Texas is my favorite country,” writes architect Philip Johnson in his foreword to Frank Welch’s new book, Philip Johnson & Texas (University of Texas Press). And if Texas had a National Architect, the 94-year-old Johnson would have to be it. Among the more than twenty major projects he has completed in Texas over the last half-century are civic icons ranging from the Kennedy Memorial in Dallas to the Fort Worth Water Gardens to Corpus Christi’s Art Museum of South Texas. But Johnson’s magnum opus has been Houston itself, or at least the city’s skyline, which bears his signature as distinctly as the swoosh on a pair of Nikes. Johnson introduced Houston to modernism in the fifties and then famously changed his mind; his twin-towered, raked-roof Pennzoil Place, completed in 1976, started the postmodern revolution in commercial architecture and, along with his startlingly solitary Transco Tower in the Galleria area and his Gothic-style RepublicBank Center, gave Houston the world’s most progressive profile. For better or for worse—Johnson has never suffered from a dearth of detractors—the face Texas wears into the third millennium is, in great measure, the handiwork of an owlish, slightly built, discreetly gay intellectual who offices in Manhattan and lives in a glass house in Connecticut.
Any survey of Johnson’s Texas oeuvre would be welcome, but Philip Johnson & Texas offers a particularly salient point of view. Author Welch, a Paris (Texas) native, is one of our most distinguished homegrown architects, a devout disciple and much-honored heir of the late O’Neil Ford, the crusty Texas regionalist who, as Welch points out, “considered Johnson a lightweight and a carpetbagger.” Writing as a friend and fan of Johnson’s, Welch has a more generous opinion, but he isn’t reluctant to identify his subject’s professional flops and personal failings. And ultimately it is Johnson the personality who commands the stage Welch painstakingly constructs from archival research, scores of insider interviews, and enough insightful background on people and places to constitute a compact cultural history of Texas. A peerless raconteur, elegantly patrician yet disarmingly self-deprecating, Johnson captivated a small, influential circle of Texas patrons, forging a relationship that was nothing if not symbiotic. He gave them the cultural legitimacy they craved, and they reciprocated with opportunities Johnson could have had nowhere else: His first postmodern skyscraper in New York, the celebrated “Chippendale” AT&T Building, went up almost a decade after Pennzoil Place.
The psychologically fraught romance between Johnson and Texas began in 1948, when a French émigré couple, recently settled in Houston, asked the late New York sculptor-socialite Mary Callery to recommend an architect for the house they wanted to build on San Felipe Road, on the edge of the exclusive River Oaks neighborhood. The house would be “modern,” something unheard of in staid River Oaks, with its eclectic collection of stately period-style homes. Callery told John and Dominique de Menil that for $100,000 they could get the real deal from no less than Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the high priest of the austerely ahistorical, unsparingly rectilinear form of modernism known as the International Style (Mies was also Callery’s occasional lover); for $75,000 they could get a perfectly good knockoff from Mies’s acolyte—and Callery’s drinking buddy—Philip Johnson. The de Menils were neophyte art collectors who hadn’t yet come into the full flush of their Schlumberger oil fortune and had hardly begun their radical transformation of Houston’s conservative cultural landscape. Finding Johnson’s price point attractive, they took a chance on the unlicensed, 41-year-old architect, who had already become a lightning rod for controversy without having designed anything more notable than his own house.
Born in 1906 to a well-heeled Cleveland lawyer and his culturally aspiring wife, Johnson was a sickly, friendless child who blossomed into a charismatic show-off at prep school and Harvard. By the early thirties Johnson had become one of modern architecture’s most influential proselytes, co-authoring, with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the seminal tome The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 and serving as director of the new Department of Architecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. However, Welch astutely suggests that Johnson’s attraction to modernism was an infatuation with the stark visual drama of what was then shockingly new, not an allegiance to the utopian, better-living-through-better-buildings idealism that underlay the sleek, stripped-down creations of purists like Mies. That love of style over substance led Johnson on a troubling political digression when he was bedazzled by the authoritarian pomp of a Hitler rally he attended in Potsdam in 1932. At a time when many American intellectuals were steering hard left (and overlooking Stalin’s predilection for mass murder), Johnson took a similarly naive turn to the right, abandoning his career as a writer and a curator in an attempt to set up a fascist front called the Young Nationalist Party.
In 1940, reeling from the unfolding horror of European fascism, a chastened Johnson enrolled in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. After graduating and serving in the wartime Army, he set up a tiny boutique practice in New York and began building his famous glass-walled house on a wooded plot in New Canaan, Connecticut. The almost-finished house was poised to become a sensation in American design circles when Callery invited Johnson and John de Menil for cocktails at her Manhattan studio. But the relationship really clicked when Johnson flew to Houston and met Dominique. (Half a century later, after her funeral, Johnson would muse, “I owe her my career.”) The flat-topped, unassuming house Johnson built for the de Menils wasn’t pure Mies—he punctured the sheer brick street facade with windows because Dominique wanted the cook to have something to look at—but it was enough to galvanize a modernist movement in Houston, led by Johnson adherents like Howard Barnstone, Hugo V. Neuhaus, Jr., and Burdette Keeland, Jr. Johnson himself would return throughout the fifties, lecturing at the University of Houston and designing, again for the de Menils, the University of St. Thomas campus in classic Miesian style.
Dominique de Menil became Johnson’s connection to a network of wealthy Texas women