It was not all that long ago that most people thought that any young guy who happened to be gay and loved design would probably become an “interior decorator”. Construction was for straight dudes. Those queers were supposed to stick to antiques and fabric swatches. Yet, for most of the 20th century, there was an exception: Philip Johnson (1906 – 2005), who designed skyscrapers. He had them built in almost every major city in the USA. He also mentored three generations of mostly straight, mostly male architects, but shared his own life with a man, and become a couple in the 1950s!
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 the great 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 with an under-graduate degree in History and Philosophy and a graduate degree in Design, Johnson took entire semesters off to travel in Europe, visiting the great structures of the continent in the company of the 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 the German van der Rohe, who was designing Germany’s pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929. That meeting changed everything for Johnson; he had a lifelong relationship with the famed designer as a collaborator and as competitor.
Johnson founded the Department Of Architecture and Design at MoMA in New York City. 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 always a right-winger, but 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 USA’s oldest Jewish congregation, Kneses Tifereth Israel, in lovely Port Chester, New York.
Although he flirted with the idea of becoming a fascist politician in the 1930s, and seemed to court controversy, the important thing is that Johnson changed his mind and his heart. I am not sure that he took the Nazi stuff too seriously; starting in 1934, he had his first serious love affair. It was with Jimmie Daniels, a Black cabaret singer, actor, model, and nightclub owner, and important member of of the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson wrote later that “a terrible man stole him away—who had better sex with him, I gather. But I was naughty. I went to Europe and I would never think of taking Jimmie along…”
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.
A conundrum of closeted gay life in the mid-20th century: in a glass house, what goes on inside is wide open, and Johnson’s visitors were often gay men, and just as gay people in that era hid in plain sight, these gays in the Glass House could be out of the closet while feeling protected by a barrier of glass walls. The Glass House also has a visual pun with a guest house just a few yards away. The Glass House’s walls are a sort of transparent closet door, while the totally enclosed guest house represents the true closet.
This amazing property provides a brilliant example of gay-influenced 20th century architecture, especially when you consider the era in which it was conceived and built. American society in the 1940s was extremely hostile to fairies and queers. The only way to live without being beat up or arrested was to hide one’s true nature in every way. For gay men it meant imitating straight guys for the sake of survival. But, not every gay guy was talented at pretending; you know the types that just cannot hide their queerness, but those who remained closeted were forced to find outlets for their gayness. Biting wit and sarcasm were perfect expressions because homophobic aggression could be moved aside by a good one-liner. The Glass House is a beautiful thing to behold, but it is also a joke about voyeurism, and a sly comment about light, beauty, and clarity. It represents a place of acceptance, a home where gay people could be together and not have to pretend.
Today his skyscrapers are prominent features in the skylines of New York, Houston, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Madrid, and other cities. Johnson’s notable structures include the 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, plus the gorgeous Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, which has the largest openly gay congregation on the planet. He also designed public plaza and gardens. My favorite is his quiet garden in Dallas, Thanks-Giving Square, featuring a non-denominational spiral chapel in a spiral form, and cascading fountains, tucked between buildings in the center of the city.
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 to be considered both the Elder Statesman and the Enfant Terrible of American Architecture. Johnson took his last breath at his Glass House. He was 98 years old when he checked out for good. Whitney joined him less than six months later, just before their 46th anniversary.