His Glass House
by ALEX CARNEVALE
Philip Johnson's estate in New Canaan, Connecticut features eight buildings:
1) his house
2) a guest house
3) a gallery devoted to paintings
4) a gallery devoted to sculpture
5) a library
6) a folie
7) a ghost house
8) a tower
Thirty-three acres surround these structures, all as meticulously put together as the buildings themselves.
Philip Johnson's mother Louise took a lot of staged photos of her children. She was relatively late to motherhood, and had not entered it lightly. She parented her only son with great purpose, pushing him towards academic achievement. She did not wish to be his friend. When he felt his first stirrings of attraction towards other boys in his class, he asked his mother what these feelings meant. "Philip, how should I know?" she replied.
When Philip was a teenager his father was appointed by the government to investigate reports of pogroms in Poland during the first World War. The family sailed for Paris on the Aquatania. When they returned to Cleveland a few months later it was hard not to find it a disappointment.
He made few friends at boarding school — he was more concerned with winning the respect of his classmates. After being voted "Most Likely To Succeed," he entered Harvard, where he had none of the status of his more bourgeois friends, but all of the money. Finances were never a concern for young Philip: his father had purchased Alcoa stock i(n Philip's name) before the company became a behemoth. He bought a car and began amassing a library to his tastes. Philip tried kissing a few of his classmates with varying degrees of success. His father told him to forget about wanting to fuck men.
Philip was depressed throughout his time at Harvard. A visit to Egypt claimed his virginity — he mated with a guard inside the Cairo Museum. Because of his numerous absences, he found himself a semester short of a bachelor's degree. Instead of finishing, he put his car on a boat crossing the Atlantic and arrived in Berlin. It was 1929.
Men of his particular predilection were numerous. The city thrived around him. "The Americans were the conquerors of Germany," he said later, "and the young Germans were eager to accomodate them. Paris was never that gastfreundlich." He observed the Bauhaus with wonder, making his first acquaintance with the artists there as a patron. The first painting he bought was a Klee.
Other members of the group impressed him less. "Kandinsky is a little fool who is completely dominated by his swell Russian Grande Dame of a wife," he wrote. "He has millions of his sometimes painful abstractions sitting around the house and thinks he is still the leader of a new movement. It is sometimes pathetic, sometimes amusing."
Two months after the Museum of Modern Art opened in New York, Philip was back in America, finishing his degree so he could relocate himself in the institution's shadow. He became infatuated with a boyfriend named Cary Ross. In a letter to a female friend, he wrote that "You are the only one who knows about Cary and me, and to whom I can talk now. As you know the only reason it came about was because he is good-looking and identified with that group down there in my emotional life. Well it seems now that it was merely a passing whim with him, and he was too weak to tell me, and let me go on thinking more. He came up the other day, and naturally I soon found out where the land lay, and am now in a species of hell which I heartily dislike."
Philip worked at the MoMA for no salary; he did not require any money from them and even paid for his own secretary. He travelled to Berlin often in order to indulge himself. The art dealer Julien Levy later said, "He showed me a Berlin night life such as few could have imagined. The grotesque decadence I was to discover over and over again in Berlin those few short weeks could only be compared, one might suppose, to Paris during the last days of Louis XVI."
Unlike in his youth, depression passed through Philip like a whim. He enlisted Mies Van der Rohe and his associate Lilly Reich to design a New York apartment he had purchased on a lark. He wanted the place to eschew the contemporary urge towards art deco.
Philip busied himself by preparing a massive event designed to feature modern architecture, the first in the MoMA's history. Despite or perhaps because of his experience with the artists of the Bauhaus, the final exhibition diminished Gropius, Le Corbusier (Philip was not a fan) and Van der Rohe quite significantly, placing their American peers on at least the same level. The arrangement satisfied no one, and Frank Lloyd Wright was also made furious by his depiction in the catalogue.
