Johnson photographed in his office, 1982

The modernist who wanted to be Führer

We should acknowledge the Nazi past of architect Philip Johnson, not erase him


This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Just before last Christmas, Professor Sarah Whiting, the Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), arguably one of the most powerful positions in the architectural world, wrote an open letter to a group called the Johnson Study Group. She told them she was going to rename the house which the American architect, Philip Johnson, built in 1942 as his thesis project when he was a student at the Harvard School of Design. 

The letter read:

At Harvard, the GSD owns a private residence in Cambridge that Johnson designed and built for his thesis project at the GSD, when he attended the school in the 1940s. At the university, the house doesn’t have an official name on record, although it is usually referred to as the Thesis House, or the Philip Johnson Thesis House, or some variation. But I fully agree with your strong point about the power of institutional naming, and the integrity and legitimacy it confers. And so we are taking steps to officially recognize the house within the university as simply “9 Ash Street” – the house’s physical address.

The letter went on:

Johnson’s influence runs deep and wide, and across generations, and yet he is also just one figure among the entrenched, paradigmatic racism and white supremacy of architecture. Undoing that legacy — of the field, not only of Johnson — is arduous and necessary, and as a school and community we are committed to seeing it through.

I am not an expert on Philip Johnson or his architecture. But as it happens, he plays a not insignificant role in my recently published book on museum architecture, The Art Museum in Modern Times, so I felt I should have known about this and at least have a view on it. 

What I did know is that Philip Johnson was a key figure in the introduction of modernism to America, collaborating with the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock on the Modern Architecture: International Exhibition which opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in February 1932 and introduced the United States to the glories of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Their accompanying book, The International Style, became, and has remained, one of the bibles of the Modern Movement.

It had totally escaped my attention that he was a Nazi sympathiser

Two years later, he mounted a second exhibition, on the machine aesthetic under the title Machine Art, which celebrated the industrial look of everything from kitchen units and Dictaphones to lavatory valves. As the museum’s Bulletin described it, the exhibition illustrated “a victory in the long war between the Craft and the Machine”.

After service in the Second World War, Johnson returned to MoMA as consultant to its department of architecture, which he had helped to establish and, in 1947, staged a big celebratory exhibition of the work of Mies van der Rohe, which, according to its press release, probably written by Johnson himself, was intended to “assist the birth of an architecture as expressive of the industrial age as Gothic was of its age of ecclesiasticism”. 

 In 1949, he was responsible for a small extension to the museum called the Grace Rainey Rogers Memorial Wing, designed in the most sophisticated Miesian style, a deliberate contrast to the original building, which he and the museum’s director, Alfred Barr, had always regarded as unsophisticated, being particularly critical of the circular holes on the canopy which Johnson described as “cheeseholes”. In 1953, he designed the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, which is still the central open space of the museum for the display of public sculpture, designed with shallow ponds and paving stones of Vermont marble.

Post-modern pediment on Johnson’s AT&T building, New York

I freely confess that in my readings in the relevant architectural secondary literature, it had totally escaped my attention that he was a Nazi sympathiser. In retrospect I should probably have known, because it has not been a particular secret, ever since the architectural critic Michael Sorkin published an article in Spy, a widely circulated satirical paper, in October 1988 documenting his involvement with Nazi politics, and more especially since the publication of Mark Lamster’s The Man in the Glass House in 2018 which rewrites his biography in a negative way. I had known of Johnson only as the great apostate of modernism when he added a playful, pseudo-Chippendale-style pediment to the top of his AT&T building in 1984, thereby signalling his conversion to post-modernism.

The truth is that Johnson was much more than a Nazi sympathiser. He was as close to an active fascist as it was possible to be in America in the 1930s. While he was in Germany in the summer of 1932 with his mother and younger sister studying and photographing the buildings of Ludwig Persius, he attended a Hitler rally in Potsdam. He did not disguise this when his biography came to be written in the 1990s by Franz Schulze. He described how “you simply could not fail to be caught up in the excitement of it, by the marching songs, by the crescendo and climax of the whole thing, as Hitler came on at last to harangue the crowd”. He was thrilled by the sight of “all those blond boys in black leather”. 

In fact, there is quite a significant chunk in Johnson’s biography, only filled in recently, when he was very active in the politics of the far right, leaving his post at MoMA in December 1934 to go and support Huey Long, the aggressively populist and corrupt Governor of Louisiana known as “The Kingfish”. 

