“It is wonderful to be in the country in a glass house, because no matter what happens out there, you’re nice and safe, you know, cuddled in your little bed, and there it is, raging storms, snowing — wonderful.” ― Philip Johnson (source unknown)
In early May, spouse & I visited a good friend who lives in Darien, CT, close to New Canaan, home to architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House, so we all eagerly toured it on 6 June, a nice spring day (high temp of 68F, low of 44F). I don’t know enough about Johnson to offer many thoughts on him or his architectural style, but from what I’ve read — and I haven’t read Mark Lamster’s 2018 biography of Johnson, The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century, only some reviews — he seems to be someone for whom celebrity status mattered — the New York Times calls him “a shameless publicity hound” — and in this he was just slightly ahead of his time.
Daisy Alioto, in her article “Deconstructing Philip Johnson: What the architect’s life — and myth — can teach us” (Curbed, 19 Nov. 2018) reviewing Lamster’s book, quotes Lamster about Johnson: “His career mirrored American life of the postwar years, marked by increasing corporatization and the concentration of power and wealth among a privileged few.” And Johnson was both privileged and wealthy, born to rich WASP parents, admitted to Harvard without any exams, given very valuable Alcoa stock by his parents. Alioto adds, “By the time of [Johnson’s] death, celebrity had become the chief form of public currency.”
Lamster notes that Johnson assumed multiple identities: curator, politician, playboy, interior designer, journalist, propagandist, soldier, architect, and early on summarises him as “a gay man with a fascist history living in a glass house, and he liked nothing better than to throw stones.” Johnson apparently said of himself “I’m a chameleon, so changeable. I see myself as a gadfly and a questioner.” A New York Times review of Lamster’s biography assesses Johnson this way: “He certainly did more than anyone except Frank Lloyd Wright to put architecture into the public discourse. He had a critic’s mind, not an artist’s: He was fascinated by everything, and he wanted to get it out there, put it before the public, stir up the pot. … Johnson was a bundle of contradictions. He was a brilliant aesthete, a connoisseur, an intellectual who devoured ideas and as stimulating a conversationalist as you could ever encounter. If as a young man he possessed what Lamster calls an ‘extravagant hauteur,’ he was too full of enthusiasm to be merely a cynic. He was saved, you could say, by a genuine curiosity that never left him, even in old age. ‘Boredom was the one thing Philip Johnson would not suffer,’ Lamster tells us.”
The Guardian’s obituary for Johnson, who was 98 when he died, begins:
“When modernist austerity was an aesthetic cause, he was in the vanguard. When the business of American architecture seemed to be business, he was its slickest salesman. Postmodernism was partly of his making. Then, when deconstruction hit New York, there was Johnson in his 80s in the thick of the theorists, networking, promoting favourites and talking, always talking. If Johnson was always ahead of the architectural game, he never actually invented it. It has been said that he was the second to do everything. A second-class creative figure with a first-class brain and boundless wealth, charm and wit; in personality, he was half monster, half paragon of urbanity. An engagement with fascism in the 1930s never impeded his career. Antisemitic, anti-black, no respecter of women or children, he had many Jewish colleagues and clients, at least one black lover, and numerous women friends who received presents when their children or grandchildren were born. Flamboyantly gay, he admitted to four “Mrs Johnsons”, of whom the last, David Whitney, was his companion for over 40 years.”
Lamster’s biography — whose “leitmotif” Alioto encapsulates as “Johnson’s selfishness and privilege” — delves a good deal into Johnson’s admiration of fascists and sympathy with Nazis, which wasn’t mentioned by our (otherwise very knowledgeable and precise) tour guide except in a bland response to a direct question about it, when — echoing Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, aka Blanchette Rockefeller, see below — she suggested that most of us probably regret some of our youthful indiscretions.
Journalist Marc Wortman’s 2016 book, 1941: Fighting the Shadow War, reviewed at Curbed, by Patrick Sisson, also explores Johnson’s Nazi sympathies and fascination with fascism and the Third Reich, including his attending a 1932 Nazi rally in Potsdam and encouraging “the rise of homegrown Fascism by supporting political figures such as Louisiana Governor Huey Long and Father [Charles] Coughlin,” a demagogue. (Lamster, in his book, writes that Johnson “advocated for a racially ‘pure’ America in his own writings. ‘That so many of his friends and so many of the artists and architects he admired were Jewish didn’t matter; he compartmentalized those feelings.'”) Wortman notes that after Johnson was “listed as a leading American Nazi in an article by Harper’s Magazine” in Sept. 1940, he “‘knew he had to change his spots.’… Before his death, the architect would apologize for his youthful political activities, calling his actions ‘unbelievable stupidity.'”
In a 1977 New Yorker article (“Forms Under Light”, a lengthy profile of Johnson, no author named), it’s noted that in William Shirer’s Berlin Diary (1941) “Johnson appears as ‘an American fascist’ whom Shirer suspects of spying for the Nazis. … One of the interesting things about Johnson’s career is the apparent ease with which he lived down his flirtation with Fascism. The reference to him in Shirer’s best-selling book was very damaging, of course, and he lost friends over it — but only temporarily. Even his Jewish friends seemed to be willing to make allowances. Edward M. M. Warburg, a wealthy Harvard classmate whose New York apartment Johnson had done over in severe modern style in 1932, thinks that the friendships that Johnson made over there ‘crossed his wires,’ so to speak, and that it was out of loyalty to these friendships that he began to entertain some of the doctrines of Nazism. ‘I think the idea that Philip was anti-Semitic at any time is impossible,’ Warburg said recently. ‘Perhaps his weakness was that he didn’t react strongly enough against anti-Semitism. In any case, it never seemed to slow his relationship with me or with Lincoln Kirstein.’ In 1957, when Johnson’s political past was brought up as a possible obstacle to his election as a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III settled the matter by saying she thought that ‘every young man should be allowed to make one large mistake.’”
