An astute but not terribly sympathetic look at the influential modernist architect.
Brilliant and iconoclastic but prickly and controversial, Philip Johnson (1906-2005) led a seemingly charmed existence, but he was essentially restless, opportunistic, and—as Dallas Morning News architecture critic Lamster (Architecture/Univ. of Texas at Arlington; Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens, 2009, etc.) portrays through analysis of his architectural creations—often joyless. The well-off son of a Cleveland corporate lawyer and Quaker matron, Johnson was a dilettante in his youth. He became a scholar of classics and philosophy at Harvard, where he fell into a “fraternity of sympathetic gay men” who fervently discussed modern art and design; the group was led by Lincoln Kirstein, Paul J. Sachs, and Alfred H. Barr. The last would become the first director of the new Museum of Modern Art in New York. After a tour of radical European modernism, Johnson—before he even attended architecture school—was chosen to curate the museum’s first groundbreaking architectural show in 1932, which featured exhibits by Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. As “house architect” for the museum during four decades, Johnson produced such successful shows as Machine Art (1934) and fashioned the enduring urban oasis of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden (1953). Lamster marvels at how Johnson was able to “straddle both the modernist and the traditionalist factions,” from his own New Canaan Glass House (1949), skyline-altering Seagram Building (1958), postmodern AT&T Tower (1994), and other creations to his activism for various cities’ Beaux Arts preservation. Notably, the author devotes significant attention to Johnson’s troubling foray into fascist anti-Semitic politics of the 1930s, which indeed would haunt him later on.
Offering a fresh look at his subject’s less-than-savory aspects, Lamster portrays a diffident genius for whom being boring was the greatest crime and whose work, while often riveting, was also “barren and inert and lonely.”