Philip Johnson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1906 to Homer H. Johnson, a gregarious, successful lawyer, and Louise Pope Johnson, thirty-two, a reserved and well-born intellectual with a deep interest in art who was six years younger than her twice-widowed husband. Philip was the third of four Johnson children, the others being: Jeannette, the elder sister; a brother, Alfred, who died young; and a sister, Theodate, one year younger. The parents doted on two-year-old Philip with special zeal after the loss of their first boy at the age of five. Philip and his sisters were raised quietly in an upper-middle-class area of Cleveland Heights and at Townsend Farms near New London, some sixty miles to the southwest, where Homer Johnson had been raised as a "farm boy." Jeannette, Philip, and Theodate led close and carefree young lives, spending time together at home with a German governess—who taught them her language—and at the farm and on the travels away from Ohio with their parents. Numerous crossings were made to Europe, and the Johnsons escaped the harsh Ohio winters in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where Homer played golf and Louise founded a small school for her children to attend and gave art lectures to the community. In the 1920s she hired the prominent New York designer Donald Desky to decorate rooms in their house there in a deco style.
Germany was the cultural capital of Europe at the time, and its music, art, and literature were admired and extolled at length by Homer Johnson. This admiration of Teutonic culture was not unusual in upper-class Midwestern families. The family spent vacations in Germany and lengthy times in Paris; all three children attended schools in Switzerland. Louise Johnson, a Wellesley graduate, represented the Victorian ideal of cultural self-improvement. She was avid about the children's intellectual and artistic development, which her husband pretty much left to her. Not remembered by the children for her warmth, the emotionally reserved "club woman" mother ensured that the minds of her three children received exposure to literature and the fine arts. Architecture, i.e., European architecture, was very much a part of the mother's cultural agenda for her children. Louise's first cousin, Theodate Pope Riddle, up in Cleveland and was, along with Julia Morgan of California, one of the country's first renowned female architects, designing country houses and private schools in the East.
Jeannette Johnson Dempsey recalls:
On Sundays in Cleveland, Mother would conduct slide-illustrated "seminars"on artand architecture, includingthe "modern" stuff, for Philip, Theodate, and me in the living room. Philip just soaked it up. His aptitude for the arts was pretty clear to Mother very early.
She and Father adored Philip and spoiled him; he was the replacement for the boy they had lost to mastoiditis, and when Philip developed ear trouble later it caused great anxiety. He was sick a great deal of the time, and with our moving around all the time he never developed any friends.
Before Jeannette was born, Homer and Louise talked about building a new house. The fact that her choice of architect would have been a maverick thirty-four-year-old Chicagoan named Frank Lloyd Wright indicates her questing, vanguard taste. The baby's arrival was too imminent, so they remained in the Tudoresque house that Homer had purchased when they married. But soon Louise chose J. Milton Dyer, Cleveland's best architect and its first graduate of Paris's Ecole des Beaux Arts, to do something in the Art Nouveau style for a new master bedroom. Philip Johnson recalled that "It was an extraordinary thing for those times in Cleveland. She was always way out, in that sense."
The Johnson children were, from their earliest years, at home in Cleveland's art museum and symphony hall. This immersion in the city's fine arts culture, directed with determination by their mother, had a telling effect: Jeannette became a lifelong, prominent supporter of all the arts in Cleveland; Theodate, only a year younger than her brother and often taken to be Philip's twin, studied in Europe to be an opera singer, had recitals there and in New York's Town Hall, and for years, with Philip's support, published the authoritative journal Musical America.
