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He built the future: renowed architect Philip Johnson ended his 98 years as an out and sometimes outrageous gay man.

Not all that long ago, a young man who was gay and loved design was expected to become a decorator. Brick and concrete were for straight men; fairies were supposed to stick to furniture and fabrics. But for much of the 20th century, there was one glorious exception. Philip Cortelyou Johnson built skyscrapers in nearly every major U.S. city, mentored three generations of (mostly straight male) architects, and lived, until his death January 25 at 98, with a man he met when Dwight D. Eisenhower occupied the White House.

Johnson's most famous buildings, his Glass House in Connecticut and New York's Seagram Building (on which he assisted the German-born Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), put him in the top ranks of American architects. But Johnson was also a miter, a curator (with a 70-year association with the Museum of Modern Art), and most of all, the puppeteer who pulled the strings in the design world, usually from his corner table at the Four Seasons (the Manhattan "power restaurant" that Johnson designed).

Meeting Johnson was essential for a young architecture writer, so, in the 1980s, I arranged to take iron out to lunch. To make sure everything went smoothly, I stopped by the restaurant in the morning, gave the maitre d' my credit card, and asked him to charge me without bringing a check to the table. After a long, gossip-filled lunch, Johnson was ready to leave. "The check has been taken care of," I announced, feeling very suave. "Nonsense," said Johnson, who really was suave. "They never charge me."

Johnson was born to privilege--his Cleveland family had made a fortune in aluminum--and didn't enter architecture school until he was 35. (Before that, he had dabbled in fascist politics, for which he later expressed regret.) Throughout his career he was as well-known for his barbs as for his buildings. He once famously called Frank Lloyd Wright whose career lasted from the 1880s to the 1950s, but whose buildings weren't as sleek as Johnson would have liked "the greatest architect of the 19th century." In the film My Architect, the recent documentary about the late, great Louis Kahn, Johnson tells Kahn's son, "Lou wasn't much to look at."

But Johnson was equally hard on himself he called himself an "architectural whore"--and always candid, telling biographer Franz Schulze things about his sex life that should never have made it into print. (Reportedly, Johnson co-operated with Schulze in the late 1980s believing he'd be dead before the book crone out.) Johnson met David Whitney, then a college student, in 1960. After Johnson ended several other entanglements (described in detail in Schulze's book), the two became a couple; for decades they were an important part of the New York social scene, counting Andy Warhol and Truman Capote among their friends.

Unlike most architects, who never get around in designing their own houses, Johnson did his best work on his own Connecticut estate not just the Glass House, but a pair of galleries for the paintings and sculptures he and Whitney collected. Johnson's other masterworks included his Water Garden in Fort Worth, Texas; Pennzoil Place in Houston; and the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. Johnson was both a trendsetter (his AT&T Tower, with its "Chippendale" top, ushered in postmodernism) and a trend-stealer, with some horribly unoriginal buildings. It was as if Johnson knew he was great and felt no obligation to prove it every time. In the 1990s he embraced the opportunity to design the Cathedral of Hope for a gay and lesbian congregation in Dallas.

The cathedral's dean, Michael Piazza, says Johnson initially refused the job: "He told me he was too old for a long-term project. But then, as a gay man, he became excited by the social statement the building would make." On one visit to Dallas, Johnson told the congregation, "I'm the world's luckiest man: 91 years old and getting to do, at last, what I've dreamt of all my life."

"To me," Johnson once said, "the drive for monumentality is as inbred as the desire for food and sex." Johnson, in the end, was as monumental as any of his buildings.

Bernstein writes for publications including The New York Times.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:in memoriam
Author:Bernstein, Fred A.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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