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Review: THE MAN IN THE GLASS HOUSE, Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century

By: Mark Lamster

The Man in the Glass House draws us in with an engaging prologue. You find “you cannot not know history,” as Johnson famously said in 1959, well into his third career, and you cannot not know Johnson.

Philip Johnson’s truth would be crazy if it weren’t true. Meticulously researched and well-crafted, Mark Lamster’s book takes us on journey through Johnson’s wild ride of a life, with plot twists in each chapter. We gain fresh perspective on Johnson’s friends, associates, mentors, and architecture — all characters in a nonfiction story told in novelistic style.

A child born to well-off Midwestern stock, Johnson spent pleasant weekends on the family farm but endured occasionally unpleasant episodes with a mother who was “at turns smothering and detached” and a father who “was some combination of distant and disapproving.” In Chapter 2, Johnson, now at Harvard, comes into the money and connections that will shape his life, free to be the gay man he was.

CURATOR

Within the astonishing milieu of the now-famous characters whom Johnson encounters, he makes the connections leading to his first career: curator. Careening around Europe in a Cord convertible, unconcerned about the stock market crash or the troublesome politics brewing in Germany, Johnson collects experiences that will soon inform the Henry-Russell Hitchcock/ Johnson work “The International Style” and the landmark exhibition at the new Museum of Modern Art. In Czechoslovakia, he speeds through an intersection, sending an unlucky girl and bicycle flying through the air; perhaps in his hurry to make history, he never checks on her. Concluding the tour with a visit to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s sublime Tugendhat house and the Bauhaus, Johnson commissions Mies to design his apartment in New York, a showpiece and beachhead from which to push forward his groundbreaking Modern Architecture exhibition in 1932, followed by the influential Machine Art exhibition in 1934.

Whether Johnson was a creative spark, a follower with great instinct, a showman, or someone who financed his luck with his money, he certainly was in the right place at the right time. However, Johnson’s dark next chapter is surprising for its bad instinct, as he places himself on the wrong side of history at the wrong time.

POLITICIAN

Like the bored, spoiled rich kid he was, Johnson leapt without fear into politics, quitting the Modern Art Museum at the end of 1934. Moving beyond the popular nationalist “America First” sentiment of its day to keep America out of the war, Johnson effectively became a Nazi agent. Likely saved from prosecution by his own wealth (as, unlike others, he was not financially rewarded for his deeds), his suspicious activities lead to rejection when he tries to volunteer for service. He returns to Harvard, where he completes his architecture degree with a splash, building his own house for his thesis project. Then, at 36, he is drafted into service. With his political history thwarting any opportunity for promotion, he spends his time stateside as an Army private whose duties include peeling potatoes and cleaning latrines.

Now we embark on Johnson’s third act, architect, which begins where he would end in 2005, New Canaan, CT.

ARCHITECT

Here, we have a front-row seat to the show, full of the contradictions and controversy that Johnson loved. His career, a serial drama, is peppered with guest stars: Mies and the Seagram building, Venturi, MOMA (on fire!), Lincoln Center, Pennzoil Place, the AT&T headquarters, the Crystal Cathedral, Frank Gehry. There are the diverse patrons and clients including, of course, himself, along with the Menils, Gerald Hines, Donald Trump, and key supporting characters such as John Manley, John Burgee, and Eli Attia. Through it all, Johnson emerges as complex, contradictory, and cunning, a kingmaker at “The Head of the Circle.”

When not creating waves, he was catching them with the skill of a champion surfer, from modernism to “traditionalism” to postmodernism. Awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 1978 and the recipient of the inaugural Pritzker Prize in 1979 — the same year he made the cover of Time magazine — he wasn’t done, but ready for what was next. Ironically, 20 years later at 93, he was awarded the prize commission for the MOMA inaugural Young Architects competition in 1999, closing his American century with one last splash. Resigning from his office the next year, Johnson retreated from the spotlight to New Canaan. For this very public person, the end for the man in his glass house was very private.

For most of the last century, the “man in the glass house” merged his talents, his enthusiasm for influence, his instinct, and the self-confidence that money can buy as he created architecture that you may not always love but with the impact you cannot ignore. Mark Lamster entertains us, teaches us, and inspires us to reflect on how the lessons of the last American century may shape the next.

Review by Lisa Lamkin, FAIA, a principal with BRW Architects.

Don’t miss Lisa Lamkin’s conversation with author Mark Lamster.

Originally published in the Spring 2019/ Belief issue of AIA Dallas’ Columns magazine.