Philip's life as critic, architect, and art collector can be traced to his mother's exaltation of the creative, intellectual life. At one point, before discovering architecture at Harvard, he planned to be a concert pianist. While Philip Johnson would later assert that his mother was distant and cold compared to his warm, outgoing father, she was the key factor in his development into one of the major figures in the twentieth century's world of art and architecture. On a tour of Europe with his mother and sisters, the thirteen-year-old boy burst into tears when he entered Chartres Cathedral, overwhelmed by the soaring space of the thirteenth-century Gothic church. "There was a funeral taking place, and it was years before I realized that everyone didn't have the same reaction as mine when they entered Chartres," he remembers. Jeannette says her sociable father "belonged to all the country clubs in Cleveland, where he liked to claim that he got more new legal business in the locker rooms than he ever could sitting in his office downtown."' The extroverted attorney was well known both nationally and internationally, accepting an assignment from President Woodrow Wilson on a government commission in post-World War I Europe which dealt with reparations to Jews. With her husband in Washington and Europe a lot, Louise Johnson steadily accepted the prime responsibility for raising the children until she wearied of that and took the children and joined him overseas in Paris. There was little entertaining in the Johnson home. Though an active member of clubs dealing with the arts and civic improvement, Louise Johnson was a "loner" socially according to her son, caring more about the hearth and home than society. Homer more often than not contented himself with a social life at his clubs.
The children spent their happiest days during summers at Townsend Farms outside New London, which Johnson today calls his "hometown." The three-thousand-acre farm property had come down to Homer Johnson through his mother's family. There the self-sufficient band of three led a lazy, idyllic life of horseback riding and fishing while Mrs. Johnson devoted herself to flowers and landscaping. Philip recalls her obsession with developing an apple orchard, which his father had to halt because of the cost. Her love of horticulture transferred to her son, who often liked to say, when he was shaping the landscape of the grounds of his place in Connecticut, that he was a "better landscape architect than architect."
His father, with an energy that came down to Philip, commuted the sixty miles back and forth to Cleveland once a week. Though owned by others today, the farm's headquarters is unchanged and still a loose but orderly compound of large and small gabled white buildings beneath towering elm trees. Scattered neatly on several acres around a simple, one-story 1845 Greek Revival house, it is a composed picture of genteel Midwestern rural life, a precursor to what the adult Philip Johnson created in exquisite avant-garde terms on his own spread in New Canaan.
Jeannette asserts that "Philip got the intellectual part from Mother and the gregarious charm from Father." Both parents supported music and helped found Cleveland's art museum. Though he was a joiner, Homer was very independent politically, often drawn to reformist causes. Conservative Cleveland nearly ostracized him after he voted for Democratic reformer Woodrow Wilson, and in his declining years he remained an ardent, outspoken pacifist.
In 1924, when the children were young adults, Homer Johnson bequeathed them an early inheritance. To his daughters he gave important downtown-Cleveland real estate, and to Philip he presented a large block of stock in a Pittsburgh metals firm that Johnson had helped an Oberlin College classmate form. In 1886, while they were both undergraduates, Homer's friend Charles Martin Hall had developed a process which led to the commercial production of aluminum. For his later legal help in setting up Hall's production company, Johnson received shares in the Aluminum Company of America, the company that bought Hall's patented process. The stock wasn't worth much at the time young Philip received it, but in a few years, during the 1920s, its value increased dramatically, so that when Johnson graduated from Harvard in 1930 he was a millionaire and richer than his father.
Homer and Louise Johnson shared a strong belief in the value of the best possible educations for their children. Homer, born in a rural community in 1862, was raised in New London at Townsend Farms but attended college in nearby Oberlin and at Amherst in Massachusetts. Deciding on a career in law, he applied and was accepted at Harvard Law School, where he graduated summa cum laude. Louise Pope came from a well-to-do Cleveland family superior to that of her future husband's. The Pope family's money came from shipping instead of farming, and she was grounded in a privileged urban life with its attendant cultural amenities. She, too, was drawn to the New England educational establishment, graduating from Wellesley in 1891 and staying on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in art history. After study in Italy for a year, she returned to Ohio and taught school until in 1901 she married Homer Johnson.
The pattern of leaving Ohio for education in the East would be repeated with all of the Johnson children. The perception among many of the educated parents in the nation's hinterlands was that the best schooling was found along the East Coast in the oldest universities. For Philip Johnson, his later scholastic sojourn in the Ivy League world would prove seminal and, like that of many other Midwesterners, develop from a temporary leave from home to a permanent relocation in the cultural and financial capital, New York.
