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Explained: Who was Philip Johnson, the American architect called out for anti-Semitic leanings?

Well-known American architect Philip Johnson has been called out for his anti-Semitic leanings and racist slant, nearly 16 years after his death. Who was Johnson and how did the hero of modern architecture become an anti-hero

Written by Shiny Varghese , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 25, 2021 7:48:06 am
American architect Philip Johnson. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, will temporarily conceal the name of well-known American architect Philip Johnson from its spaces after The Johnson Study Group, a collective of architects, artists and designers, called him out on his collaborations with the Nazis. MoMa though is not the first. In December last year, the Harvard Graduate School of Design decided to remove Johnson’s name from the house he built in Cambridge, for the very same reason.

The letter by the group said, “Johnson’s white supremacist views and activities make him an inappropriate namesake within any education or cultural institution that purports to serve a wide public.”

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What has been his legacy to art and architecture and how did it impact the world?

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Philip Johnson, the hero

He burst on the scene in 1932 when he curated the exceptional show “International Style: Modern Architecture Since 1922” at MoMA. He was the founder and long-serving head of MoMa’s pioneering Department of Architecture and Design from 1932 to 1936 and then from 1946 to 1954. His association with MoMa continued for nearly five decades till his death in 2005.

Johnson’s trips to Europe in the late 1920s got him excited about the Bauhaus movement in Germany. This prompted the 26 years old to bring home a new aesthetic, and the 1932 exhibition thus introduced Americans to works by modern architects, including Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra, Frank Llyod Wright, and Mies van der Rohe. Not only did he stack up his wealth and wit against the cultural backdrop of his time, but used ideas of modernism and post-modernism, rather deftly in creating new conversations around art, design and architecture. On the heels of his very successful show, Johnson introduced the audience to an exhibition on industrial design that catapulted Johnson into the ivy league of curators.

In 1941, Johnson joined Harvard and later even enlisted for military service. Once he returned, he began his practice as an architect, inspired by van der Rohe’s style. His very famous Glass House, which has been called “one of the 20th century’s greatest residential structures” was as sleek and symmetrical as one imagined. Its glass walls and almost floating feel to the way it met the ground – 10 inches above – made it ethereal. Something that architecture has not seen before.

The Glass House by Philip Johnson. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Johnson would go on to build many high rises and leave his imprint on American skylines across the country from Seagram Building, New York City; IDS Center, Minnesota; Crystal Cathedral, California; to former AT&T building, Manhattan; and Lipstick Building in NYC. He was the first recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, in 1979, and is credited for bringing in the idea of the ‘stararchitect’ into modern-day conversation. Familiar names in the galaxy of international architects – Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry – got a helping hand from him, as he became their cheerleader and promoted their work and got them their early clients.

Though deemed “a connoisseur and a tastemaker”, he was also criticised for not being too original in his ideas. As they say, you could love him or hate him, but you couldn’t ignore him.

Philip Johnson, the anti-hero

Well-known American critic Ada Huxtable in her obituary on Johnson in 2005 said that he really wanted to be “l’architecte du roi” – the king’s architect. She writes, “Whether the system was monarchy, fascism, or corporate capitalism was really irrelevant; neither politics nor morality was ever the issue. Kings, popes, dictators and captains of industry made better patrons than democratic societies. He would have endorsed any regime or client that made it possible to carry out artistically ambitious projects on a monumental scale for a vision unhampered by restrictions of money, existing conditions or social concerns. For Philip Johnson, the aesthetic was primary; art, and particularly the art of architecture, trumped everything else.”

Historian Marc Wortman in his book 1941: Fighting the Shadow War (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016) explores the architect’s romance with the Nazis. After his exhibitions in MoMa, Johnson travelled to Berlin, with his bags packed with Nietzschean ideas of the ‘superman’. It’s at a Potsdam youth rally, outside Berlin, where he first saw and heard Hitler. Wortman says “Johnson experienced a revolution of the soul”. There was now a new ideal to live for.

Even though he helped his Bauhaus friends escape to the US because of Nazi oppression, he did not mind “the Nazis’ scapegoating of Jews or excoriation of Communists”, writes Wortman. Johnson was compelled to believe that fascism would save America, which was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. He soon became friends with African-American economic analyst Lawrence Dennis. The Life magazine in 1940 called Dennis “America’s No. 1 intellectual fascist”. With Johnson’s long-time friend Alan Blackburn, a colleague at MoMA, they dreamt of an American Hilter. They even had an “elimination list” of the then who’s-who in American society, should there be a revolution. Subsequently, Johnson also wrote numerous articles for a right-wing broadsheet, Social Justice. He was taken up by the fiery sermons of a Roman Catholic priest Father Charles Edward Coughlin, who wanted to return “America back to the Americans”. Johnson even designed a platform for Coughlin during his public rallies, modelled on the one from which Hitler gave his speeches in Nuremberg. Soon the FBI was investigating his German leanings and Johnson had to leave behind his Nazi ambitions. That’s when he returned to Harvard and went on to become the world-renowned architect who transformed the way we saw buildings. He escaped indictment, thanks to well-placed friends such as Nelson Rockerfeller, president of MoMA. Thus, Johnson’s Nazi past was buried up until recently.

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In his defence

The Guardian has recently reported that many of Johnson’s well-wishers have stood up for him. Historian Robert AM Stern, though Jewish, calls Johnson his critical mentor, while Black architect Roberta Washington defended his racist stance, and cultural historian Michael Henry Adams writes, “I’m invested in hoping Philip Johnson’s youthful outrages are forgivable…today we all need what he died imagining he’d found: the opportunity to evolve – a chance to become better people”.

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