A 1992 Wall Street Journal story detailing the bloody dissolution of architect Philip Johnson’s long-standing business partnership with John Burgee sparked an unusual fan letter. Developer Donald J. Trump âloved the article,â he wrote, because ânow that you’re ‘free’ I have a very exciting project for you in Atlantic City.â A few years ago, Johnson had launched an idea for a “Trump Castle” project on Madison Avenue: a drawbridge over a ditch infested with real alligators.
“Very Trumpish,” he commented.
The man at the glass house
By Mark Lamster
Small, Brown, 508 pages, $ 35
And very Johnson, of course. Outraged, ridiculous, and sure to get good publicity as long as they spell my name. Johnson once told a group of colleagues, âI’m a whore and get paid a lot to build tall buildings. But they already knew it.
The moated castle was never built, but Johnson and Mr Trump worked together on Riverside South (originally Trump Place) on the west side and the reconstruction of the Gulf + Western building on Columbus Circle. âI have never worked with someone as brilliant, as quick and as decisive as Donald Trump,â Johnson told Charlie Rose, a quote that speaks volumes for everyone involved. According to Mark Lamster, the author of “The Man in the Glass House“, a new life for the architect, Johnson “privately ignited Trump pushy taste and lack of professional deference.
Once again, Johnson in a nutshell: hypocrite, sycophant, a man “happy to perpetuate his image as an architect. enfant terrible in association with the looser developer in New York, âaccording to Mr. Lamster.
Yet, as this well-written and unbiased book illustrates, Johnson was much more. He was the founding director of the architectural department of the Museum of Modern Art and co-author of the influential 1932 book “The International Style”, the catalog for a legendary MOMA exhibition that introduced America to European architects. progressives such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. All this before going to architecture school!
Johnson was also an avid fan of Adolf Hitler. Mr. Lamster accuses him of being a “so-called American Hitler and an American agent of Nazi Germany”, and holds him up. Johnson emerged from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1943 as the servile ephebe of Mies van der Rohe ridiculed as “Mies van der Johnson”. One of Johnson’s most famous works, his New Canaan, Connecticut, Glass House, was a copy of a Mies project still under construction. But later in his long life – apparently ageless Johnson died at age 98 in 2005 – he created original and distinctive work. In 1979 he became the first winner of the most prestigious award in architecture, the Pritzker Prize. âHis citation hailed him for his’ consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the environment, ‘writes Mr Lamster,’ which was perhaps overkill. He notes that the Pritzker jury included one of Johnson’s subordinates at MOMA and his freshman roommate at Harvard.
Johnson was the proverbial man of many parts. “Duality was its essential makeup,” Lamster observes, pointing to Johnson’s bipolar disorder, his assertive homosexuality “at a time when homosexuality was unacceptable” and Johnson’s alternating currents of generosity and cruelty. “He was a homosexual with a fascist history living in a glass house, and he liked nothing better than throwing stones.”
Johnson’s lyrical journey from luxury to Cleveland, Ohio, to a permanent table at the Four Seasons restaurant (which he designed) would be catnip for any biographer, and also full of pitfalls. It would be easy to get lost in vulgar gossip or patronizing assessments of Johnson’s foolish contributions to architecture, but Mr Lamster generally shows good judgment when weighing what to emphasize and what to emphasize. Johnson’s life has to be pedaled smoothly.
Yes, there is vulgar gossip. The first âMrs. Johnsonâ was Jimmie Daniels, an 18-year-old black cabaret singer who Johnson briefly haunted around Manhattan. âIt didn’t work out so well,â he later recalls. âThey were like, ‘I’m sorry, we’re full tonight’ âa totally empty dining room.” Johnson’s shady demeanor inevitably caught up with him when a 15-year-old rental boy blackmailed him into the old Times Square Hotel on Broadway. What would Mrs. Rockefeller, the founding patron of MOMA, think, asks Mr. Lamster? âOf course he paid.
Mr. Lamster, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, serves just enough food and no more. Well, okay, there’s the incredible story of Johnson sleeping with his client, oil heiress Jane Blaffer Owen. “She loved sex so much that it inhibited her architecture,” complained Johnson. Mr Lamster also doesn’t wrap his biography in architectural jargon or the nod of a design school, while not afraid to pass judgment on Johnson’s many professional failures and occasional successes. .
When Johnson’s conceptions were bad, they were very, very bad. Boston, outside of the critical imprint of the New York media, has become a mess Johnsonian Garbage: The horrific One International Place (âa jumble of isolated detached buildingsâ âBoston Globe); a soulless postmodernist pile (500 Boylston Street) on the corner of HH Richardson’s Trinity Church and Henry Cobb’s elegant John Hancock Tower; and Johnson’s horrific expansion of the legendary McKim, Mead & White Boston Public Library. Johnson’s original, brutalist design originally did not include any windows. âThe McKim original had the distinguished elegance of a gentleman in the opera,â comments Mr. Lamster. “Johnson’s contribution was more of a docks piece.”
