2005-01-25

Award-winning architect PHILIP JOHNSON died. Born Philip Cortelyou Johnson in 1906. With his trademark thick, round-framed glasses, Johnson was the most recognizable figure in American architecture for decades. In addition to his many large projects, Johnson produced dozens of small works over his long career, on paper and built.

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 Architecture Prize, in 1979. He was a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

With Henry-Russell Hitchcock he wrote The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (1932), which provided a description of (and also a label for) post-World War I modern architecture. In 1940 Johnson returned to Harvard (B.Arch., 1943), where he studied architecture with Marcel Breuer.

His real mentor, however, was Ludwig Mies can der Rohe, with whom he worked on the widely-praised Seagram Building in New York City (1958). After WWII Johnson returned to MoMA as director of the architecture department from 1946 to 1954. His influential monograph Mies van der Rohe was published in 1947

Johnson’s reputation was further enlarged by the design of his own residence, known as the Glass House, at New Canaan, Connecticut (1949). The house, which is notable for its severely simple rectilinear structure and its use of large glass panels as walls, owed much to the precise, minimalist aesthetic of Mies van der Rohe but also alluded to the work of 18th- and 19th-century architects. (In addition to the Glass House, Johnson’s New Canaan estate featured a number of other structures, including an art gallery and a sculpture pavilion. He later donated the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and in 2007 it was opened to the public.)

Sadly, Johnson was also an active supporter of Hitler’s Third Reich prior to the outbreak of World War II. He was linked with Father Charles Coughlin and the anti-Semitic newspaper Social Justice, writing articles for them. Johnson was also known to have traveled to Nazi Germany to report on the huge rallies that were organized, including the annual Nuremberg rally. He was said to have been enthralled by them and made contacts with key Nazi officials during his visits.

In 1940, the FBI would uncover Johnson’s involvement in driving German propaganda to the US “on the Nazis’ behalf.” Johnson would refer to the destruction of Warsaw as a “stirring spectacle.” He was undoubtedly a Nazi sympathizer, but Johnson would try to distance himself once World War II broke out. Years later, in 2018, The New Yorker wrote that Johnson still professed admiration for Hitler as of 1964 by calling him “better than Roosevelt.”

Johnson was able to sweep his fascist leanings under the rug and it never adversely impacted his career.  After the war, he never formally apologized and tried to explain it away as “a young man’s fantasies. However, Johnson did make overtures to Jewish communities. He gave his services to design a synagogue in Port Chester, New York, and he did some design work for the state of Israel. 

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.