The Power and Paradox of Philip Johnson

Metropolis speaks with critic Mark Lamster about his recent biography of America’s original starchitect and the many contradictions he discovered along the way—from Johnson’s Nazi past, to his many reinventions.

Philip Johnson Biography
Philip Johnson as he appeared in Metropolis in November 1998. Courtesy Evan Kafka

What defines an architectural legacy? Is it what physically endures after one passes? Or is the net sum of a life—a more subjective calculus factoring in qualities like morality and social consciousness?

Throughout most of his 98 years Philip Johnson confounded the definition of legacy, perhaps more so than any architect before him or since. He was an architectural evangelist who went on to design some of the world’s most beloved buildings and launched the careers of many a contemporary starchitect. He was, as Paul Goldberger wrote in Johnson’s 2005 obituary, a “combination godfather, gadfly, scholar, patron, critic, curator, and cheerleader.”

Yet Johnson’s past was darker than his razor-sharp wit and owl-like mien let on. He readily discarded people—both friends and lovers. He battled depression. He forsook the Modernist community he helped build to insinuate himself in the Nazi regime. In spite of these troubling truths, his misdeeds have largely faded from architectural memory. (Even Goldberger, in his 2005 obituary, eschewed the word “Nazi.”)

All of these paradoxes are brought to the fore in The Man in the Glass House, an engrossing new Johnson biography from Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster. For nearly a decade, Lamster meticulously sifted through Johnson’s personal correspondence, his architectural archives, and even FBI documents to reexamine his life. The result is a dynamic composite sketch, one that shifts throughout Johnson’s numerous (and ludicrous and troubling) ideological transformations. As Lamster reveals, Johnson’s power—a flak jacket of wealth and wit—saved him again and again.

Lamster’s timing couldn’t have been better: Though nearly a century has elapsed, the book draws strong parallels to today’s political climate, with both the emergence of the alt-right and Johnson’s affiliation with one of his last clients, Donald Trump. The Man in the Glass House also resonates at a time when architecture is facing its own reckoning: how do we reconcile biography with built work?

We reached Lamster by phone in New York, where he was celebrating Thanksgiving, to chat about his book and what he learned about Johnson along the way—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Anna Fixsen: What drew you to Philip Johnson?

Mark Lamster: The truth is that when my agent floated the idea to me, the first thing I said was ‘Absolutely not, no way.’ I didn’t want Philip Johnson in my head for two to three years that it would take to write a biography—I had no idea it would take me nearly 10. But I went home and then started thinking about it and realized it was actually the one book that I needed to write. I always admired [Robert Caro’s] The Power Broker. It’s nominally a biography about Robert Moses, but it’s a book about how power works and also about the history of New York.

With Johnson, it was an opportunity to also have that kind of scope. Because he lived the entire century, he is a great lens to look at America in that time. So it’s a book about America, it’s a book about architecture, culture, and it’s also a biography of this very complicated, difficult, brilliant, mercurial, hilarious, despicable, lovable, charismatic, awful, terrible, wonderful, crazy person.

What were you hoping to illuminate about Johnson’s life and career that other biographies and other scholarship had overlooked?

Well there had really only been one biography and it was published in 1994 [before Johnson died in 2005]. I have a lot of respect for that book, but it’s now a quarter-century old. It was time for a re-evaluation of Johnson. And there’s a lot of new sources and material available to me.

One of the things that I picked up on—especially as a reporter—is the incredible amount of detail you include in the book. Could tell me how you began this research process?

You know, you gotta go everywhere. Johnson’s materials are spread out throughout the country: MoMA [where he helped established an architecture department] has an enormous amount of material, but his personal materials are stuck up at the Glass House. The Getty acquired most of his other personal correspondence. And there are letters everywhere—everyone he ever worked with had their own archive of material.

I spent a lot of those first years talking to elderly people surrounding Johnson—clients, people affiliated with MoMA, other architects, people from his office, people from his personal life. Johnson had all these different lives. He had a life as an architect, he had a life as curator, he had life as an art collector, he had a life as a political figure. The challenge is to weave all those different lives together into a narrative that is comprehensive and comprehensible. And also entertaining.

