Before Philip Johnson designed a single building, he was already architecture’s “godfather, gadfly, scholar, patron, critic, curator, and cheerleader,” as the critic Paul Goldberger once wrote. As the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art’s Architecture and Design department, he helped define modern architecture to the American public. His name is on the walls of MoMA’s galleries and is part of the title of its chief curator of architecture and design. But a group of artists and architects is demanding a reckoning with his full history, because Philip Johnson was also a fascist.
On Friday, the Johnson Study Group — a largely anonymous group of designers and architects documenting Johnson’s influence on MoMA and the field of architecture — sent a letter to the museum, demanding that his name be removed from all spaces and titles. Thirty-one prominent names in architecture, design, and art also signed on, including seven architects in a forthcoming MoMA exhibit. “There is a role for Johnson’s architectural work in archives and historic preservation,” the letter reads. “However, naming titles and spaces inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for curators, administrators, students, and others who participate in these institutions.”
What disqualifies Johnson, according to the letter, is his white-supremacist past, which is well documented in books and magazines and in his FBI file. Johnson described attending Nazi rallies in Germany as “exhilarating” and attempted to found a fascist political party in the United States. During World War II, he called the burning of Warsaw and the bombing of the Polish city of Modlin by the Nazis “a stirring spectacle.” He backed the anti-Semitic radio demagogue Father Coughlin and designed a stage for his rallies based on one Hitler used. Only well after the war began did Johnson turn away from Nazism, and he spent the rest of his life trying to brush off this period as a youthful indiscretion.His biographer, Mark Lamster, theorizes that his social connections and wealth saved Johnson from being jailed, and after the war he became one of the country’s most sought-after architects, celebrated to this day. His role in the building of MoMA as an institution is inarguable: Johnson founded its architecture department, curated its groundbreaking early design exhibit, and even designed the wing of the building that opened in 1964.
“The architecture world is just so complicit with white supremacy that people bat an eye and keep going,” says V. Mitch McEwen, an architect and a professor at Princeton who is a member of the Johnson Study Group. She, along with six other signees, is also part of MoMA’s forthcoming “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America” show. It’s the museum’s first exhibition dedicated to the architecture of the African American and African diaspora communities in the United States. “It sets up a standard for abuse — that’s what the title of ‘Philip Johnson’ does; it’s what a gallery named after Philip Johnson does.”
McEwen and a few of her colleagues formed the Johnson Study Group over the summer as she worked on her commission for “Reconstructions.” She watched as architectural institutions released anti-racism statements in response to the uprisings sparked by George Floyd’s killing, and she decided to explore MoMA’s own history in this regard. What she found was that Johnson, who was affiliated with MoMA almost continuously from 1932 to his death in 2005, had an outsize influence on whose work the museum collected and exhibited and whose it didn’t — namely, that of Black architects.
Other signees of the letter include Kate Orff, a landscape architect and MacArthur Fellow; Amale Andraos, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; and Justin Garrett Moore, the executive director of New York City’s Public Design Commission and a founding member of BlackSpace, a Black urbanist collective.
This initiative joins other recent efforts to address racism in cultural institutions, design, and academia. “We’re interested in dismantling [racist systems] piece by piece,” says Bryan C. Lee, a signee who is the founder of New Orleans design firm Colloqate and the founding organizer of the Design Justice platform. “To do that, you have to really understand which threads to pull in order to unravel the ideology behind it, and Philip Johnson pulls a lot of threads.”
MoMA has not publicly responded to the letter or to Curbed’s requests for comment.