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Style over substance
Biography of the first 'starchitect' reveals the man who brought important ideas in European modernism to North America to be a thoroughly superficial figure who was easy to despise

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Saturday, December 15, 2018 – Page P19

The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century BY MARK LAMSTER LITTLE, BROWN AND CO., 528 PAGES

Who was Philip Johnson?

Starchitect. Collector. Definitely a Nazi. And, maybe, a genius. This is the portrait that emerges from The Man in the Glass House, a new biography from the American critic Mark Lamster.

Johnson, an architect, curator and power broker, lived to be 98, and he shaped the life and the built form of the United States - and certainly Canada, too - to a profound degree.

"There simply is no other architect who has been so influential for so long," Lamster says. Johnson, who died in 2005, was for decades a New York icon, holding court at his table at the Four Seasons Restaurant, appearing on the Charlie Rose show to tell Americans about the latest developments in his field. (What a pair of charming older gents they were.)

He received visitors equally at his Connecticut estate, which centred on a glass-and-steel house he completed in 1948. The Glass House was a radical statement of modern principles. But it was totally derivative, aping the work of Johnson's hero Mies van der Rohe. And it had a darkness within: A brick chimney was inspired, Johnson wrote, by "a burnt wooden village I saw once where nothing was left but foundations and chimneys of brick." As Lamster reveals, this was probably something Johnson saw as a war correspondent in Poland in 1939: a Jewish settlement, torched by Nazi planes. Here, in this heart of arty, upper-class America, was a tribute to the Holocaust.

That fit Johnson. He spent the 1930s as a serious acolyte of fascism, pursuing a political career of his own and providing cover in American journals for Nazi ideas.

With fresh reporting from FBI files on Johnson and several cronies, Lamster reveals that his subject was "almost certainly an agent of the Nazi state," as he told me. At least two of Johnson's close friends were convicted on charges of sedition or treason during the Second World War, and deservedly so. For his part, Johnson was an active and engaged supporter of Hitler; he wrote an approving review of Mein Kampf.

He is, in short, easy to despise, and that's true in some respects for his work: Johnson was associated with many of the great movements in architecture in the 20th century, but he had no commitment to improving the lives of ordinary people. "Doing good ... that doesn't interest me at all," he wrote.

This made Johnson a difficult subject for Lamster - who is the architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News and teaches at the University of Texas - to spend nine years writing about. "I was absolutely not a fan, of the man or of the work," Lamster says. "But I thought about it, and I realized this was the book I had to write."

He imagined his project as analogous to The Power Broker, Robert Caro's life of the New York civic official Robert Moses. It "is a biography, nominally, but it's also a story about power and New York, and it has this incredible sweep," Lamster says. "And Moses - you admire him, but he's also a detestable figure. What I saw in Johnson was something similar."

Remarkably, The Man in the Glass House lives up to that comparison. It reads like a novel, and the story manages to capture huge swaths of 20th-century life.

Johnson was at the centre of American life. He was profoundly privileged, ambitious and peripatetic. He was by turns (deep breath) an important collector of modern art; a pioneering curator of design; a war correspondent; a fascist politician, rabble-rouser in Ohio politics and Nazi collaborator; a crucial figure at the Museum of Modern Art; an out gay man, doing business with mid-century corporate America; and, along the way, "a serial hit-and-run driver." Not to mention a profoundly selfish and amoral human being.

That's not even mentioning his career in architecture. Johnson's work in the field began with the 1932 Museum of Modern Art show The International Style, for which he cooked up that term, still in use today. (As a collector and administrator, he played a huge role in the growth of MoMA.) Johnson was responsible for bringing to North America important ideas in European modernism. He was the leading North American promoter of Mies, with whom he collaborated on the Seagram Building in New York, for Canada's Phyllis Lambert and the Bronfman family. He was an important advocate for the "modern classical" architecture that defined public architecture in the late 1960s, and then for postmodernism in the 1980s.

And then, late in life, for what was known as deconstructionism.

Each of those movements, whether or not you recognize the names, has profoundly shaped the architecture of North American cities. Mies's monolithic Seagram Building was the precursor to TD Centre in Toronto, Westmount Square in Montreal and 1,000 mediocre knockoffs. ("The style was easy to knock off, or at least appeared that way," Lamster writes.) Postmodernism was "columns applied to glass buildings."

And deconstructionism - a quasimovement popularized by Johnson - brought us the CBC headquarters in Toronto, with its hotcoloured geometric protrusions (Johnson called them "zogs") busting out of a rational grid.

How could one person get behind so many radically contradictory ideas, each of them with their own conceptual and historical baggage? Lamster argues that Johnson was intellectually as well as morally superficial. "He promoted an architecture entirely driven by style. Not by program" - a building's intended use - "not by context, or by sustainability, or by social impact, or any of the other aspects that we see as critical today."

He was ideally well suited for the "starchitect" system that emerged at the end of the 1980s; the model architect as a singular genius, divorced from place and known for a trademark style. His "kids," as he called his favourites, included Frank Gehry; the two had a warm relationship for decades.

Gehry is also Jewish, as are the Bronfmans and many other people in Johnson's orbit. This fact sits somewhat awkwardly with Johnson's deep and long-held anti-Semitism and fascist politics, which continued well into his 30s.

He managed to dodge these facts in later life; professionally, he began to design synagogues in the New York region in the 1960s and, also, designed a nuclear-research facility for the Israeli state. This fan of Hitler helped the Jewish state build the bomb.

So does Lamster believe that Johnson was sincere in repudiating his early ideas? Lamster's response is philosophical. Shimon Peres, he points out, was willing to forgive Johnson, becoming his close friend - and Peres also led Israel's negotiations after the war with West Germany, "the actual Nazi state. If he was willing to speak with the Nazis, maybe we should be willing to forgive Johnson."

There are other faults hard to forgive in a human and in an artist, not least Johnson's insidious influence in separating the art of architecture from any moral code.

But in a biography subject, these pay off. "Johnson always said," Lamster points out, "that the worst crime was to be boring." A person who made it through the 20th century with that view on the world is certainly worth visiting.

Alex Bozikovic is The Globe and Mail's architecture critic.

Associated Graphic

Philip Johnson's Glass House was a radical statement of modern principles but also a tribute to the Holocaust. The brick chimney was inspired, the fascist architect once wrote, by 'a burnt wooden village I saw once where nothing was left but foundations and chimneys of brick.' This was likely based on something Johnson saw as a war correspondent in Poland in 1939: a Jewish settlement, torched by Nazi planes. MARK LAMSTER

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