Encouraged by Johnson, the New York Herald Tribune reported his departure under the headline two forsake art to found a party, quoting Johnson’s old schoolfriend, Alan Blackburn, executive director of MoMA, as saying, “We feel that there are 20,000,000 to 25,000,000 people in this country who are suffering at present from the inefficiency of government. We feel that there is too much emphasis on theory and intellectualism. There ought to be more emotionalism in politics” — in other words, less democracy and more populist demagoguery. They had decided to do “the sort of things that everyone in New York would like to do but never finds time for. We may learn to shoot, fly airplanes and take contemplative walks in the woods.” 

According to Ruth Merrill, his PA, when interviewed by the FBI in 1942, Johnson believed “the fate of the country” rested on his shoulders, and that “he wanted to be the ‘Hitler’ in the United States … By joining with Huey Long he could eventually depose Huey Long from control of the country and gain control of it for himself.” 

Johnson and Blackburn decided to found their own political party, the National Party, or the Young Nationalists, which had its own uniform of grey shirts and a flying wedge insignia, equivalent to a swastika. 

In 1936, Johnson joined up with Father Charles Coughlin, another populist demagogue who was a Catholic priest and denounced Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal for its support for “central bankers, Wall Street financiers, and communists”. Johnson designed the white rostrum on which Father Coughlin stood during a big political rally in Chicago in 1936, which was based, like the design of his new political party, on his experience of the Hitler rally that he had attended in Potsdam.

His DNA is close to the museum’s core but on the other hand, he was a fully accredited Nazi supporter

In the summer of 1937, Johnson visited Germany again and, in 1938, made friends with Ulrich von Gienanth, the propaganda attaché at the German Embassy in Washington, who also worked for the SS and arranged for him to visit Germany again in the summer of 1938 under the auspices of the Nazi government, visiting Hitler youth camps and meeting prominent Nazi officials. 

He attended a Nuremberg rally and was apparently “carried away” by Hitler’s magnetism. Meanwhile, he was publishing articles on the benefits of eugenics in a fascist journal, The Examiner. He was in Germany again in 1939 and travelled to Poland in the wake of the German blitzkrieg in September 1939 on a press trip organised by the German Propaganda Ministry. He was regarded by William Shirer, a fellow American correspondent, as a Nazi spy and was lucky not to have been put in jail at the beginning of the war, as were many of his political associates.

What are we to think of this? One of America’s leading postwar architects, its first and greatest propagandist for modernism, was, for the whole of the second half of the 1930s, if not a paid-up agent of the German government (he did not need the money and, indeed, was giving his own in support of Nazi causes), a very active and public supporter of fascism.

There are several possible responses. 

Johnson himself dismissed his activities as the product of youthful enthusiasm, although it occupied him from the age of 28 to 34, so he was not exactly in his first youth, nor was his enthusiasm brief. When he was interviewed by the FBI in 1942, he described his discussions with members of the German government as involving only “generalities — that is, discussion of the United States and the world, and isolationism”. 

When he was interviewed by the architect Robert Stern in 1985 about his life, as published after his death, he was somewhat evasive about his activities during the second half of the 1930s, but this could have been a matter of genuine half-forgetfulness, as well as a wish for them not to be a matter of public record. According to Franz Schulze, his first biographer, he treated his Nazism as if it had been just a visual spectacle, giving him a voyeuristic, sexual thrill. 

Schulze thought that his involvements with fascism deserved “little more substantial attention than they have gained” and, presumably encouraged by Johnson, that his politics had been “driven as much by an unconquerable esthetic impulse as by fascist philosophy or playboy adventurism”.

Alfred Barr, the founding director of MoMA, who was a close friend and intellectual ally of Johnson, must have known his political sympathies and, to a considerable extent, his activities after he left working for the museum, but it did not prevent him reinstating him as consultant to the architecture department in 1945. In 1949, he was made director of its department of architecture and design by René d’Harnoncourt, the new director.

Lincoln Kirstein, the great ballet impresario, who was another of the major figures behind the foundation of MoMA, was less sympathetic than Barr to Johnson at Harvard and during the 1930s, particularly when he discovered his political views, but this did not stop him from writing to the War Department to defend him from the accusation of antisemitism. They became close friends and cultural allies after the war, Kirstein commissioning Johnson to design the New York State Theater in the Lincoln Center, and Johnson honouring Kirstein with an abstract architectural sculpture on his estate in New Canaan.

In the 1960s, Johnson became a liberal figure, an advocate for the protection of historic buildings, including Penn Station, which was destroyed, and Grand Central Station, which he helped to save, together with Jackie Kennedy. He was apparently an early supporter of feminism, of the civil rights movement, and, not surprisingly, of gay rights. His Jewish friends forgave him.

