PHILIP JOHNSON’S POLITICS AND CYNICAL SURVIVAL
Journal of Architectural Education
The author analyzes the extreme right-wing political philosophy developed and promoted by Philip Johnson between 1932 and 1940 and compares it to the Nietzschean architectural politics he has promoted in the postwar period. Johnson’s intellectual legacy, in particular the architectural theory of Peter Eisenman, is discussed in terms of the aestheticization of politics and history. This analysis proceeds in light of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s conception of post-1945 ‘survival’ through cynical reason in which one knows that what one is doing is wrong, but one does it anyway to survive and get ahead. In opposition to Eisenman and Johnson’s cynical reason, the author proposes a return to what Sloterdijk describes as kynicism, the disclosure of the falseness of the cynic and the false structure of cynical society.
Whatever we may think of Philip Johnson’s qualifications as a designer or of the individuals and movements that he has promoted over the years, there can be no question that he has played a key role in shaping twentieth century architectural discourse. Johnson has been an architectural trendsetter, promoting the International Style, Mies van der Rohe, classicism and historical eclecticism, postmodernism, deconstructivism, and now a kind of Scharounian neoexpressionism. That his own design skills might be weak and that he sometimes took ideas from others and presented them as his own does not change the impact he has had on the discourse.1
But if we are to try and evaluate Johnson and his intellectual legacy today, we have to take into account the information presented by Franz Schulze in his new biography Philip Johnson: Life and Work. Between 1932 and 1940, Johnson was an antisemite, fascist sympathizer, and active propagandist for the Nazi government. The discipline of architecture has been largely silent on the issue of Johnson’s right-wing past even though Johnson’s political activities have long been the subject of gossip and plenty of material existed prior to the publication of the Schulze book. Johnson wrote extensively for right-wing organizations during the 1930s and his activities were covered in contemporary publications as well as in more recent histories of prewar movements in the extreme-Right. But in stark contrast to the over 300 articles published on literary critic Paul de Man’s writing for Le Soir during the Nazi occupation of Belgium and a similarly copious amount of discourse on philosopher Martin Heidegger’s public endorsement of the Nazi program, Johnson’s past has received scant attention in the architectural media. Even Elaine S. Hochman avoided mentioning Johnson’s express commitment to fascist ideology in her book Architects of Fortune: Mies van der Rohe and the Third Reich, an attempt to document Johnson’s friend Mies’s collaboration with the Nazi government. Until Schulze’s book came out, to my knowledge only two articles by members of the discipline examined Johnson’s political past: architect Michael Sorkin’s “Where was Philip?” and architectural historian Geoffrey Blodgett’s “Philip Johnson’s Great Depression.” But both articles were published outside of the architectural media, in Spy magazine and Timeline, the newsletter of the Ohio Historical Society, respectively. They were never taken up in the public discourse of architecture in spite of the fact that either article provided enough information that anyone with interlibrary loan access could retrieve at least some of Johnson’s more disturbing writings. Sorkin concluded his article with bitter questions pointing to the discipline’s silence about Johnson: “And what about some sort of apology? Some version of the [Kurt] Waldheim grovel? There never has been one from Johnson ””? not publicly, at any rate. However, apology or no, he has been forgiven.” In spite of one of Johnson’s most memorable quotes, “We cannot not know history,” both Johnson and the discipline didn’t really want to know their own history.
Instead of simply judging Johnson for his past misdeeds in order to reach a convenient historical closure, in this essay I examine Johnson’s philosophy by comparing Johnson’s political texts in the period between 1932 and 1940 with the philosophy of architecture that he promoted after the war. The result will lay a groundwork for an analysis of Johnson’s intellectual legacy and should help point to the larger issue of both architecture and this country’s avoidance of acknowledging complicity in and repression of the Holocaust.
