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Philip Johnson Gay. Modernist. Nazi Sympathiser.

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

I know what you're thinking-why bother talking about Philip Johnson ?

In 2020 both Harvard and MoMa removed his name from their buildings and Architecture Daily ran the article "Why We Should Cancel Philip Johnson"'. So why talk about Philip Johnson now?

To which I would respond, how can you not talk about Philip Johnson? As a gay,

white- supremacist, Modernist he's a fascinating set of contradictions. For better or worse, (and some would say worse) Philip Johnson introduced Modernism to America. He is so interwoven into the history of modern architecture, design and contemporary architecture, that we can't talk about Modernism without talking about him.

And then there's the Glass House.

Despite its provenance, this singular piece of architecture is truly magical in my opinion. The architecture and the setting combine to form a completely perfect work of art.

Philip Johnson and Alfred Barr

But let's start at the beginning. Born into a wealthy family in Cleveland, Ohio in 1906, he was the youngest of four. His older brother died while he was still very young. Philip was devoted to his younger sister Theodate and they remained close throughout their lives. In 1923 Philip attended Harvard. While still an undergraduate, he became a millionaire due to a gift of Alcoa stock from his father. Clearly he did not thrive at Harvard as it took him seven years to graduate. A chance encounter with the art historian Alfred Barr set him on the path toward architecture. Alfred Barr had just finished teaching at Wellesley College where Theodate was a student, and she introduced the two men. Philip and Alfred immediately hit it off. When Philip finally received his undergraduate degree in 1930, Alfred Barr, the first director at the Museum of Modern Art, invited him to lead the architecture department at the fledgling Museum of Modern Art in New York City. (Can you imagine being offered such a prestigious position after struggling to obtain an undergraduate degree?)

Philip immediately set out to explore the art and architecture scene in 1930’s Europe with Henry Russel Hitchcock. Despite the gay love triangle between Philip, Henry, and Cary Ross, they did manage to get some work done. The result was the incredibly influential exhibit “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition,” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. This exhibition and the accompanying book introduced the Bauhaus and Modernism to the US. It also solidified the reputations of Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, Alvar Aalto and others as the founders of Modernism or the International Style as it was then called.

Philip eventually enrolled in the architecture program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1941. Finally, at 35 he began his career as an architect in earnest. He quickly started his own practice and was immediately successful thanks in part to his connections and financial resources.The home he designed and built for himself, the Glass House, brought instant fame and established him as a rising star of Modernism.

However, he grew tired of Modernism by 1970 and experimented with many different architectural styles throughout his career with varying degrees of success. He received the Pritzker Prize in its first year in 1979. He continued to champion the work of his peers through his connection to the architecture and design department at MoMa, including the fledgling careers of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Peter Eisenman. Despite his lengthy and varied career, (he died at the age of 98 !) it is his earliest projects, the Glass House and New York's Four Season’s restaurant for which he is most remembered.

It was during his European tour in the nineteen thirties that Philip Johnson became infatuated with the Nazi party. Upon his return to the US he continued to admire and espouse the Nazi philosophy, to the point that he joined the fledgling fascist party in the US and worked for the fascist presidential candidate Huey Long. His early anti-Semitism/fascism were almost as much of an open secret as his homosexuality. In fact, Bloomberg News described it as " the worst-kept secret in New York" (July 2020). Similar to his homosexuality, there was not much written on this subject until recently. However, many of the architectural historians that I discussed this subject with rolled their eyes, dismissing it as "old news". In the absence of much writing on the subject, Philip was able to create "alternative facts" about his early allegiance to the Nazi party, which then became accepted as fact. When he discussed his past with architect Robert Stern in 1985, he claimed that, "The bad-boy reputation has become much stronger in the last ten years than it was at the time. It's very strange... Everything was so close that we couldn't see the forest through the trees. There was no reexamination of the Holocaust. The word hadn't been invented...But had we known at the time what we know now, I suppose we'd have been more horrified." The Philip Johnson Tapes: Interviews with Robert Stern. Monacelli Press, New York 2008

