panels, is now the centerpiece of eight subsequent structures Johnson has erected on his wooded estate; it is the subject of Philip Johnson: The Glass House, an anthology of nineteen previously published essays by Johnson and, among others, the architectural historians Francesco Dal Co, Kenneth Frampton, and Vincent Scully. The book was edited by David Whitney, a freelance curator and editor who has been Johnson’s companion since the early 1960s, and Jeffrey Kipnis, a Johnson protégé since the 1980s.
Johnson designed the Glass House not only as a country retreat but also as an architectural coup de théâtre guaranteed to capture widespread public attention. The original idea, as he freely admitted in his 1950 article in The Architectural Review, came directly from Mies, who designed the similar Farnsworth house in Plano, Illinois, in 1946, but did not complete its construction until 1951.
Mies had always intended his structural vocabulary to form the basis for a new language of architecture that could be widely used; copying was a basic component of his pedagogical method. Yet Johnson’s audacious use of Mies’s concept effectively eclipsed its source, despite significant differences between the two buildings. Nonetheless, since Johnson had given Mies his first American job (Johnson’s own New York apartment of 1930), helped him emigrate to the United States eight years later, and organized the 1947 MoMA retrospective on his work, Mies was scarcely in a position to complain publicly, though he chided Johnson for its poor detailing during a visit to New Canaan. The complex personal, professional, and institutional relations between Johnson and Mies provide a good example of the web of patronage and power Johnson has deftly woven around himself over the years.
For a decade after the Glass House was completed, Johnson continued to work in the Miesian mode, which was readily adapted by other architects as well and quickly became the official style of the American corporate establishment. Several of Johnson’s commissions derived from his MoMA connections (after leaving the museum in 1934, he returned to the staff between 1946 and 1954; he has been a trustee since 1958). Those include an addition to the museum of 1951 and a Manhattan guest house the same year for Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, major benefactors of the institution. Johnson’s most memorable project of the period was the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden of 1953 at MoMA. Collaborating with the landscape architect James Fanning, Johnson created a sequence of subtly defined spaces that remains one of the great oases of New York City. Having passed the test of time equally well in New York are Johnson’s quietly glamorous interiors for The Four Seasons restaurant of 1959, in Mies’s Seagram Building, for which Johnson served as the Chicago-based master’s local associate architect.
At a time when large architectural firms mimicked the elaborate patterns of organization of their corporate clients, Johnson’s office remained a small operation. Despite his closeness to several members of the Rockefeller family, their big commissions generally went to Wallace K. Harrison of Harrison and Abramovitz. For commercial clients in search of foolproof, tasteful modernism, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was the architect of choice.
Johnson’s intense competitiveness—a characteristic that he has generally kept hidden behind a façade of debonair insouciance—put some distance between himself and his professional confreres. At a time when architecture remained very much a gentleman’s profession, a club that Johnson could easily have joined, he stood aloof. “I’d rather talk to younger people with ideas than my contemporaries,” Johnson said years later. “One’s contemporaries are not interesting. One has either jealousy or contempt for them, and they’re both very ugly feelings.”1
In one of the more insightful passages of his long-awaited biography, Philip Johnson: Life and Work, Franz Schulze writes:
This much we know about Philip: He yearned for success, thirsted for it, and was ever so good at achieving the look of it, if not always the substance. Yet he was given to growing bored, a reaction hardly consistent with the real mastery of whatever he undertook. Charmed by his own facility, he was not sure he could be more than facile, with the result that he would strive all the harder to succeed again, preferably in a new realm, taking up an unfamiliar challenge.
By the late 1950s, the expressive limitations of the International Style—imposed in part by the highly restrictive view of modernism put forth in Hitch-cock and Johnson’s codifying exhibition and books—had become increasingly apparent to many architects and critics. Disposed to thinking about architecture primarily as a matter of style, Johnson was at first skeptical of contemporaries like Eero Saarinen who were seeking a way out of the dead-end of late modernism. As Johnson said in 1955, in a conversation recorded in John Peter’s The Oral History of Modern Architecture: Interviews with the Greatest Architects of the Twentieth Century:
In fact, I think the striving that Saarinen is going through, which is a real struggle in his soul, his Finnish, Nordic temperament is really hard at work trying to break this effect that he thinks is one influenced by Mies van der Rohe…. But if anybody can change this style, or change this style phase, to use a minor subdivision of a style, let them try.
