And now for something completely different. In the early 1970s, the avant-garde collective Ant Farm, best known for the Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, build a lake house shaped like a giant penis for a Houston arts patron. Playboy shot it, and Woody Allen wanted to use it in Sleeper. Today, it’s a decaying relic, but when it was built it was a futuristic vision of what architecture could be. I think you’ll find its story surprisingly moving. Check it out.
If reading all 528 pages of The Man in the Glass House seemed a bit too daunting, or if you just prefer listening to the spoken word, I am please to announce that the book is now available in audio form, read by the redoubtable Mark Bramhall. If you commute by car through an American city, or are planning a summer trip, i think you will find it an entertaining diversion. Available wherever books are sold.
Morning national television is not my native habitat, but I made my debut this past weekend on CBS Saturday Morning, in a terrific feature on Johnson and The Man in the Glass House by host and correspondent Anthony Mason. Paul Goldberger was kind enough to participate from New Canaan. Did I just call a certain New York developer a vulgarian on national television? Well…you be the judge.
Nothing beats a positive review by a writer you admire in a publication you respect. I think the big fear when you write a book is that nobody will take it seriously, so when it is, it’s really gratifying. I’m thankful for two such reviews over the last week; the first a longform piece, “The Godfather,” in the New York Review of Books by Martin Filler, and the second a review by Carolina Miranda in the Los Angeles Times.
As Mark Lamster notes in his searing yet judicious new biography, The Man in the Glass House, Johnson excelled at disarming his detractors through self-deprecating responses to even their harshest criticism.
And here’s Miranda:
In this epic biography — it checks in at 500-plus pages — Lamster not only weaves a compelling, clear-eyed portrait of a complicated and frequently unlikable man, he articulates a larger narrative about life in the United States over the course of the 20th century….Lamster’s “Man in the Glass House” makes Johnson the center of the American story — a story about boundless ambition, about idealism swallowed by greed, about the ways in which money is used as cudgel and shield. In this story, the goal isn’t always to be remembered for doing good, but to be remembered at all.
Was especially nice that Filler’s piece was accompanied by the wonderful David Levine caricature of PJ, originally drawn for the NYTBR’s review of the previous Johnson bio, which came out way back in 1994. As Filler writes that book was “a mismatch of author and subject from the outset. The credulous, earnest, and forthright Schulze was ill-equipped to deal with Johnson, who was wily as a fox and slippery as an eel, a veritable one-man Aesop’s fable.” My book, if nothing else, is a lot less earnest.
Woo-hoo! The Man in the Glass House has been selected as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography. This is one of the largest prizes in publishing, so a tremendous honor. It’s also nice to be on the shortlist with my friend Christopher Bonanos, author of Flash, the terrific new biography of the photographer Weegee.
Here’s the New York Times Book Review on The Man in the Glass House, written by Paul Goldberger (who, yes, does appear in the book). It begins:
You want to begin a review of “The Man in the Glass House,” Mark Lamster’s stimulating and lively new biography of Philip Johnson, by saying something about architecture. But the reality of Johnson — one of the most compelling architects who has ever lived, which is not the same as being one of the best architects — is that the most interesting thing about him was not the buildings he designed. The qualities that make him, and this book, fascinating are his nimble intelligence, his restlessness, his energy, his anxieties, his ambitions and his passions, all of which were channeled into the making of a few pieces of architecture that will stand the test of time, and many others that will not.
You can find the rest here.
I spent nine years working on my biography of Philip Johnson, so I’m not gonna lie, all of the positive reviews have been tremendously gratifying. To have it compared to the Power Broker, the book that made me want to write about architecture, is about as good as it can get. A sampler:
“In ‘The Man in the Glass House,’ Mark Lamster’s brisk, clear-eyed new biography of Johnson, we are asked to contemplate why the impresario of twentieth-century architecture descended into such a morass of far-right politics—and how, given the depths to which he fell, he managed to clamber his way not just out of it, but to the top.”
—The New Yorker
“A judicious, jargon-free biography that’s unafraid to name Johnson’s virtues and vices, in architecture and in life.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“To say this is the biography Johnson deserves is no compliment to him. Gracefully and unflinchingly, Lamster depicts the long-lived American modernist poster boy as a man of great strengths inseparable from his even greater flaws — his hunger for self-promotion; his sympathy for the Nazis, notwithstanding his homosexuality, his flexibility with clients, and rigidity in style. Just as importantly, Lamster uses him to point up the amorality of the modernists — social visionaries with massive blind spots, indebted to power and money no matter who had it.”
—New York Magazine
“A biography that not only raises the bar for writing with nuance about difficult historical figures, but also offers an eye-opening glimpse into architecture’s transformation from a staid and upwardly mobile white-collar profession to the deeply unequal and star-studded spectacle it is today. Glass House tackles the myths and enigmas of Johnson’s life, and of a supposedly egalitarian architectural culture, in one fell swoop.”
“[Lamster] imagined his project as analogous to The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s life of the New York civic official Robert Moses…Remarkably, The Man in the Glass House lives up to that comparison. It reads like a novel, and the story manages to capture huge swaths of 20th-century life.”
—The Toronto Globe and Mail
“‘I can’t stand truth. It gets so boring, you know, like social responsibility,’ Johnson states in an unattributed quote. Lamster’s biographical subject never fully recovers from his own declaration in this thoroughly researched and highly readable volume that vividly captures the essence of a complex and disturbing character.”
“Lamster is clear-eyed about [Johnson’s] legacy and justly critical. His readable, meticulously researched book spans the history of modernism in the United States, illuminating Johnson’s part in many of its successes – and its failures.”