Johnson shows evidence of having been interested in right-wing politics by 1932, the same year as his MOMA exhibit on the “International Style.” During one of his visits to Germany to scout out modern art and architecture, Johnson attended a Hitler rally in Potsdam where, he told Schulze, he was enthralled. After his return to the United States, Johnson and Alan Blackburn, a friend from Harvard and MOMA, began to take an interest in the political philosophy of Lawrence Dennis.
An active figure in the extreme Right, Dennis predicted that capitalism in the United States was doomed and that only the coming of fascism could save it from Communism. To help would-be American fascists, Dennis provided a theoretical framework which he believed the successful movement would follow. Fascist revolt, he explained, would come not from the masses but from “the menaced and injured members of the élite who have a will to power and a will, through the capture and use of power, to change conditions they find intolerable.” Dennis argued that because all societies were ultimately run by élites, fascism had the virtue of not being hypocritical, as it “frankly acknowledges, or rather boasts, that its élite rule.” And if the economy performed better and the masses were happier under fascism than they could be under communism or liberal capitalism, Dennis concluded, then indeed it was the right choice for America.
Dennis’s message appealed to Johnson and Blackburn. In December 1934, prominent accounts in the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune reported that they had formed their own “Nationalist party,” or “Gray shirts” and, after trying to recruit members and holding a few meetings, quit their jobs with the intention of leaving for Louisiana to offer their services to Senator Huey Long, the Kingfish. Their decision must have pleased Dennis, who had written that Long was “the nearest approach to a national fascist leader. … It takes a man like Long to lead the masses. … Long’s smarter than Hitler but he needs a good brain trust.” The two told reporters that they hoped that in Louisiana they could “develop [themselves] by doing the sort of things that everybody in New York would like to do but never has time for. We may learn to shoot, fly airplanes, and take contemplative walks in the woods.” A reporter for the Herald Tribune noted that Johnson’s office at the Museum of Modern Art was filled with catalogs of firearms. Blackburn was in favor of large pistols whereas Johnson favored the submachine gun.
Suspicious of the two Harvard graduates, Long sent them away to Johnson’s Ohio home turf to organize for a possible 1936 run at the presidency. With Long’s 1935 assassination however, their plans were scuttled and they joined up with Father Charles E. Coughlin, a political figure with tremendous grass-roots support based on his weekly radio programs. With his popular support, the powerful political organization of his National Union for Social Justice, his weekly newspaper Social Justice, and a natural gift for oratory, Coughlin was the other possible candidate for an American fascist leader in Dennis’s eyes. Within three years Coughlin would be notorious as a prominent Nazi sympathizer and one of the leaders of antisemitism in the United States.
Johnson and Blackburn supported Coughlin in a variety of ways. They endorsed Union party presidential candidate William Lemke, contributing $5,000 to his campaign, and Johnson ran for the Ohio state legislature as a Democrat only to withdraw his candidacy in mid-campaign. They supervised the printing of Social Justice, and, in what was probably their biggest coup, they organized a rally in Chicago at which eighty thousand spectators paid fifty cents each to hear Coughlin and Lemke. In one of his first architectural works, Johnson designed a podium for Coughlin that was modeled after the podium he had seen Hitler use at Potsdam.
In 1938, after Blackburn left politics to get married, Johnson returned to New York and began spending more time with Lawrence Dennis. With Dennis’s help, Johnson was invited by the German government to attend a Somerkurs f?É¬ºr A?É¬ºslander in Berlin, an introduction to Nazi politics for foreigners, and to see Hitler speak at the Nazi rally at Nuremberg marking five years in power. This rally was the greatest and last of the Nuremberg rallies. The next year the country would be at war.
At about this time, according to Schulze’s interviews with Johnson, he had become friends with Viola Bodenschatz, an American journalist married to Major General Karl Bodenschatz, Hermann G?É¬?ring’s top aide. Johnson continued to try to make his message public: in a letter to her dated 23 April 1939, he wrote that he had planned to buy the American Mercury, a popular conservative magazine to which Dennis frequently contributed, but “The Jews bought the magazine and are ruining it, naturally.”