One who did, and succeeded heroically, was the greatest of Johnson’s contemporaries, Louis Kahn, whose monumental geometric forms, inspired by Roman architecture and the Beaux-Arts tradition, sought to restore a civic grandeur to American architecture that commercialized modernism wholly lacked. Kahn is mentioned only in passing in Schulze’s biography, which is unfortunate, for there can be no hope of understanding Johnson’s place in the architectural landscape of his time without reference to its central figure. Five years older than Johnson, Kahn was not nearly so well-favored. Both men got late starts on their building careers, in part because of the hiatus imposed by World War II. (Johnson served as a private in the US army; Kahn designed war-workers’ housing.) Even before then, Kahn was held back by the difficulty of supporting himself during the Great Depression, while Johnson was able to avoid concentrated work thanks to a private income that supported his quicksilver nature, varied interests, and short attention span.
What came easily to Johnson, a born improviser, was a challenge to Kahn, a congenital questioner. The fluent Johnson could spin out glib justifications for virtually any architectural invention, while Kahn, talkative but inarticulate, labored to give voice to his lofty ideas. Johnson, though no draftsman, was never at a loss for a striking architectural concept, albeit a shallow one. Kahn, who drew beautifully, came to his profound designs only after the most intense effort. Odd-looking and awkward in manner, Kahn could never appeal to mainstream clients. Johnson, handsome, well connected, and dapper, had no trouble convincing the establishment that he was one of them. Kahn’s career, even after he received belated recognition, was a continual struggle; Johnson’s has been relatively smooth.
In the dispiriting aftermath of the postwar building boom, when it was clear that the early idealism of modern architecture had given way to easy exploitation by real estate developers, Kahn and Johnson reacted in very different ways. In 1942, Johnson’s classmate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Carter H. Manny, Jr., had written,
Phil is a brilliant man. It is too bad he is so cynical—and worse, that he is resigned to doing nothing about it. I am going to make an effort… to restore in him some of the ideals that he once had, but lost.
Whether or not Manny tried, he apparently did not succeed. In Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words, a lavishly illustrated volume of interviews conducted by Hilary Lewis and John O’Connor, the octogenarian Johnson says:
My philosophical outlook dates from a time and a way of thinking that differs from the liberal, acceptable, politically correct line that we all subscribe to today. To me, Plato was the worst—living the good and the true and the beautiful. There’s no such thing as the good or the true or the beautiful. I’m a relativist. I’m a nihilist.
No wonder that Kahn’s work, with its attempt to find modern equivalents of inspiring classical structures, has always made Johnson uneasy. In a 1961 interview recorded in The Oral History of Modern Architecture, Kahn expressed his very different belief that architecture is indeed capable of embodying the values Johnson so sharply rejects. As Kahn said:
We are not contributing to the making of our institutions greater and greater and greater. [What we hope is that] the spaces themselves can evoke a creative attitude toward the institutions because the men who work in it will be greatly elevated into the seriousness, or you might say into the glory, of contributing to this institution. Architecture, at least, can do its part in making the spaces in it great.
Had Kahn not died in 1974, had he been granted the two extra decades of life and work that Johnson has enjoyed, it is still doubtful that he would have had a broader impact on American architecture. Kahn was seen as the conscience of his profession by the late 1960s, but his patronage came almost exclusively from cultural, educational, and religious institutions, which were also the source of Johnson’s early work. When we consider the extent to which architecture reflects prevailing commercial values, he could never have made the transition to corporate architect that Johnson achieved after Kahn’s death.
Faced with changing public tastes, Johnson has never had the slightest difficulty in throwing off one style for another. When corporate clients in the late 1950s briefly responded to the decorative neoclassical modernism of such fleetingly fashionable architects as Edward Durell Stone and Minoru Yamasaki, Johnson, who had long harbored romantic tendencies, embarked on what he has called his “Ballet School Period” (in part a reference to his biggest commission until then, the New York State Theater of 1958–1964, a job he received thanks to the influence of his old Harvard friend Lincoln Kirstein, a founder of the New York City Ballet. Virgil Thomson said the theater’s promenade, ringed with narrow catwalks screened with lacy golden grilles, reminded him of a women’s prison in New Orleans. The symmetrical pair of travertine stairways leading from the ground floor to the promenade suggests more authoritarian models).