I'm not exactly sure what he means by bad-boy reputation, but throughout the thirties and forties he was being investigated by the FBI and other entities, such as the "Friends of Democracy" for both his relationships with other Nazi sympathizers and for his clear Nazi affiliation, so this statement rings false to me. It is also hard to believe that he "knew nothing of the horrors" when he met with architect Otto Eisler, who was Jewish and gay, at his home in Czechoslovakia in 1939, where he was recovering from being severely beaten by the Nazis. Eisler was eventually arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Amazingly he and his brother survived, and he lived out the rest of his life in the former Czechoslovakia until he died in 1968.

Lincoln Kirstein

Franz Schultze examines this period in depth in his biography of Johnson and there are many disturbing examples of Philip Johnson's anti-Semitism during this period. But how did someone with such clear ties to the Nazi party go on to have such a successful career? It was at the beginning of his career, prior to architecture school, and before he amassed many of the networks that made him so powerful. But his Museum of Modern Art network was established. Alfred Barr and other powerful cultural players such as Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, vigorously defended him to the FBI and others. But why? While anti-Semitism was much more accepted in society at this time, one also has to wonder if his defenders understood the depth of his involvement.

The letter above from the Alfred Barr Archives at the Museum of Modern Art, would imply that Lincoln Kirstein, "number one" on Philip Johnson's "elimination" list probably had some idea of Philip Johnson's Nazi beliefs. And yet he defended him.

The Puppetmaster

Philip Johnson celebrating his nintieth birthday

By the 1970's Philip Johnson was so powerful and influential that any sort of denunciation would have been career suicide for any architect or creative. He was a tremendous mentor to Jewish architects Robert Stern, Peter Eisenman, and Frank Gehry who all became staunch defenders. After years of discounting his Nazi past as youthful indiscretion, they were somewhat complicit and certainly not about to ask questions or comment on his early white- supremacist views either.

By all accounts, he was also incredibly charming and witty. No one wanted to believe that such a person could be a white supremacist. "To spend time with Johnson, whether at a party or lecture, a booth at the Four Seasons restaurant, or his Glass House, was to find yourself charmed, bought, and sold." Aaron Betsky, Architect magazine December 2020.

He liked to quip later in life that the sight of all those blond men in leather made him lose his mind. Aaron Betsky writes a fascinating essay describing how the influence of Nazi architecture can be seen in Philip Johnson's later work, even going so far as to describe it as "queered versions of a fascist aesthetic". Mr. Betsky, I salute you; you have officially blown my mind. If you want to read this amazing article you can find it here.

Can we still enjoy the glass house? An incredibly beautiful site in addition to a gorgeous building, the Glass House lives up to the hype and then some. But this incredible piece of architecture brings us to what I call the Picasso question. Is it ethical to enjoy a work of art, when the person who created it espoused values that are abhorrent or if they themselves behaved in a deeply unethical manner? How unethical is too unethical? Like Philip Johnson, the Glass House is a part of architectural history and an important part of Modernism; not only for its architectural expression and influence but also for the people who visited and the parties that took places there. Sadly art history is littered with stories of terrible behavior by artists-Picasso being my personal favorite with two ex-girlfriends killing themselves and two going mad. But the point that many would make is that a work of art stands on its own and is separate from its creator. We judge art on aesthetic grounds not moral ones. That said, it does seem appropriate to remove Philip Johnson's name from educational an other institutions, if for no other reason that it is prompting more exploration and conversation about his Nazi affiliation. But the question remains, how and why was his Nazi past ignored for so long?

Thirsty for more? Get the recipe for the perfect party cocktail here.

1 Comment

He was a Nazi in the 30's, but he truly corrected himself from then on. His most loyal intellectuals were mostly Jewish thinkers and architects.

I worked with him a a principal designer for 6 years, and found not one thing going across his round desk at his own office where I had to spend quite a bit of time ironing out each projects finer points or crisis.

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