Young Johnson attended private schools in Cleveland, New York, and Switzerland. Never spending enough time in any to put down roots, he never established friendships. Bright, spoiled, and inept at sports, his only compan ions were his sisters. The impression is clear that he was favored by his mother, who recognized the brilliance and quickness of his mind. Hackley School near New York was chosen as his prep school, where he came into his own with fellow students and, even more, with his teachers. The outsider became the insider by dint of the ardor and avidity of his high-strung disposition. His conspicuous personality and the brightness of his mind made him a standout, sometimes a show-off, among the other well-scrubbed scions of the rich. His lifelong course of being a pacesetter was more or less set at Hackley. Throughout his life he has always needed a group—students, architects, or a lecture audience—to stand before and lead. Graduating second in his class assured him entry into his college of choice, Harvard.
Cambridge's Harvard, on the Charles River near Boston, with its concentration of scholars, intellects, and bright undergraduates, was an eye-opener for Johnson. Its myriad attractions for the mind were a watershed in Johnson's development, and his restless, varied interests led him down many paths there. Besides considering a career as a concert pianist, he also excelled in Greek literature and mathematical physics. In his third year, however, he settled on philosophy as his major interest. Alfred North Whitehead, the great Harvard philosopher, was Johnson's professor and with his wife became friends with the bright nineteen-year-old. Johnson remembers being inspired by Raphael Demos, a tutor whose work on Plato was required reading.
Philosophy offered a sort of absolute moral ordering that appealed to Johnson and would later characterize his initial architectural tendencies. He lost interest in philosophy before leaving Harvard and turned to modern art and architecture, writing criticism pieces for Hound and Horn, the student avant-garde art publication. Johnson felt the influence of art historian Paul Sachs, who "bred a generation of future stewards of high culture at the pivotal moment when modernism became respectable in institutions." Sachs's students Lincoln Kirstein (who founded, funded, and edited Hound and Horn), Edward M. M. Warburg, and John Walker started the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art and opened the country's first modern art gallery in second-floor space on Harvard Square. It was a forerunner of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Warburg and Kirstein would be Johnson's lifelong friends and influential figures in his future as an architect.
All through his time at Harvard—it took seven years for him to get through—Johnson was wrenched with conflicts and spent many months and whole semesters at home in Cleveland, away from Cambridge. Harvard's intense academic world, with its heightened social distractions, exacerbated the incipient homosexual leanings that Johnson had harbored for years. This stress of confusion and concealment led him, in the spring of 1925, to a Boston doctor who counseled him to return home for rest and reconciliation with his sexuality.
Johnson says he spent months alternately crying and devouring mystery novels, but the doctor's prescription worked finally and his severe depression lifted. To the relief of his parents, particularly Homer Johnson, he returned to Harvard the following term. At one point, according to Jeannette Dempsey, he was in love with a beautiful classmate of Theodate's, and he and Jeannette determined that he was heterosexual. But there were slip-backs away from convention, and he eventually made peace with his sexual inclination and went on with life. Despite the parental anxiety about his son's turn away from the norm, Homer Johnson gave Philip a father's support throughout his long life. When his son was beginning his years as director of the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Architecture, Homer Johnson helped underwrite an exhibition being mounted by Philip. As a longtime trustee at Oberlin College and also executor of the estate of his client Charles Hall, Homer Johnson had a position to influence the award of architectural commissions at the college, particularly those funded by Hall money. Though Philip was only beginning as an architect in the 1940s, Homer Johnson tried for several years to get him the commission for the 1950 Sophronia Brooks Hall Memorial Auditorium, a memorial to Charles Hall's mother. Arthur Vining Davis, another Oberlin trustee and president of Alcoa Corporation, was influential in getting the job for Wallace Harrison, whose New York firm, Harrison & Abramovitz, had designed Alcoa's Pittsburgh headquarters.
In 1928 Johnson saw a copy of Arts magazine at Harvard and was struck by the illustrations of the work of the Dutch architect J. J. P. Oud and an accompanying article by Henry-Russell Hitchcock. He was as taken by the sharp writing of Hitchcock as he was by the crisp, unadorned white buildings of Oud, the best-known Dutch architect designing in the new mode of stripped esthetic purity devoid of ornamentation.