Loosened from the rigor of the Miesian formula, which had at least assured his work a certain dignity, Johnson plunged into one of the worst phases of his career. The single exception was his Museum for Pre-Columbian Art of 1963 at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, a delightful showcase with curving glass walls and travertine columns which plays with classical ideas in a series of lilting and diverting circular spaces.
Charles Jencks, always one of Johnson’s sharpest critics, titled his witheringly acute essay on Johnson’s efflorescent phase “The Candid King Midas of New York Camp.”2 Jencks discerned a darker seam among all the glitter of Johnson’s work of the 1960s. Unafraid to draw parallels between Johnson’s sympathies of the 1930s and the architecture of his post-Miesian period, the critic likened Johnson’s Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery of 1963 in Lincoln, Nebraska, to Paul Ludwig Troost’s House of German Art of 1933–1937 in Munich. In another book, Modern Movements in Architecture,3 Jencks noted close similarities between the gate of Johnson’s Roofless Church of 1960 in New Harmony, Indiana, and those of Nazi villas, and wrote that the New York State Theater “resembles Fascist work of the Thirties.”
It was not any moral indignation on the part of Johnson’s clients or even a general understanding of his perverse references to other, more sinister, buildings that caused Johnson to abandon the decorative mode by the end of the 1960s. It wasn’t getting him the commissions he wanted. It is difficult now to recall that until Johnson’s two great high-rise projects—the IDS Center of 1968–1973 in Minneapolis and Pennzoil Place of 1972–1976 in Houston, both influenced by minimalist sculpture of the period as well as the crystalline forms of German Expressionist architecture—he was still a marginal figure in his profession. Not until 1967, when he had hired John Burgee, a Chicago architect with corporate experience and twenty-seven years his junior, did Johnson at last begin to move his firm toward the lucrative tall-building commissions he had always craved. His two handsome office towers—especially Pennzoil, done for the Houston real estate developer Gerald Hines, who went on to become the most important client of Johnson’s career—put Johnson and his new partner in a position to take full advantage of the next boom in the construction cycle, after the recession that plagued the architectural profession during the 1970s.
Charles Jencks has written that Johnson’s work of the 1960s amounts to “the Camp reading of High Culture.” Johnson’s work of the 1980s can, I think, be more accurately described as Kitsch, one of the classic definitions of which is a familiar object transposed into an incongruous new use, such as a Leaning Tower of Pisa pepper mill or a Statue of Liberty lamp. Johnson has merely inverted the usual shift in scale of large to small. His major buildings of the period are generally perceived as involving dubious transpositions: The AT&T (now Sony) Building of 1979–1984 in New York as a giant Chippendale highboy; the PPG corporate headquarters of 1979–1984 in Pittsburgh as the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament redone in mirror glass, and the 53rd at Third building of 1983–1985 as a colossal lipstick. Such works exemplify Johnson’s sorry attempts at approximating the playful transformations of architectural sign and symbol carried off by only the most adroit post-modernists. More offensive is Johnson’s University of Houston School of Architecture of 1983–1985, an appallingly bad copy of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s House of Education project of 1773–1779. With just enough cost-cutting modifications to keep the resemblance intact, this caricature of Ledoux’s scheme provides students of architecture with an example of Johnson’s cynicism at its most extreme.
Schulze’s book describes in absorbing detail the subsequent unraveling of the Johnson-Burgee partnership. No less ambitious than his senior collaborator, and worried about the survival of the firm after its founder’s death, Burgee proceeded to reduce Johnson’s role by degrees until he pushed him out completely in 1991. It was a fatal mistake for Burgee, who underestimated the extent to which Johnson’s sheer force of personality was the source of the office’s fortunes. Within months, a ruinous financial settlement won by another of the firm’s partners forced Burgee into bankruptcy.
Johnson, free of any liability, blithely set up shop in smaller premises elsewhere in the Lipstick Building and continued to attract important clients. Ransacking historical and contemporary architecture for ideas as avidly as ever—Byzantine one moment and Deconstructivist the next—Johnson now cites Hermann Finsterlin, an obscure German Expressionist designer, as one of his major current influences. Finsterlin, who outlived most of his contemporaries, was assiduous in courting historians and overstating his role in the Expressionist movement; several books now accord him a much higher place among his peers than he deserves. But he knew, as does Johnson, the ultimate strategist, that history is written by the survivors.