Reading the book, I laughed out loud a few times just at how ridiculous this guy could be. How was he able to get away with all of these capers—launching a political career, renouncing the artworld—and then be re-absorbed [by his social circle]? It’s just ludicrous.

I think that’s exactly right. How? Because he was both wealthy and charming. And the wealth sort of inoculated him and put him in position where he had friends who would protect him. It was like a prodigal son who goes off and does something foolish and they’re angry with him for what he does, but they’re willing to forgive him again and again because he has the power to shape his own narrative.

Right. Did you speak with anyone whom he rejected, either professional or personally? People that he cast aside?

In fact, yes. One of the dedicatees of the book is a man named Robert Melik Finkle. He was a lovely man who is Johnson’s, I think, last remaining living long-term lover. He was a protégé. Johnson used him and [Finkle] feels very badly about that. But he also admires Johnson still. I was really grateful for the time I spent with him. Johnson used people. He used people and then when they were no longer of use, he disposed of people. It was a really unappealing characteristic.

But at the same time, he was a total kingmaker. I was especially struck by an image in the book taken at his 90th birthday party at the Four Seasons: He’s surrounded by Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Robert A.M. Stern, the list goes on. Can you talk about his ability to promote the architecture or architects he believed in?

For more than 70 years he was a kingmaker, putting people before the public, introducing them to clients, getting them jobs. And yes, towards the end of his life, he has this group of architects, he calls them the kids. And it’s basically this architecture class that we know today, from Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas to Zaha Hadid, Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Stern—everyone who’s everybody. And in fact, I would say that it’s really Johnson who invents the idea of starchitect, the celebrity architect. And now we’ve kind of repudiated that idea of starchitecture. I think we understand now we want a different kind of architecture rather than these fabulous baubles that cost exorbitant amounts of money. Johnson had no interest in any of this.

Johnson as a dashing (and rich) young gentleman in 1933. Courtesy Library of Congress/Carl Van Vechten

It’s amazing how Johnson weaseled his way into the profession. After a period of wandering around, it seems like he finally decides, “Okay, I’m gonna be an architect.”

Yeah, he had this incredible career as a curator. He was the founding architecture curator of the Museum of Modern Art and he mounted two momentous shows, the International Style Show and then the Machine Art Show. So he’s a boy wonder—the Times calls him “the Maestro.” He’s on top of the world, really a star. And then he throws it all away to become essentially this alt-right political agitator. And then essentially an agent of the Nazi state, trying to mainstream fascism in the United States.

Can you tell me a little bit more about that side of your research? I think we were all peripherally aware of his Nazi “sympathies,” but I don’t think—until I read this book—I fully understood the depth of that and just how disturbing it was.

You know, it’s going through his entire day-to-day history, looking through news clippings from when he was doing this kind of agitating and trying to start a political party and having radio shows. And then finding sort of obscure FBI and DOJ files where he’s interviewed about his role as a collaborator with the Nazis, with the Nazi state, with very high ranking members of the Gestapo and the foreign office and propaganda office. He essentially delivered unto them information about American fascist individuals who they could work with and promote fascist propaganda in America. The Nazis liked the sort of intellectual fascism that Johnson represented, so Johnson was very useful to the Nazi state in propelling this argument to the very highest reaches of the American political establishment quite successfully.

Philip Johnson Biography
Philip Johnson promoted fascist and Nazi ideology early in his career. In 1936, for instance, he designed the stage for Charles Coughlin—a Catholic priest and political figure who promoted fascism and anti-Semitism. Courtesy Mark Lamster

Do you think he fully believed it?

Oh, he fully believed it. It wasn’t play. Afterwards he would try and justify it as a sort of youthful indiscretion and a homoerotic affectation. But he was invested. He was invested in the actual eugenic theory, anti-Semitism. He was all-in for the complete bag of Nazi awfulness. This was not an aesthetic attraction, it was a full-bore intellectual agreement.