During the Harvard years, Johnson had continued the pattern of summer vacations in Europe begun with his family, but now he traveled alone, or with a friend, and with an increasing interest in buildings, both the old and the very new. In the summer of 1928, a visit to the Parthenon in Athens affected him so deeply that once again he was moved to tears by a monument of architecture. He later asserted that the experience on the Acropolis, along with Chartres and the photographs of Oud's modernist work, was the transforming experience which led to his conversion to architecture. Before his graduation in 1930, Johnson made two friends who were to become pivotal to his cultural and professional life: Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Alfred H. Barr Jr.
Referring to his own development as critic, curator, architectural scholar, and architect, Johnson in later years would say, "It all began with Alfred Barr." Born in Detroit in 1902, Barr came from a line of Presbyterian ministers and educators and like Johnson left the Midwest at a young age for education in the East. After a Maryland prep school and a Master's degree in art history at Princeton, he taught at Vassar College and at Harvard, where he impressed Paul Sachs. In 1926 he went to Wellesley College, where he developed the first course in America devoted to the study of modern art. Like Johnson, Barr had traveled in Europe, but with a more studied attention to the new architecture than Johnson, whose main interest was with historic monuments. Barr had visited architect Walter Gropius's revolutionary Bauhaus school at Dessau, where he was impressed with its comprehensive approach to arts education. Painting, sculpture, photography, industrial design, cinema, and architecture were taught together under one philosophical umbrella. To Barr, it represented an exciting Machine Age extension of ideas for arts integration practiced in the late-nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts Movement by John Ruskin and William Morris.
In the spring of 1929 Johnson met Barr at his sister Theodate's graduation from Wellesley. Louise Johnson, always alert to new trends and a trustee of her alma mater, had written Philip about Barr, whom she described as the Wellesley teacher who knew all about modern architecture. The two were introduced during the commencement weekend and immediately took a liking to each other. Barr's quiet, scholarly enthusiasm for modern art and architecture struck a nerve with Johnson, himself vigilant to the vanguard in art. The undergraduate's enthusiasm and eagle eye for what was happening at culture's leading edge, coupled with Barr's knowledge of what was going on, made them a complementary pair immediately. After talking with Johnson for many hours that weekend, Barr offhandedly asked him, "Do you want to help start a modern art museum?" After Barr's explanation of what he was up to, Johnson's reply was an emphatic "yes," and he excitedly wrote his mother that Barr wanted him to form an architecture department in a new modern museum in New York and that he had "much to learn and quickly!" When he returned to Europe that summer, Johnson planned to concentrate on seeing the new buildings that Barr had described, and he would see them from the driver's seat of a new green Cord convertible, purchased in New York before sailing and stowed in the ship's hold.
Earlier in 1929 three wealthy New York matrons had an idea for a new museum devoted solely to contemporary art and were looking for someone to run it. Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr., Mrs. Cornelius P. Sullivan, and Miss Lillie P. Bliss consulted with Paul Sachs, who told them that they should contact Alfred Barr. When the twenty-seven-year-old was chosen to head the new Museum of Modern Art, he set about creating a unique institution intended to be a symbiosis of all the modern arts behind one intellectual banner of advanced and renewing avant-garde artistic activity. It was to be an institution located in the middle of Manhattan and dedicated, in Barr's words, to "the art of now." No establishment with such a mission existed. Three generations of the immensely wealthy Rockefeller family have been the key philanthropic element in the museum's development. (John D. Rockefeller, the patriarch, made his enormous oil fortune in Cleveland.)
When twenty-three-year-old Johnson started his drive through Europe in the summer of 1929, he went first to Stuttgart, Germany, to see the Weissenhof housing exhibition, a "group show" of European modernist architects exhibiting their designs in a master-planned community of white, flat-roofed housing on a hillside site overlooking the city. He wrote his mother that Weissenhof was the perfect spot for him to begin, "my first view of things by Le Corbusier, Gropius and Oud, the three greatest living architects." Barr had called them the "finest masters among the moderns."'
