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Architecture & Design

The Builder of Glass Cities

Philip Johnson designed some of Dallas’ most iconic buildings. In a new biography of him, Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster traces the downfall of urban architect
Evan Kafka/Liaison; Ezra Stoller
Stanley Marcus approached the architect Philip Johnson in 1969 with an idea for a new commission.

Six years earlier, John F. Kennedy had been killed in the streets of Dallas, and now some members of the Dallas community wanted to erect a memorial to commemorate the late president. Johnson wasn’t a surprising choice. He was one of the most well-known architects in the United States, with a professional pedigree that stretched back through the role he played in the foundation of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

He had also emerged as something of a darling among Texas society circles, designing the homes of the Menils in Houston and the Becks in Dallas, among others. In Fort Worth, Johnson’s sleek, tough, reserved Amon Carter Museum—with a design that recalled the Parthenon—demonstrated his aptitude for creating buildings that could blend thoughtful elegance while proclaiming a certain amount of cultural prestige. Marcus hoped Johnson could bring a similar sensibility to the memorial—and it didn’t hurt that the charismatic social darling was also a friend of Jackie O’s.

Superblock: The Crescent epitomizes the schizophrenia of Johnson’s postmodern period, dressing up what is essentially a massive mall, office tower, and hotel with a mishmash of architectural decorations, lifted from inspirations ranging from Paris to Galveston.
Joseph Haubert

In his new biography of Johnson, The Man in the Glass House (Little, Brown), Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster recounts how an entire city block next to the Old Red Courthouse was cleared to make way for Johnson’s memorial—a white concrete box floating above a memorial on a set of four steel feet. It was a nonstarter—empty, lonely, and inert.

“It was supposed to look austere and dramatic, but instead just looked forlorn, like a plinth missing its statue,” Lamster writes. “The whole project had a dreary rather than melancholy air. It was also wholly unoriginal; the entire scheme—a room with a square memorial table—was taken straight from an unbuilt Mies [van der Rohe] project.”

Johnson’s memorial has long been a disappointment lost in Dallas’ downtown clutter, but by the time the reader of Lamster’s book arrives at this scene—nearly three-quarters of the way through a hefty 528 pages—the failure of the JFK Memorial comes across as simply another one of Johnson’s many misfires. That’s because the story Lamster tells in The Man in the Glass House is about a man who is defined by inconsistency and contradiction. At his best, Johnson could create buildings and spaces that are beautiful, warm, and uplifting, elevating the language of modernism from its dogmatic rigidity. At its worst, Johnson’s work comes across as cynical or vapid, from skyline blemishes to the kinds of apartment blocks that have inspired suicides.

The very contradictions and conflict that define the architect’s character have somehow also come to define American cities of the 20th century, especially Dallas.

It is a jarring juxtaposition, and, yet, in Lamster’s telling, a revealing contrast comes to light. Philip Johnson has had an outsize influence on American culture and American cities—and not just because he designed a skyscraper in nearly every single one. Johnson rewrote the rules about what art and architecture mean. He set the tone for how patrons and politicians think about the value and purpose of architecture. As a result, the very contradictions and conflict that define the architect’s character have somehow also come to define American cities of the 20th century, especially Dallas.

Lamster did not want to write a book about Johnson. When the idea for the biography was suggested to him by his agent, Lamster says, his first reaction was that he didn’t want to walk around “with Philip Johnson in my head for two to three years.” “That was nine years ago,” he adds with a laugh.

That Lamster would not want to spend so much time submerged in the world of Johnson is understandable. Johnson is a polarizing figure in the world of architecture. Although his Glass House—a small home on Johnson’s Connecticut estate made with four exterior glass walls, an extreme embrace of modernism’s values of transparency, simplicity, and clarity—is considered one of the most important pieces of architecture of the 20th century, Johnson’s oeuvre is also filled with plenty of schlock. He liberally dabbled in confectionery architectural flair, borrowed and mashed up historical ideas, and designed spaces whose most defining characteristic is their vapidity. In his later years, Johnson’s firm churned out a steady stream of nondescript office towers, including the Comerica Bank Tower in Dallas (not to mention a project for Donald Trump), which Lamster describes in his book as “forgettable buildings, unless one happened to live or work in one of those cities, in which case their immense scale and retrograde presence made them unavoidable and unpleasant touchstones, generally unforgiving to the pedestrian.”

