Features November 1994
Philip Johnson: the architect as aesthete
On Johnson’s work.
Le stupide et le bel esprit sont également fermés à la verité; il y a toutefois cette différence que le stupide esprit la respecte, tandis que le bel esprit la méprise.
The stupid person and the wit are equally blind to truth; there is, however, this difference, that the stupid person respects truth while the wit despises it.
Effect before everything.
As one considers the confused and confusing story of contemporary architecture, no figure looms larger or is more controversial than the prolific doyen of postmodernism, Philip Johnson. Now in his eighty-ninth year, Johnson has 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 has 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 notes in his new biography of the architect,1 “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 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 now Johnson’s fame has 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. But Mr. Schulze’s new biography allows us to step back and take the measure of Philip Johnson’s career—a career that, for better or worse, is in many ways emblematic not only of the plight of contemporary architecture but also of our “postmodern” cultural situation.
Mr. Schulze is certainly well qualified to undertake Johnson’s biography. In addition to having written two books on the architecture of Chicago, he is also the author of a superb critical biography of Philip Johnson’s first architectural inspiration, Mies van der Rohe. One of Mr. Schulze’s main achievements in that 1985 study was to illuminate the larger intellectual and historical context of Mies’s elegant but often elusively abstract architecture. Adopting a tone that was appreciative but not uncritical, he dissected with unparalleled clarity the fundamental aesthetic problems that Mies struggled to solve.
Mr. Schulze has brought the same kind of intellectual sophistication to Philip Johnson: Life and Work. But the resulting picture, while certainly vivid, is in the end not as illuminating or authoritative as it was with Mies. This is partly because Philip Johnson presents a much more blurry subject than Mies: one would be hard pressed to define his fundamental aesthetic ideas because they are constantly in flux. (It is not surprising that Heraclitus is one of his favorite philosophers.) Mr. Schulze is correct when he notes, in his preface, that Johnson’s “genius was that of a singularly gifted harlequin who forever changed the masks of style on his own work and conducted his personal relationships with comparable whimsicality.” How it can also be said that “steadfast commitments and loyalties” and a “studied worldview” have animated all his activities is perhaps less obvious.
If Johnson’s mercurial nature is one problem that Mr. Schulze faced in writing this biography, another is the simple fact that he was writing about a living person—an almost insuperable obstacle to grasping the whole truth. In his preface, Mr. Schulze tells us that Johnson did not see any of the biography before it was published and that his book is therefore “an independent and unauthorized work.” Perhaps so. But while the portrait of Philip Johnson that emerges in this book is often the opposite of flattering, one sometimes gets the uncomfortable sense that Mr. Schulze was looking over his shoulder as he was writing. Something of this sort is evident not only in the excuses that are made for Johnson’s erratic personal behavior but also in some of the judgments of his work and importance.
Still, this is an important biography, perceptive and disquieting by turns.
Still, this is an important biography, perceptive and disquieting by turns. Mr. Schulze proceeds chronologically, taking us from Johnson’s childhood in and about Cleveland, Ohio, through his years at the Museum of Modern Art, his amazingly productive association with John Burgee from the later 1960s through the 1980s, right up to his current work designing a suite of buildings for the developer Donald Trump.
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. By the standards of the day, it was a late marriage: Homer Johnson’s first two wives had died of tuberculosis and Louise Pope was thirty-two when they married. Their four children were produced in quick succession. The Johnsons’ eldest son, Alfred, succumbed to mastoiditis when he was five years old—a fate that, Mr. Schulze speculates, was perhaps precipitated by his parents’ settled belief that “fresh air,” no matter how cold, was the key to good health. This made young Philip, the “irreplaceable heir,” an even more precious asset. Nevertheless, his upbringing, although “uncommonly protected,” was not, it seems, particularly affectionate. Philip and his younger sister, Theodate, were and remained very close; but their father was a bluff, somewhat distant character, most at home at his club or on the links. Louise sedulously directed the children’s early education. It was she, Mr. Schulze writes, who instructed them “in the good manners and lofty ideas appropriate to her concept of their station and mission in life.” Nevertheless, Louise was “a mother of majesty rather than intimacy,” who “locomoted with unerring deliberateness, like an ocean liner.” She was, Philip later recalled, more “schoolmistress than mother.”
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, which Mr. Schulze describes as “a fanciful sandstone olio of classical Greek and medieval English components.” 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 séance. 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.
Mr. Schulze does not say whether there was any further communication between Riddle and James. One somehow suspects not.
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. His physical mannerisms, Mr. Schulze notes, “were noticeably light and dainty, rather like a girl’s.” 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.” At the same time, Mr. Schulze informs us, he was very lonely and did not make friends easily. It was about this time, it seems, that Philip became aware of his homosexuality, though he did not yet embark on the frenetically promiscuous life that he later indulged in.
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.
Johnson’s years at Harvard were turbulent and protracted. He twice took leaves because of what amounted to nervous breakdowns. (Mr. Schulze refers several times to Johnson’s “manic-depressive” states of mind.) 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, Mr. 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 according to Mr. Schulze, 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. “More than any other event in his personal history,” Mr. Schulze writes, this chance meeting with Alfred Barr “persuaded him that the labyrinth of his mind had a center.” 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 fiancée, 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 Refusés 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.