His interest in controlling a periodical thwarted, Johnson began setting his thoughts on paper, contributing to three right-wing publications: the Examiner, a publication dedicated to understanding the good points in fascism put out by critic Geoffrey Stone, a close friend of Wyndham Lewis; Social Justice, which by 1938 had become notorious for its antisemitic, pro-Nazi slant, most notably for reprinting a speech by Goebbels essentially unchanged under Coughlin’s name, as well as for publishing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and defending the Nazis after Kristallnacht; and Today’s Challenge, a journal distributed by the American Fellowship Forum, an organization with close ties to Lawrence Dennis, funded by the German government and dedicated to disseminating pro-German propaganda to more upper-class types who might not read Social Justice.
Johnson’s first political text was not his own, but rather a translation. Sometime during 1938, Johnson, under the guidance of Dennis, translated Werner Sombart’s essay Weltanschauung, Science and Economy. According to Schulze, Johnson happened upon the essay in a Festschrift for Hjalmar Schacht, German economist and then Hitler’s Minister of Economics and, having sought Sombart out, got permission to translate the essay into English. First printed in the Examiner, the essay was published in book form along with an introduction by Johnson by the Veritas press, a publishing house funded by the German government through the German Library of Information for propaganda purposes. Sombart was an influential German sociologist in the early part of the century who began to veer to the Right when he theorized an antisemitic critique of capitalism via racial archetypes, and supported the Nazi party in the 1930s. While Weltanschauung, Science and Economy is not a particularly important text in Sombart’s oeuvre and does not address the question of race, translating it gave Johnson, Dennis, and the German government a chance to bring Sombart’s ideas to the American public.
In the text Sombart explained that while the Nazis had a strong will, they lacked “a thorough philosophic training and education,” leading them to spend their time “aimlessly running about.” In other words, Nazi theory was not up to its practice. A reasonable conclusion from this would be that a theory like Dennis’s could give a solid grounding to the American fascist movement to help it avoid the difficulties encountered by the German version. Sombart’s book would thus have formed a complement to Dennis’s writings, a call for an American theory of fascism.
Johnson, however, had political theories of his own. He laid out his position on race in an article for the Examiner (later reprinted in Today’s Challenge) titled “A Dying People?” He opened the article by warning that Americans were failing to reproduce in sufficient quantities, predicting deserted ghost towns and a massive population decline. Midway through the article, however, Johnson displaced population decrease in absolute terms with a decrease in the population of the white race, writing: “This decline in fertility, so far as scientists have been able to discover, is unique in the history of the white race.” The decline Johnson was predicting would be only among whites, the non-whites apparently not worthy of consideration as part of the population.
“In short,” Johnson wrote, “the United States of America is committing race suicide.” Only by thinking in the broader terms of the greater good of the race could whites save it:
…by their lack of will to live and grow, [Americans] themselves accelerate the already rapid decline in births. I have heard many educated men talk in this way: ‘Well if we are not the fittest to survive, nature will wipe us out. The Japanese may be more fit to survive. Remember Darwin.’
But this appeal to Darwin is merely a cloak for weakness. For surely the will to live is a factor in determining what is ‘fittest.’ If we will to live and grow, we shall be fitter than the Japanese. If we sit back and look at the situation purely ‘objectively,’ the Japanese are very likely, with their strong will to live, to become fitter to survive than we.
The course of nature is not pre-destined. Human will is a part of the biological process. Our will, for example, interferes, constantly in the world of the lower animals. When English sparrows threaten to drive out our songbirds, we shoot the sparrows, rather than letting nature and Darwin take their course. Thus the songbirds, thanks to our will, become the ‘fittest’ and survive.
