The man who shaped modern America (INDEPENDENT UK) Stephen Bayley looks back on the career of Philip Johnson - foremost US architect, taste-maker and sometime Nazi sympathiser 01/28/05)
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"Hitler was, unfortunately, an extremely bad architect." Philip
Johnson, who had reviewed Mein Kampf in 1939 when he was perturbed by
the prospect of America committing "race suicide", what with the
disturbing number of Jews in positions of power and so on, never
troubled to get very much more critical of fascism. Confronted by the
warning that a 1994 biography by Franz Schulze would be
controversial, the homosexual architect merely commented: "Well, sex
and Nazism can do that." Dorothy Parker thought that a man need
merely be "handsome, ruthless and stupid". Johnson was handsome,
ruthless and cynical. To which might be added "manipulative"
and "publicity hound".
Philip Cortelyou Johnson, who died on Tuesday at the age of 98, was
born into a Cleveland family so wealthy that he did not trouble to
graduate from Harvard´s architecture school until he was 36. By that
time, he had already become an American taste-maker. A student of
Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, Johnson made his name with an
exhibition on the International Style in architecture which, with the
art historian Henry Russell Hitchcock, he organised in 1932 at New
York´s then brand-new Museum of Modern Art. Researching this
exhibition in Germany, Johnson took time off to attend a Hitler rally
in Potsdam and was impressed.
Johnson had no great interest in the social purpose of modernism, but
as an adroit promoter of fashions in building, he saw the momentary
potential for stripped-back, hard-edge architecture among the style-
conscious socialites who comprised MoMA´s influential committees and
populated its cocktail parties. "Remember, son, I´m a whore," was a
line he used on many people, including me. Thus, with Johnson as an
assistant, Mies van der Rohe, Gropius´ successor at the Bauhaus (who
had left Germany after failing to sell modernism to the Nazis) used
utopian design principles to create one of the almighty monuments to
US capitalism, the 1958 Seagram Building on Park Avenue.
There was something of the lofty grandeur and perverse psychology of
New York about Johnson. His very first building had been a little
pleasure pavilion, a Glass House, for himself in New Canaan, a
prosperous Connecticut enclave of country club/artistic types where
his neighbours included Marcel Breuer, who designed the "Bauhaus"
chair, and Eliot Noyes, another Gropius student, who created the
corporate identities of both IBM and Mobil. Johnson´s protogé, Peter
Eisenman, in an introduction to Johnson´s own Writings (1979) said it
was the "ideal model of a more perfect society". More realistically,
if more characteristically cynically, Johnson later said the great
thing about the minimalism of Mies was that it was "easy to copy".
In a 1961 London speech Johnson said: "You cannot not know history."
So, when in 1975 he was approached by the AT&T Corporation to design
its headquarters, Johnson produced a towerblock with a Chippendale
open pediment. The first monument to that delirium of kitsch known as
post-modernism, AT&T showed that while Johnson may have been the
first to introduce the glass box to architecture´s repertoire, he was
also among the first to break it, designing himself a role as an
impresario of synthetic po-mo outrage, to go with his old-money ways,
his Corbu glasses and bowties.
Curiously, Johnson´s virulent anti-Semitism of the thirties did not
survive the client environment of the post-war decades. But the more
thoughtful critics never forgot Johnson´s misalliance with fascism.
Following his enthusiastic attendance at a 1938 Sommerkurs für
Auslander in Berlin, a sort of away-day for would-be Nazis, he was
invited to witness the invasion of Poland. Of this dire event he
noted: "The German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy."
Another witness was the journalist William Shirer, later author of
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich . Shirer had to share a hotel
room with Johnson, a daunting task for the politically and sexually
squeamish. In Berlin Diaries , Shirer wrote: "An American fascist ...
none of us can stand the fellow and suspect he is spying on us for
the Nazis." (© 2005 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd 01/28/05)
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