I feel more than badly that you have misunderstood my intentions and actions to such an extent, and I am writing in the hope of clearing up as much as possible the reasons for your complaints. Please believe that I have appreciated your efforts to remain friends despite the many misunderstandings which I sincerely regret.
I feel as strongly as ever that I have a great deal to learn, much more so after the the experience of trying to make an exhibition. I still hope that we can have a good visit when I come West this spring...
For Philip Johnson toadying was itself an art of the highest order.
The moment Hitler emerged on the world political scene, Philip Johnson heard of him from his German-American supporters. Philip knew very little of world politics when he attended his first Nazi event in Potsdam, NY; his life in the city among gays and Jews effectively constituted Hitler's worst nightmare. Philip had even recently jumped into a relationship with a jazz singer named Jimmy Daniels. After all, Harlem was only a short trip up from his Upper East Side stomping grounds.
When Hitler came to power in January of 1933, Philip defended the man to anyone who would listen. He wrote an article for his Jewish friend Lincoln Kirstein's magazine entitled "Architecture in the Third Reich." Although he had not grown up hating Jews, he was receptive to Hitler's views of them. When Hitler ordered the murder of gay Nazi Ernst Rohm because of his homosexuality and potential challenge to the dictatorship, Johnson presciently left Germany.
Sony sold the building Johnson designed in New York to AT&T this year. I walk past it all the time — it seems to me it would be wholly at home in Nazi Germany. It is not surprising that Philip found something to admire in Hitler — many gentile intellectuals of the period did, just as many are attracted to the charisma of contemporary dictators now. But it is disgusting to be attracted to the Nazi aesthetic itself.
Johnson left his position at the MoMA in order to join up with Huey Long, the "left-wing" populist whose plans to redistribute wealth were ironic considering Philip's position. The MoMA board was completely embarrassed when Philip informed them that he was leaving to become Long's "Minister of Fine Arts." When he arrived in Louisiana, Long refused to see Philip.
After Long's death later that year, Philip attempted to join the cause of the Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, another populist whose anti-Semitic radio addresses were familiar rhetoric across the Midwest. Coughlin founded the National Union for Social Justice, an organization based on the man's plan to attack banks and the country's wealthiest citizens. Philip's biographer Franz Schulze rationalizes Philip's dabbling into politics thusly: "He could, when so inclined, impose an immense concentration on whatever concept seized him."
Because he was gay, Philip Johnson knew he could never properly be a Nazi. Among his friends were those loyal to Germany, and this put him in the government's crosshairs. The FBI began assembling a dossier on Philip. He complained of Jews trying to buy a magazine he was interested in, and was disgusted by his experience observing a Polish ghetto. He was ever more convinced of the superiority of his mother country, and planned to celebrate when Hitler conquered England.
He took a position for the German propaganda ministry and dispatched reports in English favorable to Germany from the "front lines." Reading his reports, bile rises in every mouth. Such indiscretions are routinely tossed aside by those who wanted to embrace Johnson fully as an architect. I can't myself look at any of his buildings without remembering the things he said, even if he was a young man.
During the war, Philip was admitted to the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He had co-written one of the books assigned for his class in the history of architecture. One of his projects at Harvard was to build his own house, a lot he purchased at 9 Ash Street in Cambridge. He tried to put his Nazi past behind him by joining the Harvard Defense Group, but he was eventually dismissed after complaints. He tried to apply for a position with U.S. Naval Intelligence but was rejected for obvious reasons. The FBI continued to follow his activities.
Most people at Harvard actively avoided the young Nazi, but occasionally some found his personality charming. After sitting next to him at a socialist dinner party, Betrand Russell commented to the host that "your friend Philip is a diabolist, which is a strange thing for a friend of yours to be, but how much pleasanter it is to spend an evening with a gentleman you disagree with than with a cad you agree with." After his first year there, he moved into a room in the Hotel Continental, hiring an English butler and a Filipino houseboy to keep the place familiar while his new home was constructed.
