MoMa urged to drop Philip Johnson's name over architect's fascist past

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After Harvard University said his racism and white supremacy had no place in design, the New York museum is under pressure to act

Philip Johnson was the founding director of the department of architecture and design at MoMA. His name is featured on the walls of the museum and is part of the title of chief curator of architecture and design.
Philip Johnson was the founding director of the department of architecture and design at MoMA. Photograph: Pictorial Parade/Getty Images
Philip Johnson was the founding director of the department of architecture and design at MoMA. Photograph: Pictorial Parade/Getty Images
in New York

Last modified on Fri 18 Dec 2020 05.50 EST

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New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is under growing pressure to remove Philip Johnson’s name from its galleries and titles after Harvard addressed the late architect’s legacy at the university, saying his history of racism, fascism and white supremacy had “absolutely no place in design”.

The dean of Harvard’s prestigious Graduate School of Design (GSD), Sarah Whiting, denounced its former student, who was the founding director of the department of architecture and design at MoMA, and said they would not use his name to refer to a house he designed that is owned by the university.

Harvard’s condemnation comes after the Johnson Study Group, a collective of architects and designers, wrote an open letter to MoMA and GSD calling for his name to be struck from “every leadership title, public space, and honorific of any form”.

Writing in response, Whiting said in a public letter: “His racism, his fascism, and his strenuous support of white supremacy have absolutely no place in design.”

She said the house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which Johnson designed and built for his thesis project in the 1940s, is usually referred to as “the Thesis House, or the Philip Johnson Thesis House, or some variation”, though that is not its official name.

But Whiting said the institution was now “taking steps” to formally recognise the building by just its address, 9 Ash Street. She also acknowledged the “power of institutional naming, and the integrity and legitimacy it confers”.

At MoMA, which has yet to say whether it will take similar action, his name is featured on the walls of the museum and is part of the title of chief curator of architecture and design.

Johnson’s works as an architect include the Glass House in Connecticut, where he lived until his death in 2005, what is now known as the David H Koch Theater in Manhattan – home of the New York City Ballet – and MoMA’s sculpture garden.

His history with fascism, antisemitism and the Nazis is well documented. He tried to start a fascist political party in the United States, attended the Nuremberg rally of 1938 and described Hitler as “a spellbinder”.

Mark Lamster, author of the 2018 Johnson biography, The Man in the Glass House, said Johnson’s Nazi and fascist past had long been public knowledge and was published at the time in major US magazines. He was, he said, “effectively an agent of the Nazi state operating in the United States”.

Johnson, who later renounced fascism, was investigated by the FBI but not put on trial or arrested.

Whether or not his name is removed, Lamster said the histories of MoMA and Johnson, who donated many major works to the museum, are “inextricably intertwined”.

The Johnson Study Group letter, signed by over 40 figures from the architecture, design and art worlds, including artists Mario Moore and Amanda Williams and landscape architect Kate Orff, said: “Philip Johnson’s widely documented white supremacist views and activities make him an inappropriate namesake within any educational or cultural institution that purports to serve a wide public.”

It added: “He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in the field of architecture, a legacy that continues to do harm today.”

In response to the letter, dated 27 November, a MoMA spokeswoman, Amanda Hicks, said: “We’ve not received any direct communication from the Johnson Study Group but are aware of new and recent scholarship that explores Johnson’s possible affiliations with fascist and Nazi political figures and ideologies. The Museum is taking this issue very seriously and is extensively researching all available information.”

Johnson designed the ‘Glass House’ in New Canaan, Connecticut, and lived there until his death in 2005.
Johnson designed the ‘Glass House’ in New Canaan, Connecticut, and lived there until his death in 2005. Photograph: AP

Architect V Mitch McEwen, a member of the Johnson Study Group who is set to feature in a forthcoming exhibition MoMA, said the museum’s response was “shocking”.

McEwen, who is principal at Atelier Office and assistant professor of architecture at Princeton, said: “They’re not taking it seriously because they say ‘possible’ … This is something that you can go back to the FBI files, you can go to academic work, you can go to biographies. This is very consistent.”

She added: “There’s a level of denial in that statement that’s kind of shocking, actually.”

In contrast, she praised GSD’s response, saying they “responded swiftly and thoughtfully and took action”. She added: “The leadership that Harvard showed, it’s to be commended and sets an example.”

McEwen’s work will be shown at MoMA in February as part of the exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, the museum’s first exhibition exploring the relationship between architecture and African American and African diaspora communities.

She said her work, a design of a civic capital of a historical fiction, is currently slated to be displayed in the Philip Johnson gallery.

McEwen, who started studying Johnson after the police killing of George Floyd in May and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, said Johnson’s legacy had been known among architects for decades.

“Because no one pushes against it and these institutions don’t have a firm position, then there’s this kind of creep of extreme white supremacy into normal institutional presentation. And that creep is systemic.”