Philip Johnson, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art’s architecture and design department, didn’t mince words.
Of the heiress Blanchette Rockefeller, for whom he designed a New York City pied-à-terre, he said, “I don’t think she knows anything about architecture, ever will, or ever did.” The acid-tongued aesthete didn’t spare himself, remarking at the peak of his fame: “I am a whore, and I am paid very well for building high-rise buildings.”
“The Man in the Glass House,” to be published on Tuesday, renders Johnson, who died in 2005 at 98 years old, in all his glory and ignominy.
“He lived basically the entire American century, and his life mirrored that century in so many ways,” said Mark Lamster, author of the biography. “To write about him was this incredible lens to look at America and architecture.”
The book’s title comes from the Glass House, a home Johnson designed for himself in New Canaan, Conn. “Johnson here was able to make a manifesto about all of his ideas,” said Mr. Lamster, an architecture critic and associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
In his 20s and 30s, Johnson was an advocate of fascism and Nazism but later disavowed them. He had no qualms about borrowing other architects’ ideas or savaging their work, resulting in hot-and-cold professional relations, but he also mentored young stars such as Frank Gehry and Robert A.M. Stern.
Ever-entertaining and perpetually dazzled by the new, Johnson couldn’t resist gossip, fast cars or elegant clothes. He amassed a world-class art collection, often following the counsel of his partner, David Whitney.
In 1958, a fire at the Museum of Modern Art damaged or destroyed several works. An electrician died in the blaze, and dozens of firefighters were injured.
Johnson’s donations were unscathed, but he was shaken. “I don’t care about the people,” he said, “It’s the art that I’m worried about.”
“The Man in the Glass House” comes out on Tuesday.
Write to Brenda Cronin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the November 5, 2018, print edition as ‘An Architect of the 20th Century.’