Again, it’s his wealth that sort of insulates him and saves him from this. So many of his co-conspirators and friends in fascism ended up either in jail or in court. But Johnson dodges [sedition charges] because he did not need to accept cash from the German state, in fact he was rich enough to do it himself. He can reasonably claim that everything he’s doing is his first amendment right to be an asshole.

Yet, even if he was deeply embedded in it for six years, he was somehow able to do an about-face, return to Harvard and sweep everything under the rug.

Yeah. I mean, I think starting in ’40, ’41, he begins to realize that America’s not going to go fascist, and he’s made a grave, grave, grave error. He decides to return to architecture school, become an architect, and sort of reinvent himself and also stay out of public view for a couple of years. And he is able to because he has powerful friends. And because the world wants to move on from this. I mean in the post-war period, America’s about moving forward. No one wants to look back. So Johnson can kind of escape his history.

That’s a fascinating point. Do you think he underwent an actual ideological change or do you think he just saw that he was on the wrong side of history?

I think it was always a little bit of both with him. I don’t think he ever, I mean, I think he was genuine to some degree in his contrition, but I also think there was a part of him deep down that still very much believed in some of those things. They were such a part of him, such a part of his native personality, such a part of the tradition of his family that he had grown up with that I think it would be impossible to truly escape them.

Another illuminating thing about the book is, in spite of of his giddying highs, Johnson struggled with depression. How did you report on that?

Johnson is troubled emotionally from when he was a very young boy. He stutters and then…as he becomes a teen, and then into his 20’s, he starts to have nervous breakdowns. Thankfully, Harvard’s records are excellent, so there are the notes from his doctor. Basically the diagnosis is what today we call bipolar disorder. I think the struggle to deal with the fact that he was gay at a time when that was completely unacceptable, especially within his family, exacerbated his problem.

But I think the takeaway is that there were always multiple Johnson’s. There was the up Johnson and then there was the down Johnson; there was the public Johnson that was at least nominally heterosexual, and then there was the private Johnson who was gay. And when you think about Johnson the architect, when you think of Johnson the polemicist, Johnson was always leaning into [ those contradictions]. It’s just such a native part of his personality.

Did you ever get the chance to meet Johnson?

I only met him once and just barely, briefly in the Museum of Modern Art at a cocktail party. And I was too terrified to say anything.

When you embarked on this years-long research project, did you ever think it would have such contemporary pertinence? From the resurgence of the alt-right, to Johnson’s Trump connection?

Well Trump as president was not something that I had envisioned. And in all seriousness, the relevance of the politics was really important to me. I started writing this in the Obama presidency and it seemed to me the rise of populist proto-fascist right wing political parties in the 1930s was quite analogous to the rise of the sort of alt Tea Party movement in the beginning of the Obama years. And to me, that was very, very similar.

Philip Johnson Biography
Later in life, Philip Johnson expressed remorse for his fascist past and tried to make amends. He designed the Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel in Westchester, NY pro bono. Courtesy Mark Lamster

Architecture is in a moment of reckoning where we’re having to reconcile biography with work. Knowing what we know about Johnson now, can he be forgiven? Or are we supposed to rethink his architecture legacy? 

To me, the key is to understand the history and to know it. Whether people can forgive Johnson or not is something that every individual has to decide for themselves. I’m not here to tell you how to feel about him, I’m here to present you with the facts. Part of being a sophisticated reader is to try and wrestle with that kind of difficulty. And I think if you’re going to junk [all of their work], you’re gonna do yourself a disservice. And then on the other hand, if you’re going to ignore [their biography], that’s not such a great idea either. So I know it’s a nice fantasy that there are easy answers for this, that it’s a black and white issue, but there aren’t.

If you had the benefit of sitting down with Philip Johnson today—in the Glasshouse or wherever—what would you be most curious to ask him?

By nature as a critic, I’m more someone who watches, so I would like a Philip Johnson performance. I’d like to hear him tell stories that no one else has heard. Then I might starting asking him some questions. Like why on Earth would he make an enemy of Jackie Onassis? What was it like hanging out with George Gershwin in the early days? Tell me about the Jazz Age and going up to the Cotton Club in Harlem? I would like to hear personal stories about him. He’d be a wonderful storyteller.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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