PHILIP JOHNSON, American architect was born (d. 2005); One of the most influential of modern American architects, With his thick, round-framed glasses, Johnson was the most recognizable figure in American architecture for decades.
In 1930, he founded the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA and later (1978), as a trustee, he was awarded an American Institute of Architects Gold Medal and the first Pritzker Architectural Prize, in 1979. He was a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
There is no getting around or explaining away Johnson’s flirtations and initial embrace of Fascist Germany and the Nazis. During the late ’30s, Johnson spent extended periods in Germany, where he found himself “carried away” by Adolf Hitler’s politics, as he once wrote, and he started consorting with Nazi leaders. Prior to this, Johnson had briefly been involved with the U.S.’s Young Nationalist movement, which Lamster characterized in his 2018 Johnson biography as an “alt-right avant la lettre,” with “pro-Nazi German-American Bundists, Klansmen, and members of the Black Legion, an Ohio-based secret society that took the Klan as its model,” among its supporters. As the Young Nationalist campaign began to fizzle out, and as the spotlight turned to his collaborator, Alan Blackburn, Johnson departed the movement. Meanwhile, the Nazi party continued to rise in Europe.
As the war raged abroad the FBI investigated Johnson’s activities in 1940 on the suspicion that he was acting as a Nazi spy. The architect admitted to the Bureau that he attended Nazi party rallies in New York, including the most infamous one in 1939 at Madison Square Garden. (He later denied this.) Although it found evidence that Johnson could be linked to members of the Nazi party, the FBI never charged him with espionage. After the war, in 1947, Johnson rejoined the architecture department at MoMA. For the rest of his career, he was still intimately connected to the museum, even when he was not formally on staff.
Johnson’s activities during the 1930s would continue to haunt him throughout his career, and he was later forced to address them during the ’90s, after the BBC produced a documentary that focused largely on his foregone fascist politics. Johnson, who at one point called himself a “philo-Semite,” defended himself, citing his friendships with Jewish architects like Louis Kahn and Frank Gehry, as well as with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, as proof that he had changed. He told the TV host Charlie Rose, “If you’d indulged every one of your whims that you had when you were a kid, you wouldn’t be here with a job either. It was the stupidest thing I ever did, and I can never forgive myself and I never can atone for it. There’s nothing I can do.”
When Johnson died in January 2005, he was survived by his long-time life partner, David Whitney, who died only a few months later, on June 12, 2005.