He then traveled to Dessau, where the Bauhaus school was located in buildings designed by Walter Gropius. Marcel Breuer, Josef Albers, Paul Klee, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was director for three years after Gropius resigned in 1930, were part of the roster of artists and architects with progressive social ideas, teaching a new esthetic inspired by machine technology. But it was the style, the appearance of the buildings at Dessau and Stuttgart, that appealed to Johnson, not their sociological "intentions." He was grounded in the visual result of a building, not the how and why of its realization. His appreciation of architecture would always have this basis.
From Paul Klee he purchased his first modern painting before proceeding to Berlin to seek out Mies and Walter Gropius. Gropius was chilly to the dapper, well-heeled Johnson,but Mies, the dour self-educated idealist, was happy to share schnapps and dinner with the spiffy, keen American who spoke German. Carefully following Barr's prescribed itinerary, the high-strung Johnson experienced intellectual and sensory highs throughout the summer, meeting the architects and seeing the buildings on Barr's list. In Holland he saw the lyrically pure geometry of Oud's smooth, pale buildings and became friends with the "charming, outgoing, sensible" architect, the first modernist to have caught his eye back at Cambridge.
The new architecture that was so compelling to Johnson is a reductive, abstract language of spare, clear structure with economy and purity in its material expression, fitted to a program of intensively analyzed function. In a building's ideal realization there was a taut "weightlessness" in the sensitive, yet logical, assembly of light, functional building parts. Walls of glass or plaster were referred to as "skins," structure was "skeletal." In terms of form it was to traditional architecture what cubism represented in the context of academic painting. The old and familiar rules of architectural image and composition were jettisoned.
Le Corbusier called the house "a machine for living," and the ambience and details of his strikingly lean buildings with their open decks and steel railings were compared to ocean liners. A sort of consensus of design principles emerged among the Europeans and flowered in the mid-1920s in Germany, France, and Holland in reaction to the dense, eclectic architecture that served officialdom throughout the Western world. Though manifestations of the new esthetic had been appearing on both sides of the Atlantic since 1910—Irving Gill was doing anomalous "modern" work in Southern California before the war and in the same period Frank Lloyd Wright's early prewar work in Oak Park got the attention of Europeans like Walter Gropius—the tenets of the new style coalesced following World War I.
The new philosophy of design encompassed both esthetics and sociology, offering a rational agenda for building configuration to replace the prevailing academic discipline of pictorialism, which for a century had emerged from the ateliers of Paris's Ecole des Beaux Arts. The emerging European modernists felt strongly that the new architecture should represent, in constructed terms, the ideals of an improved way of living for humankind: build economical, functional buildings, standardized where possible, and spend the savings in money to enhance living standards. But to a young patrician connoisseur like Johnson it was the bold, dramatic style of what he was seeing, via Alfred Barr's guidance, that transformed his appreciation of the building art. A building's objective quality was what appealed to the youthful Johnson, not its social underpinnings. This personal response of his—exalting the esthetic, the artistic, and eschewing the sociological—would distinguish and make controversial his future career in architecture. The reformer in him was directed at the physiognomy of buildings, not their social and political relations. He would remain an architectural visualist forever.
Throughout his long career, Johnson has been criticized and derided for the seemingly unprincipled ease of his philosophical shifts of sensibility regarding architecture. Some of the criticism results from his bent for contrary, impetuous change and challenge. But from the beginning he had a nervous, earnest desire to always be ahead culturally, to be au courant, up with the head of the pack, not left in the wake of the zeitgeist. This instinct of his for the artistic high ground irritates some people. They expect him to possess an enduring "faith," accusing him of being an arts dabbler, a dilettante. But as the world has changed through wars and social and cultural turmoil, and rapid turnovers of critical judgment regarding the desired character of the built world have occurred, Johnson has invariably had his ear to the ground and his nose in the wind, divining and interpreting the changing artistic tempers. Paul Goldberger, architecture critic of The New York Times, once called him a "bloodhound" for the way he could anticipate revisionist trends in taste and architectural thought. Johnson puts it like this: "It's like spoor! You can feel it in the air."'
