How a giant of twentieth-century architecture escaped—and enacted—his far-right past.
In the book’s epilogue, Lamster describes Johnson as a “man of contradictions.” But he seems in the rest of his book not to believe it. The most unsettling fact about Johnson turns out to be his coherence: the rather traceable line that leads from his Fascism to his—and our—architecture. That line was visible even to himself. In 1933, in the midst of his foray into politics, he published the essay “Architecture in the Third Reich,” which argued that architectural modernism, if freed from its association with the political left, might have a home in Nazi Germany.
Johnson was not, of course, the only one to envision an affinity between architecture and the political right. Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” essentially completed the reductio, when it presented the builder as a titan of industry, imposing his vision on the landscape with disregard for context, client, and audience. But Johnson, more than anyone else, helped sanctify amorality as the mark of architecture. Though he died in 2005, cities like Manhattan are now a pincushion of needle-thin towers thanks both to his own work andthat of his successors: architects like Rafael Viñoly, who began their careers designing public housing, but who now purvey luxury condominiums for the international oligarchy.
One of the members of that oligarchy, Donald Trump, makes an appearance toward the end of “The Man in the Glass House,” having asked Johnson in the nineteen-nineties to redesign the entrance to his casino in Atlantic City. It’s a punch line to Johnson’s century-spanning effort to fashion an architecture of unabashed capitalism. Far from being a figure of serious intellectual contradictions, Johnson emerges in Lamster’s treatment as a person of utter consistency, determined in every instance to strip architecture of social purpose. In that, he succeeded marvellously.