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Ed Driscoll

Silicon Graffiti: The Wonderful, Horrible Life Of Philip Johnson

April 2nd, 2008 - 8:00 am



By the time of his death in 2005 at the venerable age of 98, Philip Johnson was arguably America’s best known architect, having designed his famed “Glass House” in 1949, and worked with Mies van der Rohe on Mies’s Seagram Building a few years later. The former was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1997; the latter dubbed “Building of the Millennium” by the New York Times.

But Johnson’s puckish demeanor in his later years, which earned him decades of good cheer from fellow Manhattan elites, hid a dark journey through the liberal fascist politics of the 1930s, which culminated in his cheering on the Nazis as they marched through Poland in 1939. “We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle”, he would write to a friend at the time.

At the start of the 1930s, Johnson was an admirer of the socialist-leaning architects of Germany’s Bauhaus, as he founded the newly born Museum of Modern Art’s architectural department, and helped put modern architecture on the map in the US. Apparently after witnessing a Hitler rally in Potsdam in 1933, Johnson was immediately attracted to the Nazis. That moment sent Johnson on a seemingly strange journey: shortly thereafter, he would leave MoMA to seek employment with first Huey Long and then Father Coughlin, before ultimately winding up cheering the Nazis on at the start of WWII.

During that same period though, while Johnson openly admired the Nazis, he befriended the last director of the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe, even as the Nazis were shuttering the design school’s doors. Returning to MoMA in the 1950s and establishing himself, via his famed Glass House, as a known architect in his own right, as Hilton Kramer noted in the mid-1990s, and Anne Applebaum shortly after Johnson’s death, Johnson did a near-thorough job of tossing his radical past down the memory hole. At the least, most of his fellow Manhattan elites didn’t lose too much sleep over it.

And yet, comparing Johnson’s past with the lost history of the 1930s described in Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, in retrospect Johnson comes across as a sort of dark version of Woody Allen’s Zelig character, appearing alongside several of the fascist left’s most important figures in both the US and Europe during the Depression.

(More video blogging found here, incidentally.)