Johnson’s argument was indebted to the eugenic discourse that was popular in the early part of the century but by the late 1930s had been left behind by scientific eugenicists, retained only by the extreme Right, most notably the Nazis. Like Johnson, the earlier eugenicists were alarmed by indications that Nordic or Anglo-Saxon Americans had a lower birth rate than immigrants from other countries. As Johnson would do later, the eugenicists predicted that “race suicide,” and “national deterioration” would be the consequence of these trends. Only eugenic measures against the immigrants and increased fertility for the established could fend off the destruction of the race. Johnson’s reference to the Japanese also recalls eugenicist fears of “the yellow peril” threatening the West with its increased fertility.
In a book review of Mein Kampf for the Examiner, Johnson went into greater detail on his ideas on race, locating a healthy and positive attitude in Hitler’s racism:
At the basis of the Hitlerian mystique is the notion of ‘race’. The exclusiveness implicit in this notion has repelled anti-Liberal thinkers outside of Germany, who have joined forces with Liberals in condemning it as unhistorical and unscientific. If, however, we overlook the terminology that Hitler inherits from Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain ””? and that has become so repugnant to Americans because it has been made to appear primarily anti-Semitic ””? we shall find a different picture than we have been led to expect by reading excerpts from the more lurid German ‘anthropologists’. Reduced to plain terms, Hitler’s ’racism’ is a perfectly simple though far-reaching idea. It is the myth of ‘we, the best’, which we find, more or less fully developed, in all vigorous cultures. Thus Plato constructing the ideal State in his Republic assumed that it would be Greek: apparently even in the realm of Ideas nationality occurs, and one’s own takes precedence over all others.
Johnson’s position on race was carried over in his role as European correspondent for Social Justice and Today’s Challenge. In his writings, Johnson consistently promoted an antisemitic, pro-German political stance that went far beyond what Paul de Man wrote in his articles for Le Soir. Over and over Johnson explicitly attacked the Jews, depicting them as malicious invaders, comparing them to an plague, and finally lying about their condition in 1939 Germany and Poland. In an article for Today’s Challenge, Johnson wrote expressed his opinion on the Jewish refugees in Paris during the summer of 1939
Another serious split in French opinion is that caused by the Jewish question, a problem much aggravated just at present by the multitude of émigrés in Paris. Even I, as a stranger in the city, could not help noticing how much German was being spoken, especially in the better restaurants. Such an influx naturally makes the French wonder, not only about these incoming Jews, but also about their co-religionists who live and work here and call themselves French. The facts that Blum and the men around him are Jews, that there are two Jews in the present cabinet, Messrs. Zay and Mandel and that the Jewish bankers Mannheimer, de Rothschild and Lazard Freres are known to stand behind the present government all complicate the situation.
The position taken by the Daladier government on this question is an interesting commentary on its policies in general. There are two decree laws which concern the press, one against publishing propaganda paid for by a foreign government. Under these laws, the patriotic weeklies Le Defi and La France Enchainee were just recently suppressed, presumably for getting money from Hitler; but L’Humanité, which no one doubts gives out Russian propaganda, paid for by Russia, has been left alone. What is freedom of the press and for whom is it done, the French ask.
It is hard to imagine the author of this piece, the review of Mein Kampf, and “A Dying People?” supporting the admission of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and Eastern Europe into the Unite States.
Johnson wrote a similar piece, “Aliens Reduce France to an ‘English Colony’,” published in Social Justice on July 24. In this article he explained that while the American papers were trying to make the French seem, as he put it, “unified and courageously prepared for the worst,” in reality “Lack of leadership and direction in the State has let the one group get control who always gain power in a nation’s time of weakness: the Jews.” Again Johnson insinuated that the Jews were doing better under the new government, writing that while Catholics were still “not allowed the right of assembly or instruction” and instead “It would seem that only Jews have freedom in the Third Republic. Small wonder one hears so many reports of growing antisemitism among the common people of France.” To emphasize, he quoted “a patriotic French woman, a well-known writer and journalist, whose name I must withhold for obvious reasons”:
‘My heart aches for the future of my country. When I see my beloved city of Paris overrun with German, Czech and Hungarian Jews, I say to myself are these the “Frenchmen” who with their “French” cousins are to rule France? And am I not even to be allowed to raise my voice against it?
