Philip Johnson: When Architecture Crossed Moral Boundaries

Philip Johnson, renowned for designing iconic structures like the Seagram Building and the Glass House, had a career marked by both brilliance and controversy. Known for his profound influence on American architecture, Johnson’s legacy is complicated by his Nazi sympathies in the 1930s. Despite his dark political past, Johnson’s architectural contributions remain significant. Born into wealth, blessed with good looks, and connected to high society, his charisma and self-marketing skills repeatedly rescued him from his own worst transgressions. Johnson’s story is one of remarkable talent intertwined with moral complexity.

The complex legacy of philip johnson: architecture and ideology

Philip Johnson, celebrated architect of iconic structures such as the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building, the AT&T Building (now 550 Madison Avenue), and his Glass House residence, led a life marked by extraordinary influence and deep controversy. Johnson’s biography, “The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century” by Mark Lamster, reveals a life that reads like an Ayn Rand plot rewritten by Henry James. Born into wealth, blessed with good looks, and endowed with high society connections, Johnson’s charisma and self-marketing prowess repeatedly saved him from his own worst transgressions.

Johnson’s most serious transgression was his sympathizing with the Nazis and efforts to bring about American fascism in the 1930s. Lamster presents unequivocal evidence that Johnson was an “unpaid agent of the Nazi state.” Despite these allegations, Johnson died of natural causes at age 98 in 2005, remaining a revered yet controversial figure in architecture.

Two schools of thought exist regarding Johnson’s Nazi sympathies and associations with figures like Huey Long and Father Coughlin in the 1930s. Some argue these mistakes tainted everything he touched and claim he never fully repented. Others believe his architectural merits can be separated from his youthful errors, citing his later gestures of contrition, such as designing synagogues without fees and mentoring Jewish protégés.

Coughlin rally 1936 photo copy 1 1
Philip Johnson advocated for fascist and Nazi ideology during the early stages of his career. In 1936, he designed the stage for Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest and political figure known for his promotion of fascism and anti-Semitism.

In 1936, Johnson designed the stage for Father Coughlin’s rally in Chicago, reflecting his fascist inclinations. This rally, with its striking resemblance to Nazi spectacles, highlighted Johnson’s deep political entanglements. Coughlin, railing against President Roosevelt, declared, “We all know for whom we’re voting if we vote for Mr. Roosevelt—for the communists, the socialists, for the Russian lovers, the Mexican lovers, the kick-me-downers.” Johnson’s Nazi activities included approaching Huey Long for his marketing services, designing a Nazi-reminiscent dais for Father Coughlin’s rallies, and running unsuccessfully for the Ohio legislature with a party of reactionaries. Johnson attended Nuremberg rallies and contacted Nazi agents until 1940. Despite his public homosexuality, he seemed unaware of the Nazis’ treatment of homosexuals.

Johnson’s influence on American architecture was vast. As the Museum of Modern Art’s first architectural curator, he defined and popularized the International Style, shaping mid-century American architecture. Later, he pioneered postmodern architecture, introducing non-functional features like the Chippendale pediment on skyscrapers. His wealth and connections allowed him to play kingmaker, influencing numerous architects and artists, including I.M. Pei, Andy Warhol, John Cage, and Frank Gehry.

Lamster condemns Johnson not just for his Nazi sympathies but for actively supporting them in the 1930s. Johnson eventually returned to Harvard, enrolling at the Graduate School of Design in 1940. He entered the profession with his fascist past partially laundered. Despite some attempts at atonement, including a brief army enlistment, it is unclear if he realized the Nazis’ evil or abandoned them for self-preservation.

Lamster treats Johnson’s biographical problem with nuance. While no one seriously thinks we should demolish Johnson’s landmark buildings, Lamster finds disturbing aspects in his work, such as the “authoritarian pomp” of the New York State Theater and the bunker-like art gallery on the Glass House estate. Johnson’s emphasis on style over social values in architecture and his fawning attention to rich clients reflect a broader hollowness in his work.

Johnson’s career had four phases: early years devoted to Mies van der Rohe (the Glass House, the Seagram Building), a turn to neoclassicism (the Brick House, the Lincoln Center pavilion), postmodernism (the AT&T Building), and a final period of churning out corporate towers. Lamster candidly judges Johnson’s buildings, praising the Lincoln Center pavilion and critiquing others like NYU’s Washington Square.

Johnson is a complex figure whose influence on architecture is undeniable. He lacked originality, borrowed ideas liberally, discarded people when they were no longer useful, and convinced others of his greatness. Lamster compares Johnson to P.T. Barnum and Donald Trump, noting how their wealth and charisma insulated them from failures and controversies. Johnson ended his career building for Trump, a fitting end for a figure whose life intertwined architecture with moral ambiguity.

Philip johnson and donald trump pose with a model of the architects highly controversial postmodernist chippendale topped att building
Groundbreaking for the Trump International Hotel and Tower, 1995: Trump, center, with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, left, and architect Philip Johnson, right.
© Francis Specker/New York Post Archives/NYP/Getty Images

When questioned about his principles, Johnson infamously remarked, “I do not believe in principles, in case you haven’t noticed.” Reflecting on his career, he candidly stated, “I am a whore, and I am paid very well for building high-rise buildings.” Despite his controversial past, his architectural contributions continue to shape the American landscape.

Architect Philip Johnson in his Third Avenue office.
© Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos (DETAIL)

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