Philip Johnson’s Nazi decade

Philip Johnson in his Corbusier spectacles. (archinect)

Philip Johnson in his Corbusier spectacles. (archinect)

Here is a brave piece by Matt Novak for the Paleofuture page of Gizmodo, reprinted at Archinect. It is about the designer of two buildings on the campus of Brown University, in Providence: the Albert and Vera List Art Building (1971) on College Street and (predating that by a decade but less well known) the Center for Computation and Visualization on George Street. Yes, the renowned Philip Johnson was – shhh! – a Nazi.

List Art Building. (midcenturymundane.blogspot.com)

List Art Building. (midcenturymundane.blogspot.com)

Novak’s article, “One of America’s Most Famous Architects Was a Nazi Propagandist,” was written in connection with the anniversary of the opening of a more notable building by Johnson, the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, in Flushing, N.Y.

The piece is interesting in part because Novak sort of unbuttons his shirt and throws open his chest to the slings and arrows of carefully muted consternation that he knows will be aroused by the mention of Johnson’s decade dedicated to the Nazis and the isolationist far right during the Depression and early World War II. Johnson was with German troops when they stormed into Poland in 1939. I did not know that. Novak says he thinks architects should be open about Johnson’s infatuation with Hitler, which he never denied – only going so far as to acknowledge his own “unbelievable stupidity” as a youth.

But Johnson’s fling with the dictator is not something that was in his distant past by the time he shifted his allegiance to modernism. No, in 1932, his curatorial work for the now famous exhibit on “The International Style” at the new Museum of Modern Art predated most of his work as a Nazi propagandist in America. Novak links his article to Johnson’s FBI file, which was assembled at the request of the White House to vet his suitability to perform work for the World’s Fair. (Check it out!)

Center for Computation and Visualization. (midcenturymundane.blogspot.com)

Center for Computation and Visualization. (midcenturymundane.blogspot.com)

Yet there has been a veritable cone of silence imposed on the subject by the modernist architectural establishment. Bringing it up is the most annoying sort of faux pas. It just is not done. It is equivalent to announcing to the office that your boss’s fly is down.

So I congratulate Matt Novak and welcome him to the heat of the kitchen.

“Old, old news” shushed someone on TradArch this morning when Novak’s piece was posted there by the brilliant Chicago classicist Timothy LeVaughn. A shout out to him, too, for his courage. And please don’t forget to read the hundreds of very interesting comments! (Not on TradArch, though, where, except for a couple of very brief comments, the curtain was allowed to drop on Johnson before the subject could be transformed into a thread.)

 

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Philip Johnson’s Nazi decade

  1. Interesting stuff, I’m sure, Mr. Fulcanelli. Can you send me one or two that you think readers might find the most interesting? Or direct me how to find them? Many thanks!

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  2. Fulcanelli says:

    Herewith, a list of those of Philip Johnson’s writings from his National-Socialist phase that I have been to find (please note that I have copies of all of them):

    Johnson, Philip. “Aliens Reduce France to an ‘English Colony’,”
    in Social Justice, July 24, 1939, 4.

    Johnson, Philip. “Are We a Dying People?”
    in Today’s Challenge June-July 1939, 28-37.

    Johnson, Philip. “A Dying People?”
    in The Examiner, Summer 1938, vol 1, no 3, 305-20.

    Johnson, Philip. “Inside War-Time Germany,”
    in Today’s Challenge November-December 1939, 17-25.

    Johnson, Philip. “London and Paris: Midsummer 1939,”
    in Today’s Challenge August-September 1939, 19-26.

    Johnson, Philip. “Mein Kampf and the Businessman,”
    in The Examiner, Summer 1939, vol 2 no 3, 291-96.
    [Johnson’s review of Hitler’s book]

    Johnson, Philip. “Poland’s Choice Between War and Bolshevism Is a ‘Deal’ With Germany,”
    in Social Justice September 11, 1939, 4.

    Johnson, Philip. “This ‘Sitdown’ War. Heavy Engagements of the Fortnight Have Been on Economic and Moral Front,”
    in Social Justice, November 6 1939, 9.

    Johnson, Philip. “War and the Press,”
    In Social Justice November 6 1939, 12.

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