…‘With our internal affairs in the hands of the Jewish bankers, our foreign affairs in the hands of Great Britain, and our country rent by dissension, what is to be the end for France? Who will save her?’
Johnson toured Poland with Viola Bodenschatz a month before the outbreak of the war and reported back on what he saw in an article for Social Justice. Again Johnson singled out the Jews in classically antisemitic terms, this time comparing them with a disease upon the European race:
When I first drove into Poland, the countryside was a shock to me. Like most Americans who learned their geography since the World War, I was brought up to think of Poland as a country which looked much like the other countries of Europe. … Once on the Polish side [of the Polish-German border], I thought I must be in the region of some awful plague. The fields were nothing but stone, there were no trees, mere paths instead of roads. In the towns there were no shops, no automobiles, no pavements and again no trees. There were not even any Poles to be seen in the streets, only Jews!
In an interview with Schulze, Johnson described part of this journey in language that underscores how little his opinions have changed over the years. Having gotten lost in the narrow streets of the town of Mak?É¬?w, Johnson found his car surrounded by Jews:
At first, I didn’t seem to know who they were except that they looked so disconcerting, so totally foreign. They were a different breed of humanity, flitting about like locusts. Soon enough I realized they were Jews, with their long black coats, everyone in black, and their yarmulkes. Something about them … desperate, as if they were pleading about something … maybe because we wee Americans, with our American license plates. You know how in your dreams your world sometimes drops from under you? I felt out of my depth.
While he had disparaged Poland and its large Jewish population, Johnson painted Germany in a starkly better light. Johnson compared Hitler to Lenin: both had provided their people with a positive revolutionary ideal for which they were prepared to sacrifice their lives. The preconditions of revolution, “starvation, oppression, suffering” were “very far from being sufficient to cause a revolt.” Those opposed to Hitler constituted a diverse group ””? from “lawyers who miss the good old days when lawyers were looked up to and paid well” to “artists who resent the official disapproval of their art” ””? incapable of uniting on a common front. It wasn’t really so bad, Johnson explained:
none of those opposed to Hitler that I know would prefer the liberalism of the Weimar Republic to National Socialism as a system of government. … They do not like Hitler, but they feel that if Hitler were not Hitler but some imaginary person that would be nice in their own particular way, then National Socialism or rather national socialism, would be a good idea. Such thoughts are not the stuff of revolutions.
One is left wondering what happened to the Jews in Johnson’s Germany. Had the plague been eliminated in Germany? Johnson couldn’t have been ignorant of the vicious campaign against the Jews, either in his first-hand experience or from the accounts printed in the American press, especially after Kristallnacht. Schulze relates a chilling incident told to him by Johnson about his firsthand experience with the antisemitic violence of the Nazis. Passing through Brno, Johnson called upon Otto Eisler, an architect who had participated in the International Style exhibit and was a Jew and homosexual. Johnson told Schulze that Eisler “could only keep his head up at a distorted, painful angle. ‘Obviously you don’t know,’ he said, ‘but I’ve been in the hands of the Gestapo, and they let me out just the other day. I don’t know how long I can talk to you.’” Johnson was shaken by the incident and wrote J. J. P. Oud to ask him to help. Oud could not do anything and Johnson quickly put the incident behind him.
At the invitation of the German Propaganda Ministry, Johnson accompanied the German army into Poland to see the invasion first-hand. In his Berlin Diary, journalist William Shirer recounted his encounter with Johnson:
Dr. Boehmer, press chief of the Propaganda Ministry in charge of this trip, insisted that I share a double room in the hotel with Philip Johnson, an American fascist who says he represents Father Coughlin’s Social Justice. None of us can stand the fellow and suspect he is spying on us for the Nazis. For the last hour in our room here he has been posing as an anti-Nazi and trying to pump me for my attitude, I have given him no more than a few bored grunts.
