Philip Johnson, 1906-2005

[Posted 5:01 PM by Roger Kimball]

News just came down the wire that the architect Philip Johnson--erstwhile disciple of Mies van der Rohe, more recently full-time architectural prankster and doyen of Postmodernism--died yesterday at the age of 98. Johnson had been a force in the architectural world since 1932. Although he did not begin practicing architecture until the 1940s (and did not manage to pass his licensing examination until well into the 1950s), his collaboration with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Jr., on "The International Style: Architecture Since 1922" at the fledgling Museum of Modern Art in New York was a ground-breaking event. The exhibition, which opened in February 1932, toured thirteen American cities after closing at MOMA. A model of serious and innovative scholarship, it introduced American viewers to such important European modernists as Mies van der Rohe, Corbusier, and J. J. P. Oud, baptized one of the most influential architectural movements of the century ("The International Style" soon became a slogan for both friends and foes of modernism), and instantly established the intellectual reputation of its rich, dashing twenty-six-year-old co-curator.

It is a reputation that evolved--some might say mutated--greatly. In 1949, soon after he began practicing architecture, Johnson took the architectural world by storm with the controversial Glass House he built on his estate in New Canaan, Connecticut. Inspired by a then-unbuilt design by Mies van der Rohe, the exquisitely sited house consists of a floor, a flat roof, and four walls of floor-to-ceiling glass. Inside, a brick cylinder contains a bathroom and fireplace. There is one free-standing cabinet, one counter, and a few pieces of furniture by Mies. When he came to see it, Frank Lloyd Wright wickedly asked "Is it Philip? . . . And is it architecture?" Maybe not. But the Glass House is, as Franz Schulze noted in his biography of the architect, "one of the most famous residences of the twentieth century, a work of architecture that at first glance is not only simplicity itself but to some eyes egregious simplicity."

In the 1970s and 1980s, when postmodernism swept the country, Johnson was probably the busiest "upscale" architect in the United States. His buildings from that period dot cityscapes from Boston, New York, and Atlanta to Minneapolis, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. He has been the recipient of every major award that his profession confers. But his celebrity goes far beyond the confines of the architectural profession. In 1979, for example, soon after his infamous "Chippendale" design for the AT&T building (now the SONY building) was unveiled, he was pictured on the cover of Time magazine, a token of celebrity that few architects can match.

At the same time, it must be said that for many years Johnson’s fame was really been a species of assiduously cultivated notoriety. The apparent earnestness that characterized his early activities as a disciple of Mies and as founding director of MOMA’s department of architecture is a distant memory. The "new" Philip Johnson, who began emerging in the 1960s, is the man who in 1982 responded to criticism of one of his projects by declaring "I do not believe in principles. . . . I am a whore and am paid very well for building high-rise buildings." For many observers, the cynicism of this statement finds a correlative not only in Johnson’s buildings but also in his impish if articulate sponsorship of every new architectural trend, no matter how meretricious. Johnson’s craving for publicity has assured that the general outlines of his life are well known.

Born in July 1906, Philip Johnson was the third child and second son of a prosperous, Harvard-educated lawyer and his patrician, Wellesley-educated wife. Philip was not the first architect in the family. His mother’s first cousin, Theodate Pope Riddle, had also been an architect of some repute. Among her works was Avon Old Farms, a boys’ school in Farmington, Connecticut. Given his later embrace of a promiscuous historicism, it is worth noting that Philip’s reaction on first seeing it was revulsion. It is "the purest mess you ever saw," he wrote home, "in no particular architecture that I could discover." Among her other accomplishments, incidentally, Theodate Pope Riddle was an ardent spiritualist. She once gave Henry James a document purporting to account for an appearance of his dead brother William at a seance. James responded:

I return you the dreadful document, pronouncing it without hesitation the most abject and impudent, the hollowest, vulgarest, and basest rubbish I could possibly conceive. Utterly empty and illiterate, without substance or sense, a mere babble of platitudinous phrases, it is beneath comment or criticism, in short beneath contempt.

Philip’s early years were intense, pampered, often unhappy. He developed a stutter (which he subsequently lost) and was given to sudden tantrums and rages. He was clumsy at sports, and only intermittently did well in school. Inappropriately tricked out in Brooks Brothers suits, young Philip typically found himself eating lunch alone, scorned by his more boisterous classmates. Perhaps the high point of his early years was the trip that he took with his family to Europe after the First World War, which gave him his first, thrilling glimpse of Chartres and Paris.

Things began looking up when Philip went away to the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York. He spent three years there, studying languages, literature, and piano. The shy child became cocky and self-assured, an important resource for the debating team, theatrical productions, and school publications. Upon graduating, in 1923, he was voted "most likely to succeed."

