“As for Hitler– if only he’d been a good architect!”
Philip Johnson– no, not THAT Philip Johnson, the OTHER one– is a helpful counterpoint to everything that Jane Jacobs stood for, and his particularly American wedding of International Style architecture with fascist ideology gives the lie to those who want to see the Gropius tradition as an embodiment of a liberal rejection of fascist Classicism.
Johnson sought in fascism what he sought in the Howard Roarkey buildings he constructed: a Nietzschean excitement, a frisson of transgression, a vehicle for the expression of power and contempt. Good, for him, was a purely aesthetic category: monumental architectural beauty was completely divorced from all other orders of good. This was architecture for architecture’s sake, and it is not surprising that in seeking architectural beauty divorced from love of the people who would be inhabiting his buildings, he lost both the love and the beauty.
In his obituary for Johnson, Mark Stevens points to a disturbing question that is raised by his work: does postwar modernity contain within itself the resources to resist what Johnson stood for? Or, on the contrary, is Johnson a symptom of the empty culture that, after the war, could not seem to remember where its moral objection to things like the gas chambers came from? Johnson, writes Stevens,
now seems like an emblematic figure partly because he appears to have been happily, marvelously, provocatively, disturbingly hollow. It is an underlying fear of Western culture, one that has lasted since World War II, that there is no larger or ennobling content to mine. Mr. Johnson’s main flaws as an artist – his tastes for razzle-dazzle and overweening scale – are equally the weaknesses of American secular culture. His main strengths – his openness to change, playfulness and urbane rejection of the Miss Grundys of the world – are equally it strengths.
What do we do with this question? The first thing, of course, must be to ask it. Which Stevens, very provocatively and accurately, does:
[H]is emphasis on the aesthetic as the only important value in art was remarkably cold-blooded. His main regret seems to be that contemporary republics have failed to create monuments that ravish the senses.
He never became a fascist architect. But he was probably one of those artists – among them many Communists – whose philosophical sensibilities were gutted by the experience of the 30’s and World War II. Afterward, he lived more than ever for the stylish surface, appearing uncomfortable with large-minded ideas even when his buildings reached for the sky.
Perhaps as a consequence, his imagination developed no particular center. Nothing was intractable or non-negotiable. He was remarkably free. He could toy, sometimes beautifully, with history. He liked a splash. He was a playful cynic, cultivating success even as he winked at its vulgarity.
…The beautiful Glass House will remain Mr. Johnson’s signature work. It is the transparent heart of a collection of eclectic buildings in New Canaan, Conn. It’s a dream house, a stylish stage set. It floats upon the land, eliding boundaries between inside and outside. It seems full of emptiness. It’s not really a place to live, but was still Mr. Johnson’s essential home. That uneasy stylishness deserves emphasis. Philip Johnson lived in a glass house. He threw stones, too.
Mark Stevens, “Form Follows Fascism,” New York Times, Jan. 31, 2005
And the second thing is to look for an answer.