“‘I do not believe in principles, in case you haven’t noticed,'” Johnson once remarked to fellow architect César Pelli. … When people talked—and they did—Johnson used his money to turn the conversation back to his high taste and patronage. … As he strategically shape-shifted between political alliances, Johnson also moved from genre to genre in the architecture field. This, he did with much more grace, and it’s why many love him today.” — Daisy Alioto, “Deconstructing Philip Johnson: What the architect’s life — and myth — can teach us,” Curbed, 19 Nov. 2018
“As founder and director of the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Architecture, in the nineteen-thirties, [Johnson] led the battle for modern architecture in this country. Later, having become a practicing architect and having built his famous glass house in New Canaan — the epitome of reductionist modernism — he broke with the aesthetic of Mies van der Rohe, his great mentor, and outraged the established and increasingly doctrinaire modernists by insisting that ‘one cannot not know history.’ Brilliant, iconoclastic, he had held out for architecture as an art in a period when many other architects were trying to make it an instrument of social salvation. He had also done a lot of building. ‘Whoever commissions buildings buys me,’ he said once in an interview. ‘I’m for sale. I’m a whore. I’m an artist.'” — “Forms Under Light,” no author named, in The New Yorker, 23 May 1977, nominally about the Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA, for which Johnson was co-architect, but actually a lengthy and detailed profile of Johnson.
Mark Lamster lists what he thinks are Johnson’s best and worst architectural works in “Arbiter of taste, enfant terrible: The best and worst of Philip Johnson: The prolific 20th-century American architect’s work, ranked by the author of Johnson’s mega-biography” (Curbed, 6 Nov. 2018).
The Glass House in New Canaan, CT (1949) is at the top of the “best” list:
“Johnson’s home, and the New Canaan estate on which it sits, is a unique and uncompromising exercise in modern design executed over more than half a century. Like much of Johnson’s work and life, it is polarizing: Mies van der Rohe, in particular, detested it, thinking it a poor derivation of his own Farnsworth House. (In a particularly PJ maneuver, Johnson managed to complete the Glass House before Mies could get the Farnsworth built.) Either way, you cannot understand Johnson without understanding this place apart from the world, where he shaped his ever-shifting vision.”
The New York Times review mentioned above says of the Glass House and grounds: “The estate as a whole demonstrates his mercurial design intelligence as it evolved over half a century; it is as close to a true autobiography in architecture as anything that has ever been built in the United States, and it is like no place else.”
Other Johnson buildings that Lamster mentions as “best” include The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at MoMA in New York (1953), The Seagram Building in New York (1958; co-architect with Mies van der Rohe), Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC (1963), IDS Center in Minneapolis (1973), whose “glorious public atrium featured prominently in the credits of none other than The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and Pennzoil Place in Houston (1976).
About the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA (1980-1990; see above), Lamster says: “It has been pilloried as corporatist, shallow, fascist, and kitschy — and it is probably all of those things — but it is also dramatic, optimistic, relentlessly modern, and above all essentially Californian in its shiny effervescence.”
House and grounds tour:
“The painters have every advantage over us today … Besides being able to tear up their failures — we never can seem to grow ivy fast enough — their materials cost them nothing. They have no committees of laymen telling them what to do. They have no deadlines, no budgets. We are all sickeningly familiar with the final cuts to our plans at the last moment. Why not take out the landscaping, the retaining walls, the colonnades? The building would be just as useful and much cheaper. True, an architect leads a hard life — for an artist.” ― Philip Johnson, quoted in Paul Heyer (ed.) Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America (1966)
Painting and sculpture galleries on the estate:
“The Glass House started because of the land that was there. That was my hardest job by far. I worked for three or four years throwing out ideas. And it was all conditioned by the landscape itself. …Don’t forget, it is more of a landscape park than it is a work of architecture, anyhow. It’s more a memory of the English parks of the 18th century. …
“The landscape becomes by far the most important thing in the mind of the architect and it will be for the visitor. The objects, the tools of this art, the – what are we dealing with? We’re dealing with, I mentioned before, bridges, water, things like that. So water had to be, had to be part of that. I don’t know why you have to have water. But it’s a basic feeling of mankind, something about the aquatic motion of water that’s amniotic maybe, but it is basic. …
“The forest was at me all the time. New England is a rain forest. That’s one of my favorite topics. You are enclosed in New England with trees. Have you ever been to New Hampshire or to Vermont or Maine? There are no big trees left; they were cut a long time ago. There are no fields because the farmers couldn’t make their plows go through the stones. And they all went out to Ohio where they’re meant to go. So it’s left New England covered with lousy trees that grow up the crick so you can’t see anything … So in this very unfriendly atmosphere that a rain forest gives you, what you need is a machete and an axe and a saw. And armed with those tools, you create landscaping in a negative way, unlike the British, who in their great things of the 18th century, had no trees. … I didn’t have to plant my trees; they were there. I had 200-year-old oaks and things all prepared for me. I had to select. I had to say this can be a copse, this can be a single tree, this has to be cut. And by ruthlessly doing that, I have the basic background, the interesting feature, watching your eyes follow through the forest to a wall beyond or not, or infinitely. And you have open fields, which is to me the best.”
Featured image: approaching the Glass House
This is one in a series of posts revisiting field trips taken from January to June 2019, as described here.