Thus, in his early twenties, with one more year at Harvard to complete before graduation, Johnson returned to America, fired up after a summer of fast-paced exposure to the cutting edge. He immediately got in touch with Alfred Barr in New York and soon met Hitchcock. Before long, Johnson was traveling regularly from Cambridge down to Manhattan, where the new museum was being created by Barr and a small, youthful group. Margaret Scolari, who was to marry Barr, was a graduate student at New York University and recalls that Johnson would join her and Alfred and the coterie of young acolytes for Chinese food in the Heckscher Building on West Fiftyseventh Street, at Fifth Avenue, where the infant museum was first located on an upper floor.
In the late 19706 Marga Barr remembered that the conversation around her future husband was "incredibly exciting and youthful. The ideas came thick and fast and Philip was in the middle of it from the beginning. He was handsome, always cheerful, and pulsating with new ideas and hopes. Wildly impatient, he could not sit down! His rapid way of speaking, that quickness and vibration have not changed at all." Johnson was awed by Hitchcock at the meetings in New York and during his last year at Harvard developed a close friendship with the rumpled, bearish intellectual with such a vast knowledge of architecture, both ancient and modern. The core of the progressive New York cultural establishment, in which young Hitchcock held bona fides, was well formed by the early 1930s after passing through Harvard's intellectual "boot camp" of the 1920s with its radical ideas for an improved world. Only three years older than Johnson, Boston-born Hitchcock was teaching at Wesleyan University and was the recent author of Modern Architecture: Romanticism and Reintegration, which traced the origins of the modern movement in architecture from the nineteenth century. While the book was well received in academia, it was considered by Barr a little too dry in style for the broad audience that the young museum director was seeking. He was already thinking about a large modern architecture exhibition that would stake out the new museum's turf of inclusion for all the arts. Barr asked Johnson and Hitchcock to tour Europe and gather material for the exhibition.
The two new friends sailed separately for Europe in the spring of 1930 to meet in Paris, where Margaret Scolari and Alfred Barr were married in May. Soon after the wedding, and with Barr's coaching, the pair began a detailed tour of the continent's new architecture in Johnson's convertible. With Johnson's money and elegant car and Hitchcock's knowledge of where to go, they crisscrossed the continent. As they carefully inspected and discussed the buildings and met their architects, the two started an amplified rewriting of Hitchcock's book. The new volume was to be titled The International Style: Architecture since 1922, employing a term coined by Barr as a designation for the new style. The book was intended to have a broader appeal than Hitchcock's earlier volume, with many more photographs and a more "popular" writing style.
Though Johnson was knowledgeable for his age, not unfamiliar with the new architecture, the deliberate, scholarly Hitchcock was the pair's leader. He was older, had his Master's from Harvard, and already had written an impor tant book featuring modern architecture. In 1993, Johnson remembered that for the new book he did "all the dirty work. I was the 'advance man.' Russell was nice enough to list my name, but it wasn't an equal collaboration by any means. I was learning so much and did the work gladly and wrote to all the architects making arrangements for meetings. It was hard to collect photographs because these architects, besides being poor, weren't publicity-minded, so I sometimes had to go there and take the pictures." When Hitchcock died in 1987 Johnson would say of his longtime friend: "Of our generation, he was the leader of us all. He set a new standard of architectural scholarship and accuracy of judgement which has yet to be equaled." Over twenty books on architectural history bear Hitchcock's name and form the armature around which subsequent scholars of many periods work.
Johnson, attracted to the raw and radical newness of the European buildings, and Hitchcock, though the more settled and methodical historian, came to a similar conclusion that summer that the new architecture's value was its style. Johnson's verve and Hitchcock's scholarship made them a complementary pair to document the modern Europeans, and Johnson's fluency in German and French was no small asset; it gave them an access to the architects whose personal stories fleshed out the book.
