Philip Johnson’s MoMA flub

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Exhibit at 1932 Museum of Modern Art. Model is of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. (moma.org)

In his recently published biography of modernist architect and impresario Philip Johnson, Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster has found so much to dislike in the man that I have been thoroughly enchanted – so far. But I want to quote a passage from The Man in the Glass House that threatened to soften me on Johnson. It is about how he muffed his speech proposing his and museum director (and close friend) Alfred Barr’s idea for an exhibit on the International Style to the board of the recently launched Museum of Modern Art. The trustees, it seems, were far more interested in modernist painting and sculpture than in modernist architecture, which was still very rare in America. Lamster writes:

Johnson had come before the trustees, at Alfred Barr’s request, to sell their planned exhibition of modern architecture. Barr expected his debonair protégé would charm with his wit and impress with his zeal for the subject that had been his veritable obsession over the past year. Johnson, he thought, would be a natural before the board. He was a product of the rarefied social world of the trustees, and he could speak to them in a suave but assured manner that would give them confidence.

But Johnson began fumbling the moment he was introduced. He had not prepared sufficiently, presuming that he could speak extemporaneously and that his knowledge and enthusiasm would carry the day. Instead he labored on, and as he did so he heard the sighs of board members who found their patience sorely tested. When he finished, there was silence. Then William T. Aldrich, [board treasurer] Mrs. [Abby Aldrich] Rockefeller’s priggish architect brother, a classicist of the old school, leaned over to advise her of his opinion: “It’s a lot of nonsense, my dear.”

Priggish or not, Aldrich was correct, uttering perhaps the understatement of the century. But Johnson soldiered onward, the famous exhibition was held in February 1932, and the rest is a very sad history for the world, much of it the fault of Johnson.

It must have pained the mod-symp Lamster to trash Johnson. His (Johnson’s) qualities as a first-class jackass shine through on every page, and I’ve only just reached the portion of the book that describes the opening of Johnson’s love affair with the Nazis. I’m sure those chapters will be a treasure chest of delicious passages. When the book begins to focus more on Johnson’s career as an architect, Lamster’s tone will surely become more forgiving. You can be sure I’ll let readers know if it doesn’t.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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