Metropolis speaks with critic Mark Lamster about his recent biography of America’s original starchitect and the many contradictions he discovered along the way—from Johnson’s Nazi past, to his many reinventions.
Lamster’s timing couldn’t have been better: Though nearly a century has elapsed, the book draws strong parallels to today’s political climate, with both the emergence of the alt-right and Johnson’s affiliation with one of his last clients, Donald Trump. The Man in the Glass House also resonates at a time when architecture is facing its own reckoning: how do we reconcile biography with built work?
Reading the book, I laughed out loud a few times just at how ridiculous this guy could be. How was he able to get away with all of these capers—launching a political career, renouncing the artworld—and then be re-absorbed [by his social circle]? It’s just ludicrous.
I think that’s exactly right. How? Because he was both wealthy and charming. And the wealth sort of inoculated him and put him in position where he had friends who would protect him. It was like a prodigal son who goes off and does something foolish and they’re angry with him for what he does, but they’re willing to forgive him again and again because he has the power to shape his own narrative.
It’s amazing how Johnson weaseled his way into the profession. After a period of wandering around, it seems like he finally decides, “Okay, I’m gonna be an architect.”
Yeah, he had this incredible career as a curator. He was the founding architecture curator of the Museum of Modern Art and he mounted two momentous shows, the International Style Show and then the Machine Art Show. So he’s a boy wonder—the Times calls him “the Maestro.” He’s on top of the world, really a star. And then he throws it all away to become essentially this alt-right political agitator. And then essentially an agent of the Nazi state, trying to mainstream fascism in the United States.
Can you tell me a little bit more about that side of your research? I think we were all peripherally aware of his Nazi “sympathies,” but I don’t think—until I read this book—I fully understood the depth of that and just how disturbing it was.
You know, it’s going through his entire day-to-day history, looking through news clippings from when he was doing this kind of agitating and trying to start a political party and having radio shows. And then finding sort of obscure FBI and DOJ files where he’s interviewed about his role as a collaborator with the Nazis, with the Nazi state, with very high ranking members of the Gestapo and the foreign office and propaganda office. He essentially delivered unto them information about American fascist individuals who they could work with and promote fascist propaganda in America. The Nazis liked the sort of intellectual fascism that Johnson represented, so Johnson was very useful to the Nazi state in propelling this argument to the very highest reaches of the American political establishment quite successfully.
Do you think he fully believed it?
Oh, he fully believed it. It wasn’t play. Afterwards he would try and justify it as a sort of youthful indiscretion and a homoerotic affectation. But he was invested. He was invested in the actual eugenic theory, anti-Semitism. He was all-in for the complete bag of Nazi awfulness. This was not an aesthetic attraction, it was a full-bore intellectual agreement.
Again, it’s his wealth that sort of insulates him and saves him from this. So many of his co-conspirators and friends in fascism ended up either in jail or in court. But Johnson dodges [sedition charges] because he did not need to accept cash from the German state, in fact he was rich enough to do it himself. He can reasonably claim that everything he’s doing is his first amendment right to be an asshole.
Yet, even if he was deeply embedded in it for six years, he was somehow able to do an about-face, return to Harvard and sweep everything under the rug.
Yeah. I mean, I think starting in ’40, ’41, he begins to realize that America’s not going to go fascist, and he’s made a grave, grave, grave error. He decides to return to architecture school, become an architect, and sort of reinvent himself and also stay out of public view for a couple of years.