Perhaps Johnson will be best remembered as one of the more entertaining wits of the late twentieth century. “I’d rather sleep in the nave of Chartres Cathedral with the nearest john six blocks down the street than I would in a Harvard house with back-to-back bathrooms,” he declared in the 1950s as part of a diatribe against routine institutional construction. With well-informed competitiveness he tried to dismiss Frank Lloyd Wright—an insuperable Oedipal figure whose epic life span overlapped Johnson’s for more than fifty years—as “the greatest architect of the nineteenth century.”
Johnson’s pleasure in perversity has remained a central trait. In 1959, at the height of modern architecture’s dominance, he warned an audience at Yale that “you cannot not know history.” After he had slyly abducted postmodernism from the academy and peddled it to the corporate establishment, which wanted something more eye-catching than the standard flat-topped glass boxes of late modernism, he characteristically contradicted himself, assuring listeners in Fort Worth in 1993 that “you cannot know history!”
Compounding Johnson’s penchant for shaping the truth to fit the needs of the moment is his biographer’s own occasional faulty grasp of facts, especially in architectural matters. The most notorious of all Johnson’s pronouncements is “I am a whore,” his cynical acknowledgment that architecture alone among the arts requires outside patronage before a work can be executed. Johnson has repeated it on numerous occasions, including a professional conference whose proceedings were published in 1985. Yet the phrase first appeared in book form in 1973, when it received far more attention than the uproar Schulze alleges it caused a dozen years later.4 Similarly, the author’s claim that Johnson’s Rockefeller guest house of 1951 was “the first piece of International Style modernism on the city’s East Side” is off by two decades; among several other examples are two 1930s townhouses by William Lescaze, whom Hitchcock and Johnson included in the International Style show. And the Weissenhofsiedlung, a demonstration modern housing estate built for an exhibition in Stuttgart in 1927, was by no means, as Schulze states, a “commune.”
Perhaps in a misguided attempt to capture Johnson’s mercurial personality in print, Schulze’s treatment of the architect’s private life, and especially his homosexuality, is no less than embarrassing. As a boy, Johnson—whom the author annoyingly refers to as “Philip” throughout—was “a brunette with an exquisitely shaped face…and a pair of lips that bring Ganymede to mind.” One mate of Johnson’s “had the bearing and the manner of a colt, not nearly so pliable or passive as his predecessor.” And in trying to describe Johnson’s contradictory nature Schulze writes, “He who had sweated and sighed in the arms of lovers hastily picked on the streets of Weimar Berlin…could be the most fastidiously self-abnegating puritan in his glass palace in Connecticut.”
More disturbing is his handling of Johnson’s political past. As was the case with Schulze’s admirable 1986 biography of Mies van der Rohe, one of the most anticipated portions of this book was a full account of the architect’s dealings with the Nazis. Mies, an apolitical German who had already accepted work from the Communists and tried to get jobs from the Nazis, at least had the excuse of struggling to survive in his native land. His activities from 1933 to 1938 were deplorable but understandable.
Johnson’s enthusiasm for Hitler is harder to justify. It has been a matter of public knowledge since William Shirer first wrote about it in Berlin Diary in 1941, describing Johnson in the German capital after the outbreak of war as “an American fascist who says he represents Father Coughlin’s [weekly paper] Social Justice. None of us can stand the fellow and suspect he is spying on us for the Nazis.” During his frequent trips to Germany in the late 1920s and 1930s, Johnson (whose cool, distant father, a lawyer, had investigated pogroms against Polish Jews for the US government after World War I) became mesmerized by the Nazis, attending party rallies and taking an official Sommerkurs für Ausländer, a lecture series for foreigners on the movement’s beliefs. His attraction was based partly on the homoerotic undertones of Nazism (“all those blond boys in black leather,” as Johnson told Schulze) but mainly on the theories of racial superiority espoused by Hitler and his supporters. As Johnson wrote in an American paper, The Examiner, in 1939:
At the basis of the Hiterlism mystique is the notion of “race.”… If…we overlook the terminology that Hitler inherits from Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain—and that has become so repugnant to Americans because it has been made to appear primarily anti-Semitic—we shall find a different picture from what we had been led to expect by reading excerpts from the more lurid German “anthropologists.” Reduced to plain terms, Hitler’s “racism” is a perfectly simple though far-reaching idea. It is the myth of “we the best,” which we find, more or less fully developed, in all vigorous cultures.