Mixed feelings about Johnson extend beyond his architectural output. He possessed that distinctively American brand of ambition that hungers for self-made success. To realize it, Johnson reinvented himself numerous times during his life, with sometimes vicious results. He was born into privilege in Cleveland, the son of a lawyer who made a fortune working for an aluminum conglomerate. After Harvard, he entered the professional world as a critic and curator, playing a pivotal role in the establishment of the architecture department in the Museum of Modern Art. Bored and ravenous, he quit the museum and sought out new work that might extend his influence. During the 1930s, Johnson spent his time hobnobbing with Nazi officials before chasing Louisiana Gov. Huey Long around that state in hopes of winning power and influence by starting a new right-wing Populist political party.

Ultimately, Johnson would taste real power as an architect, a profession he didn’t even take up until his late 30s. Nonetheless, he enjoyed a lengthy career that itself managed to squeeze a handful of reinventions, from a society architect in the late 1940s to a designer of institutional and governmental projects in the late 1950s, and, finally, as Lamster puts it, as the “corporate architect par excellence in the 1970s.” On his ascent to the most rarefied corners of the U.S. cultural elite, Johnson made enemies and often alienated friends. The prestige and influence he won were reflected in his ability to bury most of the unsavory details of his past. Previous biographies have largely sanded down the rougher edges of his life story.

The thought of exploring these rougher edges is what eventually drew Lamster into Johnson’s peculiar world. There were a few upsides to trying to tackle a new Johnson biography. For one, Johnson was no longer alive, though there are still plenty of people who knew and worked with the man. There was also a wealth of correspondence, documentation, and other materials scattered throughout numerous archives and institutional collections throughout the country. No one had yet managed to draw all of these materials together and create the portrait of Johnson that framed his life and career against the backdrop of the tumultuous highs and lows of the 20th century through which the famous architect lived.

Shape-shifter: The various phases of Johnson’s career are represented in his many projects in North Texas: his Water Gardens in Fort Worth attempts to recall the subtle undulations of a Western landscape; the stately Amon Carter Museum incorporates classical motifs into a sleek, modern design; the late-era Interfaith Peace Chapel at Dallas’ Cathedral of Hope shows Johnson dabbling in Frank Gehry-esque expressiveness; and the Beck House on Strait Lane is Johnson’s earliest building in the area.
Ezra Stoller; Collection of the Author

“If you are going to write about one architect in the 20th century, it is Johnson,” Lamster says. “He is the American century encapsulated in one person. As a person, he is so powerful, and his influence was so broad. You love him and hate him. He is a walking contradiction.”

Early in Lamster’s research, Johnson’s biography brought the critic to Dallas, where he met with the architect Frank Welch, who had written a book about Johnson and Texas. Texans embraced Johnson wholeheartedly, and his allure for them was multilayered. “Johnson represented New York sophistication and modernity and style,” Lamster says. “He was associated with MOMA, and that was the highest level of New York society. Not only were you getting this sophisticated design, but you were gaining entry into this whole rarefied world of society to which Texans always aspired. He could be a conduit not just for architecture but for art.”

He was a modernism evangelist who preached new ways of building and new ways of thinking about architecture and cities.

Johnson was more than just a designer of buildings or the ultimate social networker. He was a modernism evangelist who preached new ways of building and new ways of thinking about architecture and cities. Johnson’s ideas about architecture also helped shape a new mentality about the relationships between art and culture, architecture and cities. “I think the way we understand architects, and architecture and design in general, is very much a product of Johnson,” Lamster says. “The way we see buildings as signature works, what a city should be or what a tower should be, the entire way of thinking about architecture as a commodity. Could there have been an Arts District without Philip Johnson? Who knows? Would the same architects have designed it? Who knows? But he was complicit in the kind of thinking.”

Lamster became the News’ architecture critic in 2013, at a moment when most daily newspapers in cities across the country were trimming critics from their staffs. Today, there are only about a dozen full-time architecture critics working at newspapers, most concentrated along the coasts. He came from New York where he had served as a contributing editor to The Architectural Review, Design Observer, and ID, and wrote frequently for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and Architect magazine. Lamster also spent a decade as senior editor at Princeton Architectural Press and—perhaps revealing a gravitational attraction toward eccentric proselytizers—he wrote Spalding’s World Tour (2006), a book about sporting goods magnate Albert Goodwill Spalding’s globe-trotting efforts to spread the gospel of baseball.