“Mark Lamster’s dazzling portrait of Philip Johnson narrates the rise and fall of every architectural movement of the 20th century refracted through one man’s ambition, while providing an analysis, and an indictment, of how power in America is gained, wielded, and squandered. In The Man in the Glass House, Lamster takes a protagonist who is compromised in every possible way–morally, politically, and aesthetically–places him squarely at the intersection of American commerce and culture, and dares us to watch what happens.”
“Lamster has a journalist’s gift for the memorable phrase [that] makes his book enjoyable to read….It is Lamster’s willingness to explore the mechanics of constructing and managing an artistic persona that makes The Man in the Glass House such a worthwhile and rewarding inquiry into Johnson’s life and career.”
“In this smart, engaging biography, Mark Lamster depicts contradictory, influential “starchitect” Philip Johnson and his times in their full complexity.”
“rich, authoritative, compulsively readable new biography….Lamster’s sentences can leap tall buildings, if not in a single bound (though the short sentences are leveling), then with an alloy of structure and purpose his subject could only have envied.”
—Bay Area Reporter
“Engrossing…a dynamic composite sketch, one that shifts throughout Johnson’s numerous (and ludicrous and troubling) ideological transformations. As Lamster reveals, Johnson’s power, a flak jacket of wealth and wit, saved him again and again.”
“Lamster’s book is a gripping and fair-minded account of an architect who always placed himself at the centre and changed the face of the US — not always for the better.”
—Financial Times, best book of 2018
“Lamster’s book is one that doesn’t shy away from wondering, in 2018, how much we can truly separate the man from his art”
—Smithsonian Magazine, best book of 2018
“A surprising story of an incredible, if incorrigible, man who shaped the America we live in today”
“More than just a memoir…this book is in fact a revelation.”
“Exceptional…Mark Lamster’s new biography of Philip Johnson, ‘The Man in the Glass House’ is likely to remain THE reference work for years on the contradictory, jaded, insecure and driven designer, perhaps the most influential in modern American architecture and certainly one of the biggest to shape North Texas cityscapes – for good AND bad.”
—KERA’s Art & Seek
“The book is a valuable account of Philip Johnson’s life, but it also goes beyond being an individual’s biography, setting an example for the historical treatment of flawed geniuses.”
“Lamster’s deep dive into the life and career of Philip Johnson pays off in spades.”
—Architects’ Newspaper, best book of 2018
“The Man in the Glass House reads like an Ayn Rand plot rewritten by Henry James.It is as enjoyable and informative to read Lamster’s descriptions of the buildings he loves as it is of those he hates.”
“Lamster’s deep, deep research means these and other happenings in Johnson’s life are illuminated with facts and stories that humanize the myths, that make them real parts of a real life. That the stories of Johnson’s long yet busy life are told in a way that makes the book hard to put down surely doesn’t hurt….thoroughly and beautifully told.”
After nine years of work, The Man in the Glass House is finally an actual book between hard covers. With a beautiful jacket. The official publication date is November 6. We planned that figuring it would be a typical slow news day. Kidding! But I do hope the book will be something of an antidote to the current political madness, although I think it also helps to explain it, and the parallels to this moment in Johnson’s and American history are pretty stark. I will be doing a good bit of speaking over the next few months to talk about the book, and more generally architecture and criticism, and I would be thrilled for anyone who takes the time out of their schedule to join me. There are links below to forthcoming programs, including several in the immediate future in Dallas and New York.
November 5: Dallas
(in conversation with DMN books editor Mike Merschel)
November 8: Ft. Worth
Texas Society of Architects
11:30am-12:30pm (book signing)
November 8: Dallas
The Wild Detectives
(in conversation with DMN features editor Tom Huang)
November 10: Dallas
Preservation Dallas at the Beck House
11:00am (members event)
November 13: Houston
Sponsored by The Houston Chronicle, Houston Mod, Preservation Houston, and AIA Houston
November 15: Buffalo
Darwin Martin House
November 20: New York
School of Visual Arts, MA Design Research Program
November 24: Montreal
Canadian Centre of Architecture
(in conversation with Phyllis Lambert)
November 27: Dallas
Dallas Museum of Art, Arts & Letters Live
(in conversation with DMN art critic Rick Brettell)
December 8: Sarasota
Ringling Museum of Art, Asolo Theater
January 7: New York
Center for Architecture
(in conversation with Karrie Jacobs)
January 10: Boston
Signing and reception
January 11: Hartford
(in conversation with DMN art critic Rick Brettell)
January 17: New York
The Museum of Modern Art
(in conversation with former chief architecture curator Barry Bergdoll)
January 24: Boston
Boston Public Library
(in conversation with architect Bill Rawn)
March 27: Chicago
Chicago Architecture Foundation
Some good news as the November 6 release date of The Man in the Glass House approaches: The book has hit the rare trifecta of starred reviews in all three publishing industry trade publications, namely Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. The good parts:
Booklist: “Lamster’s mesmerizing, authoritative, and often-astonishing study grapples with Johnson’s legacy in all its ambiguity….[a] masterful achievement.”
Kirkus: “Offering a fresh look at his subject’s less-than-savory aspects, Lamster portrays a diffident genius for whom being boring was the greatest crime.”
PW: “Lamster outlines the complicated and contradictory life of architect Philip Johnson in this engrossing, exhaustively researched account of a brilliant opportunist who introduced modernism to America….This is an entertaining and in-depth look at one of architecture’s most complex and influential characters.”