The American architect Philip Johnson may be best known for his “Glass House” — the transparent home he constructed for himself in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1949, a landmark of modernist design celebrated for its integration of landscape and its minimalist structure. Another aspect of Johnson’s legacy, however, has remained comparatively opaque: his championing of racist and white supremacist ideologies.
Artists and architects are now openly denouncing that legacy and calling on institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Harvard Graduate School of Design to take down Johnson’s name from their spaces. In a letter dated November 27 and first reported by Curbed, the Johnson Study Group, a group of designers and architects documenting Johnson’s influence on the field, cite his “widely documented” support of and active contributions to white supremacy, including translating and disseminating Nazi propaganda, founding an affiliated fascist party in Louisiana, and segregating MoMA’s collection.
“This demand for removal relates specifically to the role that naming plays in public institution,” writes the Johnson Study Group. “There is 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.”
During Johnson’s nearly six-decade-long tenure at the museum, in positions including head of the Department of Architecture, the letter says, “not a single work by any Black architect or designer was included in the collection.” As Mark Lamster notes in his biography of Johnson, The Man in the Glass House, the architect openly praised Mein Kampf, Hitler’s manifesto. He was once quoted as saying, “I don’t care who builds a monument for Blacks. Who cares?”
The letter has garnered signatures by more than 30 artists, architects, and academics, including the contemporary artist Xaviera Simmons and V. Mitch McEwen, a professor at Princeton University. Seven architects who will be included in a forthcoming MoMA exhibition have also signed on, Curbed reports.
Simmons told Hyperallergic that the act of removing Johnson’s name represents “an opportunity for institutions to heed the call to reflect and repair.”
“Johnsons’ Nazi ties are no secret and neither are his views and work in implementing his Nazi perspectives. Once you realize this in 2020 you have to act in ways that offer repair in a myriad of different ways,” she said.
“The ramifications of Johnson’s beliefs have literally changed the trajectory of our country’s history,” Simmons added. “What if he hadn’t held these beliefs, imagine the blossoming of lives and creativity of Black thought that could have occurred if nurtured instead of being violently ignored. What if he were an advocate and ally as opposed to a man who held these beliefs. Imagine the beautiful creations and creative thinkers who would have flourished.”
MoMA and Harvard have not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.