You want to begin a review of “The Man in the Glass House,” Mark Lamster’s stimulating and lively new biography of Philip Johnson, by saying something about architecture. But the reality of Johnson — one of the most compelling architects who has ever lived, which is not the same as being one of the best architects — is that the most interesting thing about him was not the buildings he designed. The qualities that make him, and this book, fascinating are his nimble intelligence, his restlessness, his energy, his anxieties, his ambitions and his passions, all of which were channeled into the making of a few pieces of architecture that will stand the test of time, and many others thatwill not.
Johnson, who began his architectural career as the Museum of Modern Art’s first curator of architecture and only later decided to practice what he had been preaching, probably had a greater effect on the architectural culture than anyone else in the second half of the 20th century. He certainly did more than anyone except Frank Lloyd Wright to put architecture into the public discourse. He had a critic’s mind, not an artist’s: He was fascinated by everything, and he wanted to get it out there, put it before the public, stir up the pot. He nurtured the careers of architects he admired, and he undermined, or tried to undermine, the careers of those he thought less of. Through sheer force of personality, he made himself the godfather of American architecture in the second half of the 20th century.Not a bad accomplishment for someone who was not, in the end, a truly great architect. He knew that — he was too smart not to — even though he had trouble admitting it, and while he would sometimes make self-deprecating remarks like his oft-quoted line about how all architects are whores, he knew that neither his profession nor he himself could be quite that simply explained. Architects sell themselves to their clients, but only toward a greater end, the making of architecture that has the power to stir the emotions, something that Johnson honestly believed was noble. For most of his life he was one of our most ardent proponents of the notion that good buildings make life better.To give him his due, he made several such buildings himself: Pennzoil Place in Houston, the original Four Seasons restaurant and the AT&T Building in New York belong on that list. His combination of enthusiastic advocacy and deep insecurity also led him to be exceptionally generous to gifted younger architects who, even if they were more talented than he was, would respect his position as their dean. So when he received the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects in 1978, he managed to get Charles Moore, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Frank Gehry, Robert Stern, Charles Gwathmey, Cesar Pelli and Stanley Tigerman to join him in Dallas to serve as a kind of honor guard around him, his young architectural groomsmen.That is the good side. So is the Glass House, the extraordinary country house he created for himself beginning in 1948 in New Canaan, Conn., now a museum owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In addition to Johnson’s original residence of glass, the grounds are also home to a dozen other remarkable structures that he built over many decades, including a painting gallery, a sculpture gallery and a library study, continuing until just a few years before his death at 98 in 2005. The estate as a whole demonstrates his mercurial design intelligence as it evolved over half a century; it is as close to a true autobiography in architecture as anything that has ever been built in the United States, and it is like no place else.CreditRandy Harris for The New York TimesBut there is another side to Philip Johnson, and it is less benign. Lamster deals extensively with Johnson’s horrendous infatuation with the Nazis in the 1930s, a ghastly chapter that was well documented in Franz Schulze’s 1994 biography and that Lamster fleshes out with a few more details, which do not redound to his subject’s benefit. Johnson spent a lot of time in Germany, ostensibly researching the flowering of European modern architecture, which would lead to the celebrated exhibition and book, “The International Style,” that he produced, along with the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, for the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. But he took more than a little time off from studying buildings as he fell under the thrall of both German politics and the attractiveness of Aryan youth.After all of this became known some years ago, it was sometimes excused as simply an offshoot of Johnson’s homosexuality. But Lamster helps us understand the weakness of that explanation as he shows how Johnson returned to the United States and supported many other characters whose politics were almost as despicable, among them Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin.In reality, Johnson was a bundle of contradictions. He was a brilliant aesthete, a connoisseur, an intellectual who devoured ideas and as stimulating a conversationalist as you could ever encounter. If as a young man he possessed what Lamster calls an “extravagant hauteur,” he was too full of enthusiasm to be merely a cynic. He was saved, you could say, by a genuine curiosity that never left him, even in old age. “Boredom was the one thing Philip Johnson would not suffer,” Lamster tells us.He was also a man who spent much of his life searching for something to believe in, worshiping one architectural deity after another: He was Mies van der Rohe’s greatest acolyte, until he was not; he took possession of postmodernism from Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and then he abandoned that for what others named Deconstructivism, which he made his own by curating an exhibition by that name at the Museum of Modern Art. Then, toward the end of his life, he decided that Frank Gehry was the greatest architect of the age, and his work began to take on a clear, if not terribly convincing, Gehry-esque tone.What was at the core of Johnson? Lamster says his architecture is really all about the idea of the void, which seems a bit too easy, a bit too close to saying he was trying to fill an internal emptiness, which on some level is the case for everyone. He was not incapable of love; he had a relationship with David Whitney, an imaginative curator with a razor-sharp intelligence (who doesn’t quite get the respect he deserves in these pages), that lasted for more than four decades. He was enough of a reader and a thinker to have built for himself an entire building at the Glass House estate where he would retreat, surrounded by books.But he was also a shameless publicity hound, which is why it is telling that toward the end of his career, when his longstanding professional partnership with John Burgee had ended and he was continuing to practice on his own, he took on as a client a certain developer by the name of Donald Trump. He and Trump needed each other: Trump wanted a famous name, and Johnson was desperate to stay in the game. Johnson produced a few lousy buildings for Trump, who probably didn’t know the difference; all he cared about was being able to claim that they were designed by Philip Johnson. And Johnson got to stay in the public eye.The Trump chapter of Johnson’s long career seemed just a bizarre footnote when it happened in the 1990s. Now, it is a little harder to dismiss. Outwardly, the two men could not have been more different: Johnson could talk circles around anyone, and Trump is verbally inept. Johnson had contempt for Trump’s vulgarity and lack of intellectual curiosity, and Trump had no understanding of Johnson’s cultivation. The beautiful little study at the Glass House would have been a prison to Trump. But now that we know Trump as more than a real-estate developer, it is hard not to think back to Johnson’s infatuation with dictators, his snobbery, his obsession with being noticed, and wonder if they did not have a little more in common than it seemed back then.Lamster’s timing is excellent: He has written the story of Philip Johnson for the age of Donald Trump, and it makes us see a side of Johnson that is, at the very least, sobering. Johnson, like Trump, made himself impossible to ignore. Lamster’s most important contribution may be to show us that, however electrifying the ability to command the spotlight may be, it does not confer the lasting qualities of greatness.Paul Goldberger is the author of “Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry.”A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 11 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Extravagant Hauteur