January 31, 2005


Form Follows Fascism (MARK STEVENS, 1/31/05, NY Times)

Traditionally, [Philip] Johnson is presented as the great champion of modern architecture - organizer of the landmark 1932 Museum of Modern Art show on the International Style, and architect of the Glass House on his Connecticut estate, which quickly came to symbolize American modernism. He is equally celebrated for abandoning classical modernism in the late 50's and adopting in the decades that followed a succession of styles that mirrored the changing taste of the time.

It hardly mattered that many of his skyscrapers were corporate schmaltz; he was an enlivening, generous figure, a man who charmingly described himself as a "whore" as he picked the corporate pocket. Always ready to challenge the earnest, Mr. Johnson, who understood Warhol as well as Mies, became both an icon and an iconoclast.

Only one aspect marred this picture: His embrace of fascism during the 1930's, which was mentioned only in passing in most obituaries. He later called his ideological infatuation "stupidity" and apologized whenever pressed on the matter; as a form of atonement, he designed a synagogue for no fee. With a few exceptions, critics typically had little interest in the details, granting Mr. Johnson a pass for a youthful indiscretion.

Then, in 1994, Franz Schulze's biography presented this period of Mr. Johnson's life in some depth. Mr. Schulze's account was as sympathetic as possible - and many reviews of the book still played down the importance of Mr. Johnson's politics - but it was clear that views of Mr. Johnson's import for American culture would change significantly.

Philip Johnson did not just flirt with fascism. He spent several years in his late 20's and early 30's - years when an artist's imagination usually begins to jell - consumed by fascist ideology. He tried to start a fascist party in the United States. He worked for Huey Long and Father Coughlin, writing essays on their behalf. He tried to buy the magazine American Mercury, then complained in a letter, "The Jews bought the magazine and are ruining it, naturally." He traveled several times to Germany. He thrilled to the Nuremberg rally of 1938 and, after the invasion of Poland, he visited the front at the invitation of the Nazis.

He approved of what he saw.

It can hardly be surprising that anti-human building proceeded from such an anti-human personality.

As Tom Wolfe asked:

O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within they blessed borders today?

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 31, 2005 8:22 AM

Mr. Stevens is being coy with us about the "passing" reference in "most obituaries". He is referring to the NY Times' own obituary of four days ago that said Except for his brief involvement in right-wing politics, all of his careers revolved around architecture. As Robert Fulford wrote in the National Post on Saturday, his anti-semitism and aping of Hitler wasn't brief and had nothing to do with right-wing politics.

Posted by: Peter B at January 31, 2005 8:48 AM

Confirming that my decision never to read the NYT again is correct. Involvement with right-wing politics indeed!!!

This is old media formulations: Rightwing = fascism. Couldn't be more wrong.

Fascism = Communism = Socialism + Marxism = Maoism = Leninism = Statism. Did I leave any out?

Rightwing = Capitalism = Prosperity = Freedom and Liberty for All.

Posted by: erp at January 31, 2005 9:48 AM

Philip Johnson in his early years had really bad political ideas, but he learned from his mistakes. I'd give him a pass on that. Perhaps, the fact that he was homosexual caused him to love the Nazis who made a habit of homoerotic spectacle, and hate the Jews, whose Torah introduced the notion that homosexuality was a capital sin into Western civilization. However, his glass boxes, while probably efficient, are hideous to look at and a blight wherever they are found.

But then I'm a complete sucker for Art Deco.

Posted by: Bart at January 31, 2005 10:25 AM

Johnson is responsible for much of Houston's beautiful skyline, so I have to give him some props for that.

On the other hand, he neglected to mention that "his" design for the UH college of architecture was effectively ripped off from an earlier French design, and only came clean when some Rice U architecture students pointed it out.

That latter bit makes me think some of his better Houston designs (such as the wonderful Transco/Williams Tower) were probably also "borrowed" from architects working under him.

Posted by: kevin whited at January 31, 2005 11:25 AM


Seems like a nice way for Johnson to come full circle--his famed late '40s glass house was based on Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, which Mies had already designed, but, because of client vacillations, hadn't yet constructed when Johnson built his version first.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at January 31, 2005 3:26 PM

What is this? Bold, grand form is fascist? I keep thinking about what the newly arrived immigrant, Arnold Schwartzenegger said when he was told that Nixon, who had just given a speech for freedom and against collectivism was a Republican: "Then I am a Republican, too."

Be careful here. You seem to be saying that late trains are a virtue because of the contributions of Mussolini.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 31, 2005 3:33 PM


Skyscrapers are collectivism.

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2005 3:37 PM

OJ, here is the worlds tallest hotel in North Korea ahh.. except for one detail. It's empty, unfurnished, and unfinished.

Posted by: h-man at January 31, 2005 4:01 PM

It's the thought that counts.

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2005 4:28 PM

oj: skyscrapers are capitalism above a certain price per square foot of real estate. Agreed that modernism produced some creepy architecture, although I've always loved the Seagram building for some reason.

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 31, 2005 4:40 PM


Yes, unfettered capitalism is just as vile as collectivism.

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2005 4:46 PM

Ayn Rand. Fountainhead. Discuss.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at February 1, 2005 12:27 AM

All "modernism" in art derives from the same political impulse, which is the destruction of the individual human soul, and its subjection to the state. The distinction between communism and nazism was simply a nationalistic distinction transposed into the rhetoric of the French Revolution. The Communists (i.e. the pro-Russian parties) being on the winning side got to portray their enimies as rightist (i.e. members of the ancien regime aristocrats and royalists, which was a perfectly silly description).

The members of the Bauhaus school (e.g. Gropius and Van der Rohe) from whom Johnson copied much were all communists and were forced to flee Germany because of that. But the aesthetic impulse was the same.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 1, 2005 3:42 AM

Fountainhead: garish, seven hundred and four-page Art Deco comic book. Empire State Building: gorgeous, one thousand four hundred and fifty three-foot Art Deco lollipop. Modernism: fad that produced a lot of ugly architecture. Seagram Building: proof that the ugliest fad can produce a happy accident.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 1, 2005 11:28 AM