It is time to cancel Philip Johnson. In fact, it’s long overdue. For all of his significance in codifying Modernist architecture and helping several generations of architects keep its pursuit current, and despite his philanthropic generosity in donating the immense wealth he inherited and much of his art to select institutions, there is no getting around the fact that Johnson was a Nazi supporter. He later dismissed his ugly past as the misguided actions of youth—that is, if he wasn't claiming to have forgotten that history altogether.
I therefore agree with the call of the anonymous Johnson Study Group (which has garnered support from prominent designers, including Amale Andraos, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and noted landscape architect Kate Orff) to remove Johnson’s name “from every leadership title, public space, and honorific of every form.” Already, Harvard has announced that it is removing the architect’s name from the house he designed as his thesis project and donated to the university's Graduate School of Design.
Canceling Johnson should not stop us, however, from considering the complexity of his particular form of evil and discussing its causes and effects. No longer honoring him with gallery and curator titles does not mean abiding by some ancient “damnatio memoriae” (condemnation of memory) in which we pretend that he never existed. His life, after all, has many lessons to teach us.
Johnson never directly referred to himself a fascist, but he wrote for fascist magazines and, with a colleague at the Museum of Modern Art, started a neo-fascist party, the Young Nationalists, in 1937. He also aligned himself with the rabidly right-wing radio priest Father Charles Coughlin and designed a stage set for one of his rallies in 1938, which he based on Albert Speer’s work for Adolf Hitler. Johnson even traveled to Nazi Germany, sending back rapturous reports of the new society Hitler was building.
Johnson's political obsessions (he had previously supported the populist Louisiana Senator Huey Long) bring to mind the deep roots of our fascination with spectacle as a means to justify violence and injustice—a spectacle that creates a shared experience powerful enough to evaporate truth. That Johnson never fully apologized or atoned for his pre-war activities more than justifies the Study Group’s demands. One point the group doesn't raise is how Johnson's love for bombastic buildings that turned corporate headquarters into castles, temples, and other monuments to power were based—at least I believe—on his translation of Speer’s techniques to corporate capitalism. Fascist forms crept into Johnson's work and from there entered mainstream American architecture.
The Study Group contends that Johnson “effectively segregated the architectural collection at MoMA” and “not only acquiesced but added to the persistent practice of racism in the field of architecture.” I have no doubt Johnson was racist, but it should be noted that there was an entire system at play that prevented talented Black architects and designers from emerging and evolving and ending up in museum collections.
Equally troubling to me is the manner in which Johnson got away with his fascism. He was able to play a role that is particularly uncomfortable to me as a gay man, in part because I accepted it for so long: He was the Grand Camp Queer, always ready with a bon mot and happy to appropriate images and symbols that were powerful exactly in their evil. He was fascinated by the intersection between order, pain, and pleasure, and he was able to sell that act with the most outrageous gesture. Johnson’s fascination with fascism, in other words, was deeply intertwined with the presentation of his queerness, and it is easy to understand the grand gestures of his Postmodern period, such as the Republic Bank in Dallas or the AT&T Building in New York, as queered versions of a fascist aesthetic. Even the Glass House, with its enforced openness that contrasted with the “sex cave” hidden underground, smacks of the S&M side of fascism.
What is scary to me is that this stance became an easy way for the power elite to buy the inherent misogyny and economic Darwinism behind Johnson’s racism. With a flippant witticism, this arbiter of architecture taste could make anything seem, if not OK, at the very least amusing. 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.
You had to remind yourself afterward that Johnson never produced an architectural work of lasting value, or any intellectual work longer than a transcribed lecture. His superpower was the manipulation of power by queering it into the realm of the grand effect: the lifted eyebrow, the skyscraper as piece of furniture, the all-glass house pushed beyond the point of inhabitation. In retrospect, even his position as the Godfather of Architecture, as we thought of him for several decades at the end of the 20th century, was overblown. I think Michael Graves and Frank Gehry, FAIA, would have done just fine without him.
So, let’s cancel Philip Johnson, but let us not forget his playbook (or his witticisms), so that we can recognize future versions when they arise: the nihilism and casual dismissal of the human that inspired his dark grids and glass-clad castles. I see traces of those qualities in certain architects who claim to be humanists, but whose work instead celebrates their own grandeur. Philip Johnson wasn’t just a racist and fascist: He was a cultured, rich cad who made us forget our own failings as a country and as a profession.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.