They worked as a team. As Hitchcock directed the tour, Johnson drove and did the legwork, lugging a large German view-camera and lining up drawings and interviews with Mies, Oud, Gropius, Breuer, and Le Corbusier. The architects, some down-at-heel, were happy to receive the young, openhanded explorers speeding around the continent examining architecture of the future from Johnson's sleek, open-top car. Oud was warmly hospitable, Le Corbusier was self-absorbed and detached, and Mies van der Rohe, in Johnson's hyperbole, was "starving in a Berlin attic," but the phlegmatic German made the most profound impression. The elder architect liked conversing with Johnson after several schnapps. Of all the buildings he saw that summer, Mies's rigorously abstract designs appealed to Johnson the most. Mies had designed two hypothetical glass-sheathed towers which stunned Johnson with their audacity. In Johnson's eyes there was about Mies's buildings an objective sureness, an authority of pure rational form rendered with elegant materials, that made Johnson a disciple of Mies's for almost three decades. His sharp eye and intellect recognized the greatness and intuitive artistry of the withdrawn German, twenty years his senior, who possessed an almost spiritual philosophy of reductionist, structure-generated forms. A significant anecdote about Mies concerned his first visit to Italy. "He found that he did not like the endless Mediterranean sun and he openly longed for the 'grey heavens' of Germany."
Before the summer ended, Johnson had visited Mies's newly completed Tugendhat house in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and was so enraptured by the spacious, flowing, luxuriously appointed residence that in a letter to Hitchcock he compared it to the Parthenon and called it "unquestionably the best looking house in the world." Before Johnson returned to New York, Mies agreed to design the interiors of the New York apartment Johnson had just rented.
When Hitchcock and Johnson returned home in the fall of 1930 the two had visited France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland, with Hitchcock visiting England and Johnson going to Austria and Czechoslovakia. The manuscript for The International Style: Architecture since 1922 was finished in a rough form. Alfred Barr was anxious to put together an exhibition to accompany the book's publication. It would be a unique and comprehensive survey of the best recently designed modern American and European buildings.
Johnson was now officially director of the museum's nascent Department of Architecture, using his apartment as office and paying a secretary out of his pocket, a practice he would continue during all his years with the museum. When arrangements for Mies to design the exhibition fell through, Johnson designed and organized it, with help from Barr and Hitchcock. It opened at the Museum of Modern Art's temporary space in the Heckscher Building in early 1932 and featured the Americans Frank Lloyd Wright, Raymond Hood, Howe and Lescaze, Richard Neutra, and the Bowman Brothers." The Europeans included were Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, J. J. P. Oud, and Walter Gropius. Models, plans, and large photographs of several different building types, primarily single-family housing and schools, were shown. It was the American public's first exposure to such landmark European buildings as Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, Mies's Barcelona Pavilion, and Gropius's Bauhaus.
The exhibition, Modern Architecture—International Exhibition, stirred the New York architectural scene. It began modestly as a succes d'estime, with a meager amount of lukewarm comment from the media and only some thirty-three thousand people attending the exhibition during its six-week run. But the ultimate impact on the United States was broad. While a few buildings embodying the imported esthetic had been built in the United States—buildings such as Howe and Lescaze's high-rise Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building (1930) and Richard Neutra's Lovell House (1929)—International Style modernism's appeal to the American architectural profession really began with the museum's epochal exhibition and endured for forty years.
For several years following the book and the exhibition, Johnson was busy mounting other exhibitions, writing catalogues, and delivering lectures while maintaining a colorful, fast-paced social life in Manhattan's elite, Upper East Side salons as well as in the offbeat world of poets, artists, dancers, and musicians. When he wasn't adventuring downtown he developed a lifelong relationship with beautiful Eliza Bliss, niece of one of the museum founders. It was a nimble duality of social and cultural positioning for which he was to display an enduring knack. The Rockefellers, Goodyears, and Blisses were museum confidants and solicitors of his artistic opinions. The creative denizens of Harlem and Greenwich Village were beneficiaries of his openhanded largesse and cultural adventuring. But always paramount in his life alongside his protean wanderings in New York's Bohemia was the lasting friendship with Marga and Alfred Barr.
