fb-pixel Skip to main content

Philip Johnson: An ugly history that must be named

More than 30 artists, architects, and academics are calling for the removal of Philip Johnson's name from places and titles. On Monday, Harvard's "Philip Johnson Thesis House" became known, simply, as "9 Ash St."David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Until earlier this week, what lay beyond the right-angled expanse of corrugated plywood straddling the corner of Ash and Acacia streets in this leafy, Harvard-adjacent pocket of Victorians and Queen Annes had a name: The Philip Johnson Thesis House, the celebrated architect’s clean, glass-and-concrete slab home built as his graduating project from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1942. As of Monday, it had another name: 9 Ash St., which also happens to be its address. Granted, it’s a less auspicious sounding title. But it’s unequivocally neutral, whereas Johnson, who died in 2005, was not.

The change was prompted by a letter sent by more than 30 artists, architects, and academics calling themselves, collectively, the Johnson Study Group — to institutions like Harvard and the Museum of Modern Art, requesting Johnson’s name be removed from spaces and titles in light of his Nazi allegiance and white supremacist sympathies.


Very little here qualifies as news: Just the letter, and the school’s swift action. But really, there was nothing swift about it. Johnson’s extreme views have been known for decades. They weren’t dabbling, intellectual exercises: He worked with white supremacists, consorted with Nazis, and even tried to start a fascist party in the US as Hitler rose to power in Germany. With the country on the cusp of entering the Second World War, he was cowed only when the FBI investigated him for sedition in 1940 (Institutions like MoMA and the Boston Public Library, whose “Johnson Building” on Boylston Street is one of the architect’s biggest public commissions, have yet to work up a response to the recent letter.)

A peek over the fence at 9 Ash St., formerly known as the Philip Johnson Thesis House. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Over the years, Johnson apologized, sort of, when the subject of his fervid pro-fascist 20s and 30s came up. An effusively charismatic self-promoter who loved the spotlight, Johnson would wave it off as “stupidity,” a youthful fancy. “If you’d indulged every one of your whims that you had when you were a kid,” he said in the 1990s to PBS host Charlie Rose, who coincidentally shamed himself out of existence in 2017 for sexual harassment, “you wouldn’t be here with a job either.” Among Johnson’s amends-making turns, he designed a synagogue pro bono. And for a long time, that seemed good enough.


So the recent call for the removal of honorific mentions might be met less with “why” than “finally,” or more to the point, “why, finally, now?” That’s an easy enough answer, if you’ve been paying attention the past few years, as social justice movements have toppled monuments and put asterisks beside the names of long-untouchable artists as towering as Paul Gauguin (a syphilitic pedophile), Pablo Picasso (an abuser), and Edgar Degas (an anti-Semite). Johnson’s built legacy is far from universally great — as someone who spent a year working in one of his later buildings, the 1992 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s headquarters in Toronto, I know of what I speak — but he cuts an outsize figure in American culture all the same. More than anyone, American Modernism is Johnson’s progeny, shepherded from its origins in European proletarian goodwill to the safe haven of American corporate egomania, Johnson’s natural home. The movement’s dissolution, largely, is on him, too, as built elegance gave way to postmodern schmaltz, which Johnson himself embraced and helped proliferate. (See: His 1984 AT&T Building in New York, later known as the Sony Tower, to pick just one.)


Much more than Gauguin’s paintings, which still hang prominently in most of the museums that own them, often accompanied by labels amended to include his various offenses, Johnson’s buildings aren’t going anywhere. But naming rights in architecture — which, idealistically, is the practice of crafting the built environment for a social and aesthetic good — should be reserved for the virtuous, the Study Group argues, which Johnson is not.

Even so, erasure is not reckoning. Johnson’s imprint is far too large, and frankly, too significant, to just go away. It merits footnotes. Lots of them. Over the years, none really stuck, owing as much to Johnson’s public persona — he was a case study in how far charm could go in papering over transgression — as to a general ambivalence over laying our icons low. Those days are past. Which is why wiping away his name might be less useful than keeping it around for real scrutiny. And there’s a lot to scrutinize.