For all the persistent rumors about his actual record, few people had read Johnson’s articles for Social Justice until the architect and critic Michael Sorkin courageously published excerpts from them in an article on Johnson’s culpability in 1988.5 Time has not dimmed their virulence. In 1939 Johnson wrote that France “has let the one group get control who always gain power in a nation’s time of weakness—the Jews.”
In 1944 Johnson’s friend Lincoln Kirstein wrote that, in his view, Johnson had “sincerely repented” of his former fascist beliefs and that he “understood the nature of his great mistake”; but “in his most rabidly facist [sic] days,” Kirstein wrote, “he told me that I was number one on his list for elimination in the coming revolution. I felt bitterly towards him, and towards what he represented.” Johnson’s personal correspondence is equally disturbing. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, which he followed as a correspondent for Social Justice, Johnson wrote (in a letter to an American woman later convicted as a German agent, which Schulze obtained from Johnson’s extensive FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act) that “the German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.”
Astonishingly, after weighing the substantial amount of evidence he has marshalled against Johnson, Schulze writes,
In politics, he proved to be a trifler…a model of futility…never much of a political threat to anyone, still less an effective doer of either political good or political evil…. In any case, to the extent that his actions can be made out, they were decidedly unheroic, meriting little more substantial attention than they have gained.
It is true that Johnson’s almost burlesque attempts to start a grass-roots fascist movement in the United States from 1934 to 1937 came to naught. That it couldn’t have happened here, that boxcars were never rolled into Grand Central Terminal to deport Jews, is beside the point. And all the more amazing is the extent to which, until last year, Johnson has avoided accountability, even when the chilling evidence finally caught up with him.
In June 1993, appearing on the Charlie Rose show, Johnson was more forthright about his past than ever before. His support of the Nazis, he said, “was the stupidest thing I ever did. I never forgave myself and I never can atone for it. There’s nothing you can do.” He also said, “…the anti-Semitism, I was in on, and that’s the part I’m really ashamed of.”6 Whether they derive from feelings of guilt or not, his many good works over the years since World War II are worthy of recognition. A generous supporter of cultural institutions and an especially discerning collector of innovative art, he has given more than 350 works to the Museum of Modern Art, which will mount an exhibition of them in 1996 in honor of Johnson’s ninetieth birthday. An open-minded benefactor of intellectual inquiry, he was the chief private source of funds for the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, the influential New York think tank of the 1960s through the 1980s. And as padrone of avantgarde architects of several generations he has fostered several major careers, including those of Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Franklin D. Israel, and Rem Koolhaas. Philip Johnson has done more to promote the visual arts in America than almost any of his contemporaries.
It is on those grounds that Johnson’s historical place is likely to rest. His architecture (with a handful of exceptions, all dating before 1977) will be recalled, if at all, as symptomatic of the poverty of our civic culture, culminating with his most hollow monuments in the Age of Reagan. One of Johnson’s protégés, the architect Jaquelin Robertson, seemed to predict such a verdict when, in the 1985 publication of a professional conference attended by Johnson, he wrote of his mentor as being responsible for “the peculiar rich emptiness of the latest American architecture.” As one looks through Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words at the lush color photographs of pompous depopulated lobbies and meaningless turrets in the sky, it is Robertson’s words one dwells on more than any of Johnson’s justifications.
December 22, 1994
Quoted in Martin Filler, “Philip Johnson at 75: The Power and the Paradox,” Architecture Minnesota, June/July 1981, pp. 36–41. ↩
Charles Jencks, Late Modern Architecture and Other Essays (Rizzoli, 1980), pp. 146–159. ↩
Anchor/Doubleday, 1973. ↩
John W. Cook and Heinrich Klotz, Conversations with Architects (Praeger, 1973), pp. 11–51. ↩
Michael Sorkin, “Where Was Philip?” Spy, October 1988, pp. 138–140, reprinted in Sorkin, Exquisite Corpse (Verso, 1991). ↩
The Charlie Rose show, June 25, 1993. ↩