He arrived in the city at a particularly pivotal moment. The Arts District and its collection of showpieces designed by Pritzker Prize winners had opened four years previously. With an ascending economy and rapid growth, both concentrated in the older urban neighborhoods of Dallas as well as spreading out into the far northern reaches of the metro area, conversations around the built environment turned away from funding big-name signature projects and toward fostering walkability, building communities, and re-urbanizing a largely suburban Sun Belt city. Lamster approached his role as Dallas’ only full-time architecture critic as an erudite and evenhanded combatant taking on dogmatism of all shapes and sizes, leveraging an outsider’s perspective—and occasional coastal aloofness—against this city’s taste for bloated showpieces and lazy corporate glass boxes, as well as its tendency to bulldoze human-scale designs and disadvantaged communities alike in the name of forward progress.

Made to order: Through the 1980s, Johnson’s firm churned out skyscrapers for many U.S. cities, like downtown Dallas’ Comerica Bank Tower (left). The building’s distinguishing barrel vaults recall the earlier design of Johnson’s outsized Crescent (right).
Joseph Haubert

“Dallas treats pedestrians like things to be shunned,” he says.

In a certain sense, Lamster found himself caught between the lingering inertia of two aspects of Johnson’s legacy: the Johnson whose work destroyed or damaged human-centric built environments, and the Johnson who advocated for the cultural merits of quality modern and contemporary design. As a critic, Lamster has filled a vital role speaking against the insular thinking that can breed in architecture circles, while also defending the profession against reactionary backlash. “We’ve come to a place, especially now, where architecture and modernism are under assault, as if modern design were at fault for urban society,” Lamster says. “Architects are the enemy—they are the bad people. And I think that’s unfair and wrong.”

There is plenty of architecture in Dallas that does a disservice to the city, and a number of those works were designed by Johnson. The JFK Memorial is a morose totem. Thanks-Giving Square is a quirky conundrum. Comerica Bank Tower is a bland monolith. Perhaps Johnson’s best building is the Beck House, on Strait Lane, which hints at the kind of elegant blending of modern and classical idioms that makes the Amon Carter such a treat.

Urban oasis: Although Johnson’s Thanks-Giving Square fits awkwardly into a messy corner of downtown, its gyrelike tower is one of the architect’s most iconic Dallas works.
Joseph Haubert

If the Beck House is the most pleasing, the most significant Johnson building in Dallas has to be the Crescent—though its importance lies in the way it demonstrates that when things go wrong with Johnson, they go horribly wrong. The Crescent, Lamster writes, is “a luxury mixed-use development dressed up like a steroidal Parisian hôtel particulier, with rusticated stone and mansard roofs. In the [New York] Times [architecture critic Paul] Goldberger called it ‘a marvelous confection,’ but as architecture it was bloated and absurd, an unfortunate confirmation and reification of the stereotype of Dallas as a city of outsized arriviste pretentions. Aside from its bad taste, its crime was urbanistic. Here was an opportunity to make a genuine civic space at a crossroads of the expanding city, but instead Johnson created what was in essence a self-enclosed superblock: more than a million square feet of space spread over 10 acres. As Dallas Morning News architecture critic David Dillon wrote, ‘the Crescent fails in its attempt to reconcile the competing claims of city and suburb.’ It was a generous assessment.”

There is plenty of architecture in Dallas that does a disservice to the city, and a number of those works were designed by Johnson.

Lamster admits that much of what Johnson designed for Dallas is “a kind of corporate work that is really damaging and has really damaged Dallas.” But what one learns from studying Johnson’s life is that sometimes seemingly contradictory or conflicting attitudes, beliefs, perspectives, or capacities can exist simultaneously. “Some of his buildings are wonderful—really, really wonderful,” Lamster says. “I’m a big fan of Amon Carter. I like the Fort Worth Water Gardens. I think [Houston’s] Pennzoil Place is one of the best skyscrapers. Full stop.”

It’s that duality—the architect as villain and the architect as artist-hero—that lends an electric charge to the narrative of Lamster’s book. Johnson emerges in these pages as a flawed human who is tossed about by the extremes of his personality. He strives and struggles against a backdrop of a country that is rocketing through incredible change—commercial success, industrial growth, technical achievement, a massive accumulation of wealth, political division, widening income inequality, and always present racial strife. These things all touch and shape Johnson’s life in profound ways. By the end of The Man in the Glass House, one feels as if Johnson’s life has offered a unique glimpse at what the heavy forging of the 20th century has produced, in both our country and its cities.

“His masterpiece is basically an empty room,” Lamster says. “For me that is the ultimate expression of who he was, always needing something to fill him up, to socialize, to be around. He needed to be charged and filled, morally, intellectually, socially. He needed something. He needed.”