Like his father, Philip went to Harvard. His first year, undistinguished scholastically, was marked by his father’s decision to distribute some of his considerable assets to his heirs. Philip’s sisters received a good deal of real estate. Philip got shares in the Aluminum Company of America. Overnight, he became a man of independent means. In the 1920s, when stock in ALCOA soared, he became wealthier than his father, a "millionaire, at a time when the word meant rich, not just comfortable." Philip’s new-found wealth was a double blessing: it underwrote his habitual financial generosity to friends, and it placed him in the enviable position of being able to work without a salary at the Museum of Modern Art (and pay his secretary out of his own pocket) and, later, to pick and choose his architectural commissions without regard to fees.

Johnson’s years at Harvard were turbulent and protracted. He twice took leaves because of what amounted to nervous breakdowns. Yet it was really at Harvard that his direction in life crystallized. It was not a quick or easy process. He studied Greek and Latin, and persisted with the piano to the point where he considered a career as a pianist. His primary subject, however, was philosophy. In those years, the famous philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was ensconced at Harvard, and Johnson soon became a "fixture" in his classes and at his house. It is in some ways surprising, in light of his later aestheticism, that Johnson at first found himself drawn to Plato, whose "masterful advocacy of the absolute nature of right and wrong as well as his identification of virtue and knowledge carried a special appeal."

The appeal did not last. During the course of 1928, Johnson abandoned Plato for the relativism of the sophists and, especially, Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of art and the will to power. Like some contemporary philosophers--one thinks in particular of Richard Rorty--Johnson now declared Plato’s grand moral vision to be "evil." And as with many contemporary philosophers--Rorty again comes to mind--Johnson’s abandonment of Plato was really tantamount to an abandonment of philosophy tout court. In the end, Schulze observes, Johnson was "too impatient, mercurial, and even superficial in his thought processes for Whitehead." Johnson himself noted that Whitehead never flunked his students "but if he gave you a B, it meant the same thing--that you didn’t have what it takes. In 1927, he gave me a B."

It was about this time that Johnson’s attention began to shift definitively toward the visual arts. (At Harvard, a newly formed Society for Contemporary Art had Edward M. M. Warburg, John Walker, and Lincoln Kirstein as guiding spirits, but they were all younger than Johnson and he remained unacquainted with them until later.) A visit to the Parthenon in 1928 was an important inspiration, as was his discovery the same year of an article by his older Harvard colleague Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Jr., on the Dutch architect Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud. But the single day that "more than any other turned his life around" came in 1929 when Johnson went to Wellesley for Theodate’s commencement and met Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founder of the Museum of Modern Art, which opened the following autumn.

At twenty-seven, Barr was only a few years older than Johnson, but his passion for modern art was as thorough as it was contagious. Although Johnson was in many ways out of his depth--of the three classes on the fine arts that he taken at Harvard, he had dropped two--he fell into animated discussion about art with Barr. Johnson had considered following his father into the law; he considered taking up an offer to teach classics at Oberlin. Meeting Alfred Barr changed all that for good.

The first fruit of Johnson’s encounter with Barr was to impart a special sense of purpose and direction to the European trip (one of many, many trips) that Johnson planned to take that summer. Barr gave him detailed instructions about what he should see, laying particular emphasis upon those places where the early monuments of modernist architecture were to be found, notably the Bauhaus in Dessau and the Weissenhofsiedlung housing colony in Stuttgart (though he missed an opportunity to see Mies van der Rohe’s celebrated German Pavilion at the International Exposition in Barcelona).

The next couple of years were spent in a flurry of productive activity. Johnson returned to the United States, completed work at Harvard for his degree, traveled constantly to New York for discussions with Alfred Barr, and--through Barr’s fianc�e, Margaret Scolari-Fitzmaurice--met and began working with Henry-Russell Hitchcock on what would turn out to be their exhibition and book on International Style architecture. In April 1930, he was appointed to the advisory committee of MOMA. In 1931, when the Architectural League of New York held their annual exhibition and left out all the promising young architects, Johnson and Barr rented space in a Sixth Avenue storefront and mounted an exhibition of "Rejected Architects" on the pattern of the famous Salon des Refuses of 1863. Writing about the press response to their exhibition ("mixed but lively"), Johnson wrote that "it remained for the Rejected Architects to give the International Style what might be called its first formal introduction to this country."

Then as later, Johnson was tireless and effective as an architectural impresario. He traveled constantly, commissioned Mies to design an apartment in New York, and organized several important exhibitions at MOMA, including, in 1934, "Machine Art." Johnson’s enthusiasms were sudden and overpowering. Oud was "the world’s greatest architect," Klee was "the greatest man" at the Bauhuas, Mies was "the greatest man I or we have met" and his Tugendhat House was "like the Parthenon," "without question the best-looking house in the world." Predictably, Johnson’s disillusionments were equally sudden. One day Gropius "may be the greatest of them all," shortly thereafter he would become "the Warren G. Harding of architecture."