While in his contemporary writings Johnson was eager to repeat quotations from individuals like the French woman, he would not repeat Eisler’s statement. Instead, Johnson acted as a mouthpiece for Nazi propaganda. Returning to New York, Johnson recounted what he had seen of the war in Poland. In another article for Social Justice he wrote: “You have been led to believe that the Germans have devastated Poland. 90 per cent false. I saw Warsaw burn. Modlin, Miava, and the hamlet of Nowograd I saw in ruins. But 99 per cent the towns I visited since the war are not only intact but full of Polish peasants and Jewish shopkeepers.”
Johnson also gave at least three speeches on what he said he saw during the war. Historian Geoffrey Blodgett recounts that in mid-October Johnson told the New London Rotary Club that journalists were distorting the war. The New London Record reported “He found, especially in Poland, business as usual, the citizens contented and more or less satisfied with the change of government, and the Jew but very little molested.” Johnson followed this with a second lecture on December 13, 1939 in Philadelphia on “Facts and Fiction in the Present War” about which as yet little is known.
On January 26, 1940, Johnson gave a speech at a Springfield, Massachusetts Turn Verien (Germanic gymnastics hall) for the American Fellowship Forum. According to a Springfield Evening Union account, his theme was a warning that on account of British interests, the United States was ready to go to war with Germany. Calling himself a foreign correspondent, Johnson explained that the American newspapers were deceiving the public about the European war. Of the New York Times, he declared that it had only British correspondents in Europe, who would send back only articles favoring their country’s positions. Johnson went on to cite a picture that appeared in the Springfield Evening Union the previous month depicting victims of the war and said that it was taken in Brooklyn. Johnson continued to cite instances of purported anti-German propaganda in the American papers, according to the account “The newspapers lied about the war in Poland, he [Johnson] said, averring that the countryside was not made destitute as reported. He said only one town actually was destroyed and the half of another. The first town had been used as a fort, he said.”
But Johnson knew what was going on. Schulze cites a letter sent by Johnson to Viola Bodenschatz after he had visited post-invasion Poland and had driven through the same town he described in the Social Justice article as being full of Jews:
I was lucky enough to get to be [invited by the German government to be] a correspondent so that I could go to the front when I wanted to and so it was that I came again to the country that we had motored through, the towns north of Warsaw. Do you remember Markow [sic }? I went through that same square where we got gas and it was unrecognizable. The German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.
Johnson’s letter is in conflict with his public lectures on the topic. It would appear that Johnson knowingly erased the fate of the Jews for what can only have been propaganda purposes. The no-doubt-violent purge of the Jews from the village was doubled in this erasure of memory that Johnson produced in his speeches and writings.
Johnson’s antisemitism and dishonesty about the plight of the Jews fit in with the publications he wrote for. Coughlin’s Social Justice played a key role in spreading antisemitism in the prewar United States. Indeed, during the period of Nazi rule, it was very difficult for European Jews to immigrate to this country because of the Roosevelt administration’s fear of offending established Americans. Hitler himself used the American position to justify his antisemitic policies, asking if the United States refused the Jews, why should Germany accept them? That Coughlin, Social Justice, and Johnson had a role in spreading this antisemitic attitude, gives them a very real role in the history of the Holocaust.
By 1940 pressure on Johnson to end his political activities was mounting. According to Schulze, that May the FBI began to assemble its dossier against him and by June internal documents in the Office of Naval Intelligence marked him as suspected of being a spy. That fall the American Fellowship Forum would undergo Congressional scrutiny by the House Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities. Roosevelt himself, in his fireside chat of May 26 pointed to a danger within: “The Trojan Horse. The Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery.” With the Wehrmacht rolling through the Low Countries and Roosevelt asking congress to nearly double the military budget in preparation for possible war, being an activist for subversive groups under government suspicion must have begun to seem like a bad idea to Johnson. He was also beginning to get bad press: the September issue of Harper’s described his activities as one of “The American Fascists.”