Johnson’s early career in the 1930s included a stint as the lead designer of public rallies for Father Charles Coughlin, a Rush Limbaugh-esque figure with a popular radio show and a disdain for Jews, Mexicans, and Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1932, Johnson traveled to Potsdam, Germany, to hear Hitler speak at a National Socialist rally. He was so enraptured, he went back to see the Fuhrer’s wild rantings at the Nuremberg rallies in 1938. For all his apologetic shrugs in the post-war aftermath, as late as 1964, he wrote to a friend about how Hitler was “better than Roosevelt,” with all his poor-pandering ways (as offensive a racist as Johnson was, he was equally classist).


Johnson wasn’t just a Hitler fan; he was cozy enough with the Nazi Party to be an honored guest of the Reich in the aftermath of the German invasion of Poland. With the Jewish shtetls ablaze outside Warsaw, Johnson found himself inspired by what he called the “stirring spectacle” of destruction. His most recent biographer, Mark Lamster, whose “Man in the Glass House” was published in 2018, suggests that the high-Modern jewel-box of windows and slim black steel on his New Canaan, Conn., estate — the titular “Glass House” completed in 1949, where Johnson lived until his death — was an expression of the blazing carnage he saw all those years before: A house aglow, nothing visible besides light and “foundations and chimneys of brick,” as Johnson once described it.

An inspiration for his illuminated glass house, Johnson once said, was “a burnt wooden village I saw once where nothing was left but foundations and chimneys of brick.”Jane Beiles/New York Times

There’s thick irony in Johnson’s rise being tethered to the leaders of the Bauhaus School, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, whom Johnson introduced to American audiences in 1932, the same year he first saw Hitler speak. As a young architecture curator, Johnson included them, along with the French architect Le Corbusier, in his MoMA show about European Modernism and the International Style. Soon after, both men would be in the United States — Mies moved to Chicago in 1937 and Gropius to Boston the same year, both admitted as refugees fleeing the Nazi regime. (They were targets both for their opposition of the Reich’s rising totalitarianism, and for their “degenerate” Modernist aesthetic, as Hitler saw it — the very aesthetic that so enthused Johnson as a curator.)


The Bauhaus leaders would be pillars of Johnson’s early career; he studied under Gropius at Harvard, and collaborated with Mies on what would be his high-Modern calling card: The Seagram Building in New York, finished in 1958, Mies’s first American skyscraper of many. It’s a commanding band of glass and black steel, rigorous elegance in built form. Johnson’s key contribution was the legendary Four Seasons Restaurant, an oasis of excess amid rectilinear Miesian splendor. Whatever Johnson learned from either, he ruthlesslessly picked and chose. The 1932 MoMA exhibition sidestepped the European Modern priority on using sparse, practical design to create equity and dignity for the poor by providing decent housing. An essay by critic Lewis Mumford on Modern architecture’s social role was tucked at the back of the catalog.

Johnson’s interest was form, not function. The priority resulted in a peripatetic interest in surfaces over rigor, and towards fashion and fad. The 1972 BPL annex, with its stout, arcing concrete colonnade, slips in line with the late-Modern Brutalist aesthetic of extruded concrete structure. For whatever reason, it was big in Boston — have a look at City Hall, which opened in 1969 — and Johnson appeared to have been following along.

Boston Public Library's Johnson Building, completed in 1972, was one of the architect's biggest public commissions.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Superficiality was hardly Johnson’s worst offense, as biographers like Lamster have reminded us now and then. (A 1994 biography by Franz Schulze, published during the architect’s lifetime, went into as much detail on Johnson’s moral failings, and made not a dent in his reputation.) The recent Study Group letter alleges a stringently exclusionary ethos while Johnson was at MoMA. In his on-again, off-again six-decade tenure with the museum, Johnson never acquired a single work by a Black artist or designer. That, the letter suggests, is as much his legacy at the museum as the sculpture garden he designed for the institution, the curatorial position named in his honor, or the gallery that bears his name.

There’s no argument to be made against that. But how can the public explore that legacy without the name there to be seen? It all needs to be buffered by context, an interpretive frame that reconstructs Johnson’s moral elisions; and by all means, liberate the poor curator who has Johnson’s name affixed to his or her business card, an unnecessary cruelty. But for the gallery, the garden, the library, the little concrete-slab house in Cambridge? I suspect this would finally be the time the attention-seeking Johnson would choose to go quietly, if he could. Don’t let him.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.