Abruptly, on Christmas Day in 1934, Johnson began a five-year odyssey away from the special niche he enjoyed at the Museum of Modern Art among New York's cultural cognoscenti. The Great Depression that began with the stock market crash in 1929 was devastating the country, and Johnson and his intellectual friends were casting about in idealistic ferment for radical solutions to what they saw as their country's flawed political system. Johnson remembers that most of his intellectual and artist friends were leaning toward communism, while Johnson was listening to a right-wing writer and fellow Harvardian named Lawrence Dennis, whose Is Capitalism Doomed? espoused a populist fascism for the United States' ills.
Johnson was no stranger to Populism, the political philosophy supporting the rights of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite, which had a history in the United States, particularly the Midwest. Anti-Semitism was definitely an element in Populism, focusing on the financial power of "international Jewry and the Rothschilds." Economic Populism was the issue with Johnson, not the racism that was a certain factor in Populism. Anti-Semitic prejudice, outside Populism, certainly existed throughout the country, even among the Jews themselves: "Some of my best friends are Jews" and "He's a great guy even though he's Jewish," and "We are German Jews, they are Polish."
So it wasn't such a stretch, under the circumstances of economic strife, for Johnson to literally and figuratively buy into Dennis's ideas, spending money and time with the authoritative figure. He was not náive about the fascistic system of a centralized political dictatorship merging government and capitalism. He was aware of what was going on in Germany and was impressed by its turnaround from postwar chaos through the National Socialist German Worker (Nazi) Party and its charismatic demagogue, Adolf Hitler. During his summer vacation in Europe in 1932, Johnson was invited by Helen Appleton Read, a New York art critic for the Brooklyn Eagle, to go with her to a Nazi rally where Hitler spoke to a large crowd in a field in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. Johnson was magnetized by the drama of the event.
His emotions were engulfed by the feverish theater of the scene: the martial songs, the flags, the marching phalanxes of handsome young troops, the precise Teutonic orchestration, climaxed by the appearance of Hitler with his riveting harangue. This was something totally new. fear-and-paranoia politics rendered in a grandly scaled form of visual power that, in the hands of the Germans, was overwhelming and operatic in effect. Johnson's critics, as well as Johnson himself, are still assessing the effect of this mesmerizing political pageant on him.
When Johnson left the Museum of Modern Art in late 1934, he was joined by Alan Blackburn, a friend from prep school and Harvard whom Johnson had brought into the museum administration. Blackburn was a practical-minded organizer who served a purpose that others would fulfill throughout Johnson's life: the dedicated, methodical backup for his interests of the moment. Before the sudden departure from the museum, Johnson had begun independent design work, including Miesian apartment interiors in a Beekman Place building for his adventurous friend Edward Warburg, one of several Jewish friends who remained loyal following Johnson's fling with Nazi politics. Warburg felt that Johnson's "wires got crossed" in Germany through acquaintances he made there.
Warburg grew up in a Gothic mansion on upper Fifth Avenue but since college had been identified with modernist causes. With chagrin, one of his brothers described Eddie's chaste new Beekman Place apartment this way: "The whole place was so antiseptic that you have the feeling you're in a dairy. When you go into the bathroom, you don't expect the usual fixtures, you expect to find a separator."
The Warburg apartment brought Johnson his first notice as a designer in a 1935 House and Garden article, a modest beginning of publicity for one who was to be the most written-about architect of his time. Later, he and Warburg secured a U.S. visa for Josef Albers and his Jewish wife Anni, the Bauhaus artists and teachers desperate to escape Germany after the school was closed by the Nazis in 1933. Through Johnson's letters and influence, the Alberses located at a new, experimental school in a former religious retreat in the mountains near Ashville, North Carolina. Speaking little English, Anni and Josef Albers joined the small faculty of intellectuals at Black Mountain College in its first year, he as head of the art department and she as instructor in weaving. Josef Albers pumped energy into the avant-garde school with his Bauhaus teaching principles; Texan Robert Rauschenberg studied under Albers after the war and considered the time at Black Mountain as the defining experience in his beginnings as an artist. Before closing in 1956, the school's tiny, loosely structured art department, with students like Robert Motherwell, Jacob Lawrence, and Cy Twombly, served as lodestar for the postwar New York School in painting.