July 8, 1906– Philip Cortelyou Johnson:
“All architects want to live beyond their deaths.”
Ohio born Philip Johnson is one of my favorite figures in the exalted field of Architecture; one of my passions, with 20th century American architecture as my focus. As I type that, I realize that my favorite structure on our pretty planet is probably the 13th century Duomo in Sienna in Tuscany. We can each be filled with contradictions, right?
Not all that long ago, any young man who was gay and loved design was expected to become a “decorator”. Brick, steel and concrete were for straight dudes. Queers were supposed to stick to antique furniture and fabric swatches. For most of the 20th century, there was a brilliant exception: Johnson built skyscrapers of steel in nearly every major city in the USA. He also mentored three generations of mostly straight, mostly male architects, and shared his own life with a man he met when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.
Idiosyncratic in his manner and dress, with his trademark thick round glasses, Johnson caught my interest when I lived in New York City in the mid-1070s and I fell in love with the Seagram Building, conceived and designed by Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. That building has a mention in Stephen Sondheim‘s musical Company, making me curious about the reference. So, I began a little research back in 1970, leading me to Johnson.
Even before graduating from Harvard University with an under-graduate degree in History and Philosophy and a graduate degree in Design, Johnson would take entire semesters off to travel in Europe, visiting the great structures of the continent in the company of gay Architectural Historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, a Harvard pal. The pair, along with Alfred Barr, a noted Art Historian, put together a landmark show The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in 1932. The exhibit had a profound influence with its introduction to Modern Architecture on a surprised, sometimes shocked American public.
In 1928, Johnson met van der Rohe, who was designing the German pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929. The meeting was a revelation for Johnson and was the seed for a lifelong relationship with the famed designer as a collaborator and as competitor.
Johnson founded the Department Of Architecture and Design at MoMA in NYC. He arranged for the first showings of the works by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known to us as Le Corbusier, and of Marcel Breuer in 1932. Yet, Johnson didn’t actually practice architecture for another decade.
From 1932 to 1940, Johnson was out of the closet as a Nazi sympathizer, and was suspected of being a spy by the U.S. military. He was active in right-wing political movements. He later stated:
“I have no excuse for such unbelievable stupidity… I don’t know how you expiate guilt.”
So, there is that. But, in 1956, Johnson did try to exorcise that guilt by donating his design for the building of a new synagogue for the USA’s oldest Jewish congregation, Kneses Tifereth Israel, in lovely Port Chester, NY.
Johnson’s most iconic work is, of course, his Glass House, which I have actually checked out in person. Built on a beautiful site in New Canaan, Connecticut and completed in 1949, the serene Glass House is a 15 ft. x 32 ft. rectangle. It is considered to be one of last century’s greatest residential structures with pure symmetry, dark colors and a closeness to the earth that brings calm and order. It is rather perfect. The noble beauty of the small structure in its intimate setting proves that Johnson could deliver a significant structure on a small scale.
The Glass House represents a conundrum of closeted gay life in the mid-twentieth century: anyone can see into it. The traditional living room represents centuries of family living, and at The Glass House the goings-on inside the space are wide open. Johnson’s visitors were often gay, but just as gay people in that era hid in plain sight, they could exhibit their gayness within The Glass House while protected by the sheer barrier of glass walls. The Glass House also has a visual pun with its own Guest House, located just a few yards away. While the Glass House’s walls are a transparent closet door, the totally enclosed Guest House represents the true closet. It is a claustrophobic enclosed space in which gay people are forced to hideaway their hearts and soul.
Taken as a whole, this amazing piece of property provides insight into Johnson’s attitudes and beliefs. It serves as a brilliant example of gay influenced 20th century architecture, especially when you consider the time in which it was conceived and built. American society in the 1940s was extremely hostile to fairies and queers. The only way to escape the persecution was to hide one’s true nature in every way one could. For gay men, this was accomplished by playing a role by imitating straight guys for the sake of survival. But, not everyone is a natural pretender, and many gay men were forced to find outlets for their gayness. Wit and sarcasm were the perfect expression because homophobic aggression could be moved aside by a biting bon mot or a sublime one-liner.
The Glass House is beautiful, but it is also a really good joke about voyeurism, and a sly comment about light, beauty, and clarity. It is a gay home, a place of acceptance, a house where gay people could be together and not have to pretend. Johnson gave gays a gift when he designed The Glass House.
Johnson’s other important structures include: New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center, JFK Memorial Plaza in Dallas, 101 California Street in San Francisco, 191 Peachtree Tower in Atlanta, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, Tata Theatre in Mombai, and the gorgeous Cathedral Of Hope in Dallas, an openly gay congregation. Johnson not only lived and dined in places of his own design, he also worked in them. For many years his office was in the Seagram Building.
“We still have a monumental architecture. To me, the drive for monumentality is as inbred as the desire for food and sex, regardless of how we denigrate it. Monuments differ in different periods. Each age has its own. Maybe, just maybe, we shall at last come to care for the most important, most challenging, surely the most satisfying of all architectural creations: building cities for people to live in.”
Throughout his career he was as well-known for his quips as he was for his buildings. He famously called Frank Lloyd Wright, whose career lasted from the 1890s to the 1950s, “The greatest architect of the 19th century”.
Johnson lived with his partner, curator David Whitney from 1960 until his passing in January 2005. His life was long enough that he is considered both the Staid Elder Statesman and the Enfant Terrible of American Architecture. Johnson took his last breath at The Glass House. He was 98 years old when he checked out. Whitney joined him less than six months later, just before their 46th anniversary.