What’s Happening: An anonymous collective of prominent artists and architects called the Johnson Study Group are asking the Museum of Modern Art, Harvard Graduate School of Design, and other public-facing nonprofits to remove Philip Johnson’s name from leadership titles, public spaces, and other honorifics over the late architect’s ties to fascism.
The Download: Philip Johnson’s problematic political inclinations are well-documented, but haven’t received much attention until recently. To recap, the architect personally translated propaganda for the Nazi party, disseminated Nazi publications, and attempted to found his own fascist party in Louisiana. (As late as 1964, he even described Hitler as “better than Roosevelt.”) As the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art’s Architecture and Design collection, a five-decade position in which he helped define modern architecture to the American public, not a single work by any Black architect or designer was included.
In the era of Black Lives Matter, that troubling legacy is changing. In February, MoMA will open “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America,” the museum’s first to explore the architecture of African American and African diaspora communities in the United States. The letter, addressed to MoMA director Glenn Lowry and the institution’s chief curator of architecture and design Martino Stierli (whose title is named after Johnson), was co-signed by six of the 10 participants in the show: Emanuel Admassu, Sekou Cooke, J. Yolande Daniels, Felecia Davis, Olalekan Jeyifous, and Amanda Williams.
In Their Own Words: “Philip Johnson’s widely documented white supremacist views and activities make him an inappropriate namesake within any education or cultural institution that purports to serve a wide public,” the letter reads. “There’s a role for Johnson’s architectural work in archives and historic preservation. However, naming titles and spaces inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for curators, administrators, students, and others who participate in these institutions. 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.”
V. Mitch McEwen, a Johnson Study Group member who also has work in “Reconstructions,” sums it up: “The architecture world is just so complicit with white supremacy that people bat an eye and keep going,” she tells Curbed. “It sets up a standard for abuse—that’s what the title of ‘Philip Johnson’ does; it’s what a gallery named after Philip Johnson does.”
Surface Says: It’s long overdue that the institutions bearing Johnson’s name are finally being taken to task. As the saying goes, “those who live in Glass Houses…”