Johnson and Jackie Kennedy helped save Grand Central Station

Harvard, on the other hand, his alma mater during the 1920s, has decided that it should no longer be tainted by an association with him: he studied philosophy under Alfred North Whitehead, and he was admitted as a postgraduate student in 1941, when his political sympathies were well known to the faculty, including Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, as well as his fellow students. 

Sarah Whiting does not care about his importance as one of the major architects of postwar America. She feels it appropriate, indeed a necessary act of posthumous retribution, to strip the house that Philip Johnson designed, a monument of modernism, of any association with its designer and to describe him as “just one figure among the entrenched, paradigmatic racism and white supremacy of architecture”. 

The FBI felt that it was not appropriate to prosecute him in 1940, but he is being prosecuted retrospectively in 2021. His generosity to institutions, his support for students, a long and very distinguished architectural career, are sawdust. The Pritzker Prize counts for nothing.

There are two aspects of this debate which I find particularly interesting.

The first is that the Modern Movement has always been regarded as socially progressive, described by Nikolaus Pevsner in his Pioneers of the Modern Movement as the product of the socialist, if not communist, idealism of the Bauhaus. But it is abundantly evident that Johnson had absolutely no interest in its social or political connotations, the way in which it might be used as an instrument to improve society. 

For him, its excitement was purely aesthetic, a style of architecture which was as stimulating as attending a Nazi rally, a way of purifying architecture and renewing it in a way which provided some of the same frisson to him as Nazism. 

I am not sympathetic to a view that the crimes of the past can somehow be abolished by attacking and dismantling their relics

He was pathological in his dislike of untidiness; modernism was orderly and systematic, a way of rectifying the disorder of the universe. In 1933, he published an article in the Hound & Horn under the title “Architecture in the Third Reich” in which he described his hope that Hitler would commission Mies van der Rohe to design buildings to satisfy “the new craving for monumentality”. In reading about Johnson and his ideas, modernism can suddenly feel not so much the style of democratic post-war utopianism, but instead the chosen style of a small, anti-democratic New York élite imposed on American society through the propaganda of MoMA.

The second thing I find interesting is the enormity of the moral revolution which has meant that for most of his adult lifetime, American high society was prepared to overlook Johnson’s Nazism, in spite of knowing about it, in order to shower him with commissions — including, in 1956, a synagogue — whereas now, more than 20 years after his death, it is regarded as entirely legitimate, indeed essential, to excoriate him, and, as far as possible, eradicate his name from the causes with which he was associated.

The issue of Johnson’s politics places MoMA very squarely between a rock and a hard place in answering the request of the Johnson Study Group to remove his name from the title of its curator of architecture.

On the one hand, Johnson was involved with the museum from nearly its foundation in 1929 as a close friend and associate of Alfred Barr. He was its first architecture curator, organiser of two of its most important early exhibitions, and designer of the first extension to its original building and of its garden. He became a trustee in December 1957 and was responsible for a further wing in 1964. Over the years, he gave more than 2,000 paintings to the museum’s permanent collection, including major works of German Expressionism by Otto Dix and Oskar Schlemmer, banned by the Nazis, and works by major Abstract Expressionists, including Jasper Johns. 

In 1984, the Architecture Gallery was named in his honour. At its inauguration, William Paley, the chairman of the board, said: “The world knows Philip Johnson as one of the great architects of the 20th century. But here at the Museum of Modern Art, we know him in a much more personal way. From the museum’s very first days — for more than half a century — he has been part of its heart and soul. He has poured into it his ideas, his resources, and his energy. These have done much to make the Museum of Modern Art what it is today.” His DNA is close to the museum’s core – progressive, modernist, Upper East Side, high style.

On the other hand, Johnson was a fully accredited Nazi supporter, an antisemite, and a racist.

I think that there is only one way MoMA can and should, respond to the request: to make clear that they deplore many of the views he expressed during his life, but that they do not believe it appropriate to countermand the beliefs of their predecessors in paying tribute to the contribution Johnson made during his life to the practice of architecture and, in particular, to the museum itself. 

I am not against the rewriting of history. I am thoroughly in favour of it and regard it as the responsibility of the historian to look at the past and to re-examine it in the light of new discoveries and different ways of thinking. It does not bother me at all that Philip Johnson, who was not necessarily a particularly sympathetic figure in postwar New York society, adopting every new architectural fashion as if he was responsible for its invention, an energetic and self-mythologising social chameleon, should appear less sympathetic now that his early political views are known. But I am not sympathetic to a view that the crimes of the past can somehow be abolished by attacking and dismantling their relics or by a superficial exercise in renaming.

You can and should acknowledge the sins of the past, but you cannot so easily wipe them away.

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