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.
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, his time in Germany sucking up to the Nazis and his work as a Nazi propagandist in the U.S. come after his curatorial work for the famous exhibit on “The International Style” at the Museum of Modern Art. 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!)
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.)