There was one enthusiasm, however, that persisted far too long. In 1932, Helen Appleton Read, art critic of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and an avid admirer of Adolf Hitler, took Johnson with her to a Nazi rally outside Potsdam. It was a transformative experience: "totally febrile," Johnson recalled in the 1980s: "You simply could not fail to be caught up in the excitement of it." For Johnson, part of the thrill was sexual--"all those blond boys in black leather"--but there was also the political side: was this not Nietzsche’s will to power in action? Johnson’s flirtation with fascism is not an edifying story. Johnson resigned from MOMA in 1934 in order to devote himself to his new-found passion. He wrote an admiring article on "Architecture and the Third Reich" for Lincoln Kirstein’s magazine Hound and Horn in 1933 and indulged not infrequently in anti-Semitic rhetoric (e.g., in a letter to Barr, "the patrons of Mies are Jews and do we want them?"). He also became involved with several people who were later prosecuted for their Nazi connections during the war, most notably another Harvard alumnus, Lawrence Dennis. Together with Alan Blackburn, another classmate of his from Hackley and Harvard who was then on the staff at MOMA, Johnson attempted to start a new political party. The headline of a story by Joseph Alsop in the Herald Tribune summed it up: "Two Quit Modern Art Museum for Sur-Realist Political Venture."

Disappointed with their lack of success in starting a new political party, Johnson and Blackburn drove to Louisiana to offer their services to Huey Long. (Johnson said he was on his way to Louisiana to be Long’s "Minister of Fine Arts.") Long sensibly refused to see them, but eventually a lieutenant told the persistent pair that they should go to Ohio and "organize it." Which is what they did, or attempted to do.

Soon thereafter, Long was assassinated, so Johnson was without a leader. The notoriously anti-Semitic Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, the sensational national radio personality, soon stepped in to take Long’s place. Johnson worked in several capacities for Coughlin, writing, designing a platform for a rally in Chicago, helping to organize supporters. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Johnson was in Europe and was invited by the German propaganda ministry to accompany the Wehrmacht to the front. He sent back several dispatches for Coughlin’s magazine Social Justice. In one dispatch, he complained that Britain and "aliens" were turning France into an English colony: "Lack of leadership and direction in the [French] state has let the one group get control who always gain power in a nation’s time of weakness--the Jews."

In other dispatches, he assured American readers that public perception of the Germans was all wrong: they really weren’t the marauders people made them out to be. At the same time, he wrote enthusiastically in a letter that "we saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle." The emperor Nero could have hardly put it more bluntly. In an article called "Mein Kampf and the Business Man," which was published in the September 1939 issue of The Examiner, Johnson attacked "the liberals" and offered this apology for Hitler’s racial ideas: "Hitler’s ’racism’ is a perfectly simple though far-reaching idea. It is the myth of ’we, the best,’ which we find, more or less fully developed, in all vigorous cultures."

The basic story of Johnson’s political activities, which came to an abrupt end in 1940 when he matriculated in the architecture school at Harvard, has been known for some time. What are we to make of it? Abby Aldrich Rockefeller infamously said about this protracted episode that "every young man should be allowed to make one large mistake."

Naval intelligence and the FBI put together extensive dossiers on Johnson’s activities, which, when he was drafted later in the war, prevented him from getting a number of preferred jobs. Still, all things considered, it is extraordinary how little Johnson’s political activities hindered his career.

In a talk he gave in London in the early 1960s, Johnson made the following statement: "I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, instead of architecture. Perhaps that is why I have none now. I do not believe there is a consistent rationale or reason why one does things." This is typically Johnsonian both in its coy self-abasement and its implicit cynicism. Anyone who has looked into Johnson’s career cannot help being struck by the uncanny fusion of wit and cynicism that he exhibited. He exuded charm, but it was a charm that concealed, barely, a deep-seated brutality. Johnson’s declaration that he was "a whore" betrayed one aspect of that brutality. Other aspects were evident in his enthusiasm for fascist ideology. Still another aspect was revealed to an interviewer shortly after his father died at the age of ninety-seven. "I didn’t give a damn what my father wanted," Johnson said. "They [father and mother] were expendable. He wasn’t any use in the world." Not for nothing, perhaps, did Bertrand Russell conclude that Johnson, albeit a "gentleman" and an amusing dinner companion, was at bottom "a diabolist."

Schulze spoke of Johnson’s "love of beauty," claiming that it was consistently a "unifying force" in his personality "provided it was free of message and he of the obligation to reflect on the message." But in fact the insistence on such "freedom" meant that Johnson’s relation to beauty, like his relation to truth, was fundamentally that of a parodist. His love of beauty was the chilly self-love of the confirmed aesthete. His message was that beauty is fine so long as it can be made interesting enough to be piquant; otherwise, ugliness has its attractions, too. Several years ago, Philip Johnson observed that postmodernism installed the giggle into architecture. He never stopped laughing, but unfortunately the joke was on us.

A Message from the Editors

Since 1982, The New Criterion has nurtured and safeguarded our delicate cultural inheritance. Join our family of supporters and secure the future of civilization.