February 5, 2005


'Remembering' Philip Johnson (Anne Applebaum, February 2, 2005, Washington Post)

In its obituary, the New York Times described Johnson as "architecture's restless intellect." The Post proclaimed him a "towering figure." Both articles, like most of the other obituaries, described Johnson as the "elder statesman" of American architecture. Both also mentioned, more or less in passing, Johnson's "early admiration for fascism and anti-Semitism that he soon recanted."

But read a bit more and it turns out that this "early admiration" lasted for the better part of a decade. During that time, Johnson didn't merely sympathize, like Lindbergh, or make a juvenile joke, like Prince Harry. On the contrary, Johnson helped organize a U.S. fascist party. He worked on behalf of the Nazi sympathizer and radio broadcaster, Father Charles E. Coughlin. He attended one of Hitler's Nuremberg rallies in 1938, and in 1939 he followed the German army into Poland. "We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed," he wrote afterward. "It was a stirring spectacle."

In the week since his death, a few articles, including one in the New York Times, have examined Johnson's in fact elaborate and widely known fascist past in more depth. But in his lifetime -- as his obituaries reflect -- nobody was very interested. Johnson won every major architectural award, built dozens of buildings and received commissions from the likes of AT&T and the Lincoln Center. He occasionally apologized for his youthful politics, but with ambivalence. Asked in 1993 whether he would have built buildings for Adolf Hitler in 1936, he answered, "Who's to say? That would have tempted anyone." He frequently described himself as a "whore," a phrase that seems to have amused him -- he liked to shock -- and to have provided another sort of excuse for his past.

I leave it to others to determine whether Johnson's amorality bears a relationship to the chilly skyscrapers he built, or whether his politics influenced the celebrated glass-walled house he designed for himself, whose brick interior he once said had been inspired by the brick foundations of a "burned-out wooden village I saw," presumably in Poland. But his death makes me think that the rest of us should occasionally reflect a bit harder about why we find it so easy to condemn the likes of Prince Harry, a silly, thoughtless boy, and so hard to condemn Philip Johnson, a brilliant, witty aesthete. Or why it was thought scandalous when an allegedly anti-Semitic Ukrainian businessman was allowed to ride on Colin Powell's plane to Kiev last week, while Johnson, who once wrote a positive review of "Mein Kampf," lectured at Harvard University. Or why the Nuremberg tribunal didn't impose the death penalty on the urbane Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, or why the Academy Awards ceremony in 2004 solemnly noted the death of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's filmmaker, or why Herbert von Karajan, a Nazi Party member who never apologized at all -- party membership, he once said, "advanced my career" -- continued to conduct orchestras in all the great concert halls of Europe. We may think we believe any affiliation with Nazism is wrong, but as a society, our actual definition of "collaboration" is in fact quite slippery.

In the end, I suspect the explanation is simple: People whose gifts lie in esoteric fields get a pass that others don't. Or, to put it differently, if you use crude language and wear a swastika, you're a pariah. But if you make up a complex, witty persona, use irony and jokes to brush off hard questions, and construct an elaborate philosophy to obfuscate your past, then you're an elder statesman, a trendsetter, a provocateur and -- most tantalizingly -- an enigma.

It doesn't hurt your cause to be gay.

Philip Johnson Had A Thing for Hitler—And Nietzschean Ideal (Hilton Kramer, 2/14/05, NY Observer)

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 5, 2005 6:47 AM

There is no surprise that the fairyboy Johnson was attracted to the homoerotic spectacle that was Nazism and to a 'charismatic' Catholic priest.

As an aside, Coughlin was Tom Hayden's former catechism teacher and Hayden considers him an inspiration.

Posted by: Bart at February 5, 2005 8:36 AM

He liked Nazis, and he designed ugly buildings with no personality. Mere coincidence?

Posted by: Mike Morley at February 5, 2005 9:57 AM

of all the totalitarian regimes, the nazis had by far the best aesthetics :) its always fun to engage an architect in a conversation, and then casually ask them who they think was/is the most influential architect in history. if you are lucky, they will ask you who you think was the most influential, at which point you say "albert speers".

Posted by: cjm at February 5, 2005 4:59 PM

At least he removed himself from the gene pool.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 5, 2005 5:07 PM


Sorry. Nothing beats the Fist out of the ground at the Memorial in Volgograd(Stalingrad) or the Fountain of Blood in Teheran.

Soviet realism blows away every other form of totalitarian architecture. Of course it doesn't hold a candle to authoritarian forms like Gothic or Romantic or Baroque.

Posted by: Bart at February 5, 2005 5:29 PM

Frank Lloyd Wright was a pig of a human being, but you gotta like the Prairie School, and Fallingwater is the coolest house ever. And give me a Louis Sullivan downtown building over Bauhaus or Albert Speer or "Stalin wedding cake" any day.

Posted by: Mike Morley at February 5, 2005 8:27 PM

what makes speer infuential is his running of the wartime economy of germany, during the later parts of the war.

Posted by: cjm at February 6, 2005 7:56 AM

The Volgograd Monument makes a powerful statement!

Posted by: Phil at February 7, 2005 3:03 PM

Most of the ugly buildings are built by Marxists and lefties, I am surprised he was Nazi. Preety strange as unlike most Soviet buildings which were extremely ugly, Nazi buildings were quite good looking. However Soviet buildings improoved from Stalins days. Buildings between 1917 and Stalins end days were truly dreadfull.

Posted by: Prakash Iyer at February 9, 2005 10:28 AM