April 12, 2021


The modernist who wanted to be FührerWe should acknowledge the Nazi past of architect Philip Johnson, not erase him (Charles Saumarez Smith, April 12, 2021, The Critic)

The truth is that Johnson was much more than a Nazi sympathiser. He was as close to an active fascist as it was possible to be in America in the 1930s. While he was in Germany in the summer of 1932 with his mother and younger sister studying and photographing the buildings of Ludwig Persius, he attended a Hitler rally in Potsdam. He did not disguise this when his biography came to be written in the 1990s by Franz Schulze. He described how "you simply could not fail to be caught up in the excitement of it, by the marching songs, by the crescendo and climax of the whole thing, as Hitler came on at last to harangue the crowd". He was thrilled by the sight of "all those blond boys in black leather". 

In fact, there is quite a significant chunk in Johnson's biography, only filled in recently, when he was very active in the politics of the far right, leaving his post at MoMA in December 1934 to go and support Huey Long, the aggressively populist and corrupt Governor of Louisiana known as "The Kingfish". 

Encouraged by Johnson, the New York Herald Tribune reported his departure under the headline two forsake art to found a party, quoting Johnson's old schoolfriend, Alan Blackburn, executive director of MoMA, as saying, "We feel that there are 20,000,000 to 25,000,000 people in this country who are suffering at present from the inefficiency of government. We feel that there is too much emphasis on theory and intellectualism. There ought to be more emotionalism in politics" -- in other words, less democracy and more populist demagoguery. They had decided to do "the sort of things that everyone in New York would like to do but never finds time for. We may learn to shoot, fly airplanes and take contemplative walks in the woods." 

According to Ruth Merrill, his PA, when interviewed by the FBI in 1942, Johnson believed "the fate of the country" rested on his shoulders, and that "he wanted to be the 'Hitler' in the United States ... By joining with Huey Long he could eventually depose Huey Long from control of the country and gain control of it for himself." 

Johnson and Blackburn decided to found their own political party, the National Party, or the Young Nationalists, which had its own uniform of grey shirts and a flying wedge insignia, equivalent to a swastika. 

In 1936, Johnson joined up with Father Charles Coughlin, another populist demagogue who was a Catholic priest and denounced Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal for its support for "central bankers, Wall Street financiers, and communists". Johnson designed the white rostrum on which Father Coughlin stood during a big political rally in Chicago in 1936, which was based, like the design of his new political party, on his experience of the Hitler rally that he had attended in Potsdam.

In the summer of 1937, Johnson visited Germany again and, in 1938, made friends with Ulrich von Gienanth, the propaganda attaché at the German Embassy in Washington, who also worked for the SS and arranged for him to visit Germany again in the summer of 1938 under the auspices of the Nazi government, visiting Hitler youth camps and meeting prominent Nazi officials. 

He attended a Nuremberg rally and was apparently "carried away" by Hitler's magnetism. Meanwhile, he was publishing articles on the benefits of eugenics in a fascist journal, The Examiner. He was in Germany again in 1939 and travelled to Poland in the wake of the German blitzkrieg in September 1939 on a press trip organised by the German Propaganda Ministry. He was regarded by William Shirer, a fellow American correspondent, as a Nazi spy and was lucky not to have been put in jail at the beginning of the war, as were many of his political associates.

What are we to think of this? One of America's leading postwar architects, its first and greatest propagandist for modernism, was, for the whole of the second half of the 1930s, if not a paid-up agent of the German government (he did not need the money and, indeed, was giving his own in support of Nazi causes), a very active and public supporter of fascism.

This is the Modernist par excellence

Posted by at April 12, 2021 12:00 AM