The Godfather

1.

As a young architecture writer I resolved to steer clear of all enterprises that involved Philip Johnson, convinced that this charming cultural corrupter, as I saw him, was the very antithesis of my socially conscious role model, the architecture critic Lewis Mumford. Avoidance of Johnson, however, was easier imagined than accomplished, since the first decades of my career—the 1970s and 1980s—coincided with the professional apogee of the man then reflexively called “the dean of American architects” or, less reverently, “the Godfather of American architecture” because of the powerful but largely hidden influence he wielded, not unlike that of a mafia don. He decided who got reputation-making exhibitions, conferred architectural commissions awarded through the many juries he served on, and distributed lesser jobs he himself was offered but uninterested in to grateful younger practitioners.

Philip Johnson
Philip Johnson; drawing by David Levine

Nothing says more about Johnson’s high status at that time than his being named the first recipient of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1979, because, as its benefactors made known, he alone among all living master builders possessed the gravitas needed to establish the award’s international prestige. Yet also alive at the time were such greatly superior architects as Luis Barragán, who went on to win the Pritzker, and Marcel Breuer and Josep Lluís Sert, who did not.

Try as I might, I couldn’t wholly avoid this maestro of manipulation, who insinuated himself into seemingly every aspect of the New York art and architecture scene, particularly at the influential Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (the avant-garde think tank he helped fund) and the Museum of Modern Art, whose department of architecture and design he had founded in 1932; its chief curator customarily served at his pleasure, and Johnson remained a MoMA trustee throughout the last five decades of his life. But as Mark Lamster notes in his searing yet judicious new biography, The Man in the Glass House, Johnson excelled at disarming his detractors through self-deprecating responses to even their harshest criticism.

I experienced this phenomenon in 1981 when my unflattering profile “Philip Johnson at 75: The Power and the Paradox” was published.1 Right after it appeared I got a call from Johnson, who said how clever I was and claimed to agree with what I wrote. Perhaps he had this passage in mind:

Johnson has produced enough good architecture in his lifetime—the Glass House, the Museum of Modern Art extensions and garden, the Four Seasons, the IDS Center, and Pennzoil Place, to name some of his most successful works—to offset the much larger volume of questionable or downright bad design he has done. His contradictory nature and inconsistent output will keep critics guessing long after Philip Johnson has departed from the scene. And that’s just the way he would like it.

Nothing he did in the twenty-four years that remained to him ever made me want to revise a word of that, least…


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