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,” a collection of manufactured objects that were meant, as Mr. Schulze observes, “to demonstrate how that anonymous . . . force of modern times, the machine, could be made to produce [objects] . . . that were at once functional and beautiful. There had never been a show like it in any American fine arts museum.” Johnson’s enthusiasms were sudden and overpowering. “Hyperbole was catnip to Philip.” 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? Mr. Schulze deals at some length with Johnson’s flirtation with fascism in a section of his book called “The Inglorious Detour.” It 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 (Mr. Schulze later notes Johnson’s “nagging quest for monumentality”), 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.”
Mr. Schulze suggests that Johnson’s political activities were sparked partly by a “recurrence of some form of manic-depressive crisis.” Perhaps. In any event, 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.
Soon thereafter, Long was assassinated, so Johnson was without a leader. The notoriously anti-Semitic Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, the “most sensational national radio personality of his day,” 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. Mr. Schulze adds a few inglorious details. 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.” One wonders if she would feel the same way about Paul de Man or Martin Heidegger, both of whose early efforts on behalf of the Nazi cause have lately received so much attention.
For his part, Mr. Schulze engages in a fair amount of handwringing. He presents the facts, but then engages in a half-hearted attempt to rationalize them away. Johnson was swept away at the Potsdam rally, but, after all, his American citizenship and wealth allowed him to enjoy “the luxury of an interpretation,” whatever that means. Indeed, Mr. Schulze is by inclination an admirably lucid writer, and whenever his prose grows muddy, one suspects it is because he is embarrassed about something. Attempting to explain Johnson’s infatuation with National Socialism, he tells us that “whatever the irreducible core of Philip’s personality, it lay beneath multiple layers of motivations manifest in an almost unnatural facility at the intermingling of activities and interests, not all of them discernibly consonant with one another.” I am not sure what this means in English. In the end, Mr. Schulze comes close to doing an Abby Rockefeller: he does not quite excuse Johnson, but he concludes (with stunning understatement) that his actions, though “decidedly unheroic,” merited “little more substantial attention than they have gained.” Not everyone had been so forgiving. Naval intelligence and the FBI, for example, 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.
Mr. Schulze is generally less queasy in dealing with Johnson’s work as an architect and public-relations man for architecture. He gives him due credit for his role in winning Mies the commission for the Seagram Building in the mid-1950s, and he is appropriately severe about Johnson’s postmodernist edifices of the 1980s, noting that many of them “reveal a descent to the level of kitsch that appears less camp in its motivation than simply and unmitigatedly cheap in its effect.” It is difficult to disagree. Harder to understand are some of Mr. Schulze’s professed enthusiasms: for example, his claim that there is “something rather refreshing” about the so-called Lipstick Building in New York—a building that, whatever else can be said about it, certainly impresses most viewers as “cheap.”
Mr. Schulze is generally less queasy in dealing with Johnson’s work as an architect and public-relations man for architecture.
In the end, it must be said that Mr. Schulze gets the details about Philip Johnson right but that he misconstrues the picture he has assembled. Mr. Schulze several times alludes to Johnson’s “classicist disposition,” but his entire book is a casebook showing that Johnson’s disposition is exactly the opposite. He is correct that Johnson came to treat “the history of building as one immense source book” for his ever more extravagant architectural fantasies, but he skirts the fact that such a predatory attitude toward history is deeply at odds with the settled conviction that marks the classical temper. Mies once famously said that “we don’t invent a new architecture every Monday morning.” In his post-Miesian phase, as Mr. Schulze points out, Johnson is a French classicist one moment, “then, without skipping a beat, a medieval castellator, and—next Monday morning, so to speak—a borrower from the Northern Renaissance.” It may be the case that every second or third Monday Johnson wants a classical “look”; but such striving for effect is precisely the opposite of any serious classicism, whether practiced by Palladio or, indeed, by Mies van der Rohe. As Johnson’s beloved Nietzsche observed in his criticism of another artist addicted to effects, what is meant to have the effect of truth cannot itself be true.
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 exhibits. He exudes charm, but it is a charm that conceals, barely, a deep-seated brutality. Johnson’s declaration that he is “a whore” betrays 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.”
Mr. Schulze speaks of Johnson’s “love of beauty,” claiming that it has consistently been 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” means that Johnson’s relation to beauty, like his relation to truth, is fundamentally that of a parodist. His love of beauty is the chilly self-love of the confirmed aesthete. His message is that beauty is fine so long as it can be made interesting enough to be piquant; otherwise, ugliness has its attractions, too. A few years ago, Philip Johnson observed that postmodernism installed the giggle into architecture. He hasn’t stopped laughing, but unfortunately the joke is on us.
Go to the top of the document.
- Philip Johnson: Life and Work, by Franz Schulze; Knopf, 496 pages, $30. Go back to the text.
A Message from the Editors
Support our crucial work and join us in strengthening the bonds of civilization.
Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 3, on page 9
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com