On March 12, 1943, Philip Johnson was drafted into the army. He never left the U.S., or even advanced beyond the rank of private. His fellow soldiers called him "Pop" because of his age and general ineptness.
Through the influence of his friend Alfred Barr, Philip returned to the MoMA after his discharge from the army in 1944. Shortly thereafter, he bought his estate in New Canaan and began construction on what would be known as The Glass House. The irony was lost on him, and in fact irony itself did not emigrate to America until a decade later.
The Glass House was Philip's primary residence on the estate. It was first and foremost a bachelor pad except to the extent that it did not afford a measure of privacy, kind of like a closet that wasn't. Since such a structure could only be realistic on an estate that allowed total isolation from passersby, The Glass House is of course impossible except for the very rich, who tend to value their privacy more than most.
By 1949 he had completed the Guest House, opaque where his own residence was open. He moved in and immediately set to work on an article documenting the construction of both buildings. He invited the editors of every architectural publication he knew to come visit. In the meantime his attempts to pass the licensing exam in his field failed again and again. In order to continue practicing what was now his trade, he relocated his office to New Canaan and began teaching part-time at Yale.
One of his commissions in the years that followed was the design of a synagogue in Port Chester, New York. He had won the job by promising to deliver his design at zero cost. The resulting structure is among the most revolting of Johnson's designs — the wholly uninspired, predictable interior clashing with an exterior that was nothing short of repulsive. Years later Philip would continue his half-hearted desire to atone for his Nazi past by designing an Israeli nuclear reactor.
In 1954 Philip finally passed the architectural exam and relocated his practice to Manhattan, where he shared space with Van der Rohe. Together they collaborated on the legendarily bad Seagram building, although the vast majority of the responsibility for the building's dullness fell on Van der Rohe alone. He would make his own name during the ensuing decades, falling in and out of the zeitgeist depending on the various whims of the media and his peers.
Philip was forever wanting to add structures to his New Canaan parcel, and the pavilion he added to the lagoon was the worst of his ideas. Aesthetically, it was a hodgepodge, and its intrusion on nature — in effect, in created a small island where there was nothing — made it not only objectionable but dangerous. "There is something attractive about making some part of a building precarious," Philip would later claim airily. "It is titillating. I sometimes get an erection when I jump over that little stretch of water."
Philip fared better in the museums he designed in the 1950s as his star rose. He had already had good practice when he fashioned an extension of the MoMA, and his work on the fantastic Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Nebraska and an art museum in Fort Worth emboldened his confidence. His proposals for Lincoln Center were not well-regarded among his peers, but his early designs for it have aged better than many of his more celebrated structures.
In his personal life, Philip had dumped his serious boyfriend for a gorgeous Yugoslavian immigrant named Peter Vranic. They kept each other supplied with what the other lacked; as Philip would later put it, things were "very violent, very sexual, very physical, and very short." When Vranic found out he wasn't in the now 50-year old Johnson's will, however, he bailed. In the chaos of this turmoil Philip met the man he would spend the rest of his life with: then-RISD student David Whitney.
Early in their relationship, Philip had treated David like a fawning admirer, installing him in a Manhattan apartment. There David established friendships with Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns to satisfy him whenever Philip ignored him. Whitney used Philip's money to great effect, and soon buildings had to be constructed to accomodate the paintings his lover desired. Before David's arrival, Philip had only installed an oval-shaped swimming pool near The Glass House, but with David's input he designed a large art gallery, completed in 1965. A sculpture gallery followed by 1970.
David Whitney died in 2005, five months after Philip. Tours now run through The Glass House from May to November. An extended survey of the place runs about $100 and should be booked in advance. Taking a virtual tour on the website is far more cost-effective. If you did not take care to remember, you would think that The Glass House had suddenly popped into reality to serve some new master — it is no good as a museum. This place sheds history, now rendered invisible among the structures Philip imagined.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about Vuillard. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
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