Yet Mr Lamster rightly credits Johnson for his good work. For example, the 1934 MOMA âMachine Artâ exhibition was a coup that earned a deserved place in the history books. Mocking “Pots and Pans,” Johnson’s show highlighted the design inherent in everyday objects, such as an airplane propeller, a perfume bottle, a ball bearing, and more. Mr. Lamster: âIt redefined the materials that might or might not be suitable for display in the context of an art museum and dramatically elevated the status of industrial design. ”
Johnson also built some beautiful buildings. Lamster considers the small group work of MOMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. He calls the plaza outside Lincoln Center “one of the nicest public spaces in town.” He also praises Johnson’s unusual art gallery, Louis Kahn-esque at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC (“one of Johnson’s most satisfying and beloved designs”), and “the Sharp Miesian ‘lure of Pennzoil Place in Houston. Mr. Lamster also appreciates the monumental all-glass crystal cathedral erected for televangelist Dr. Robert Schuller in Garden Grove, Calif., Which he calls “a true Chartres of televangelism.”
Mr. Lamster’s Chapter 7, âAn American FÃ¼hrerâ, deserves special mention. Johnson’s anti-Semitism and Nazphilia are no secret. William Shirer’s famous 1941 book “Berlin Diary” called Johnson an “American Fascist.” Johnson’s full obituary for the New York Times delicately waited for the seventh paragraph to mention his “expression more than fleeting admiration for Hitler.”
This is one way of putting it. As early as 1936, Johnson railed against “the international bankers” who were “organized to sell off America”. He was a founding member of the Nazi front group American Fellowship Forum, whose magazine explored questions such as “Can the Jewish problem be solved?” “
As a correspondent for the anti-Semitic Social Justice newspaper, Johnson wrote heartbreaking dispatches from WWII-era Poland and Germany. On his first visit to Gdynia, he reported that âthere are not even Poles in the streets, only Jews! He wrote, in a letter to a friend, that he understood why Hitler considered the Poles to be a “subhuman Slavic racial type” and, visiting Poland in his Ford Lincoln after the Nazi invasion, noted how “them German green uniforms made the place gay and happy. There weren’t many Jews to see. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin bomb. It was a touching sight. ”
It’s amazing that a career can recover from these kinds of judgments, but somehow Johnson did. You could go to jail for pro-Nazi actions like his, and some of his accomplices did. When his friend Lawrence Dennis faced sedition charges in 1944, Mr. Lamster wrote: âBy the smallest of margins, Johnson managed to avoid being put in the accused box by his side.
Johnson apologized for his actions later in life, which is when he claimed to remember them. In a 1985 interview that fellow architect Robert AM Stern promised to publish after Johnson’s death, Stern invited Johnson to comment on his writings on social justice:
Back: You mean anything
about them now?
Johnson: If only I could. I can not
remember. I’m blocking that time.
Johnson attempted to atone for his wartime actions by designing the Kneses Tifereth Synagogue for free in Port Chester, NY. Free work secured him commission, notes Mr. Lamster, in the mid-1950s, when he badly needed it: âWith no institutional commission on his curriculum vitae, [Johnson] viewed the temple as a loss leader that would complement his credentials. Shortly thereafter, then Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres hired Johnson to build the Norel Soreq Nuclear Research Center in Rehovot, a facility so secret that Johnson never saw it in operation.
Mr. Lamster has a touching and sometimes harsh writing style. He calls Mr. Stern “a smaller, Semitic version of Johnson: an intellectual omnivore with a steel trap memory, endless ambition and an unquenchable taste for gossip.” Describing a telegram to Johnson from the monomaniac Frank Lloyd Wright, Mr. Lamster writes: âAs was the case with Wright, the tone was overwhelming, flowery and self-glorifying, the meaning was not entirely clear, like some badly translated from Italian. “
In the epilogue, summing up the life and work of Johnson, Mr. Lamster is ruthless. “If there was only one mark at [Johnsonâs] drawings, he wrote, it was emptiness. . . . When stripped of all human presence, stripped to its bones, Johnson’s architecture feels sterile and inert and lonely, despite its sophistication and extravagance.
A depressing conclusion, but fully supported by this deep, in-depth look at Johnson’s captivating life.
-Sir. Beam is writing a book about Mies van der Rohe and her client, Dr Edith Farnsworth.
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