Abandoning his political career, Johnson returned to Harvard that fall to study architecture as a graduate student and to begin re-fashioning his public persona. His efforts were successful: after graduation and a short stint in the army as a latrine orderly in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Johnson would get back his earlier position in MOMA’s architecture department with little difficulty and soon after became a practicing architect.
The first major landmark in Johnson’s refashioning of his public persona was his Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, which established him as an architect to watch and, as a site of numerous high society parties, became a symbol of his role as power broker. In his 1950 photo-essay in Architectural Review, Johnson presented a series of historical justifications for its design in a series of images with extensive captioning texts. The first ten images of the essay were of what Johnson cited as its precedents for the Glass House, the captions indicating that his interest in precedent was limited to drawing together formal moments from history. By reducing history to a slide-show of formal events, Johnson’s photo essay repressed its materiality.
After the historical images, Johnson shifted to images of the Glass House itself with captions explaining its different elements. Under a picture of the house illuminated at night, Johnson wrote:
The cylinder, made of the same brick as the platform from which it springs, forming the main motif of the house was not derived from Mies, but rather from a burned-out wooden village I saw once where nothing was left but the foundations and chimneys of brick. Over the chimney I slipped a steel cage with a glass skin. The chimney forms the anchor.
Certainly most readers would not have known about Johnson’s visit to post-invasion Poland or his reasons for doing so. Why then did Johnson make the connection with the war? In his 1979 introduction to Philip Johnson. Writings, Peter Eisenman elaborated on Johnson’s interpretation:
the Glass House is Johnson’s own monument to the horrors of war. It is at once a ruin and also an ideal model of a more perfect society; it is the nothingness of glass and the wholeness of abstract form. How potent this image will remain long after all of us have gone, as a fitting requiem for both a man’s life and his career as an architect! I know of no other architect’s house that answers so many questions, has such a symbiotic relationship with personal atonement and rebirth as an individual.
Like Johnson, Eisenman did not explain Johnson’s role in the war. Without an explanation of the conditions Johnson saw the chimney under and his subsequent erasure of the violence against the Jews and the Poles, it becomes not a confession but a cynical inside joke.
More recently Johnson has said that the chimney is symbolic of nothing more than a hearth. Of the image of the burned-out village, he stated,
Yes, I regret having said that. Because the burned-out village was in the Second World War, and I was on the wrong side. So we don’t talk about that anymore. My enemies do, of course. That’s a part of my life that I’d rather forget.
But it was a horrifying sight. And yet, it’s so symbolic, that you’ve got the hearth, the one thing that was left. And it was so beautiful. That’s a horrible thing to say, but ruins are beautiful. You can’t help it. Fascination with ruins, it’s endless.
This passage reinforces a reading of Johnson’s original text that suggests Johnson had the capacity to appropriate any image, no matter what its context, for purely formal purposes. Johnson is not making any statement about the horrors of war, but rather he is making a statement about the architect’s eye. Faced with the terrible sight of the burned-out wooden village, Johnson does not care what happened to the people who lived there: all he cares about is the form he sees, just as earlier he had been impressed by the sight of the cheery German uniforms and the disappearance of the Jews.
It is this kind of formalist appropriation of historical materiality that Johnson promoted when he stated in a 1959 lecture that “We cannot not know history.” Johnson didn’t want real historical investigation, any digging that might uncover the shaky foundations on which the Glass House is built. Rather, as he explained in the same lecture, “I try to pick up what I like throughout history.” “We cannot not know history,” in this case does not refer to his own historical culpability, but rather to point to an aestheticization of history.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Johnson’s past was brought up occasionally in the architectural press, albeit almost exclusively in interviews with him, where Johnson would have a chance to deflect the issue. For the most part, Johnson’s interviewers were reluctant to investigate or grapple with the material in a significant way. Two interviews, however, stand out for the relative probity of the interviewers.
The first mention of Johnson’s past in the architectural media was in an article by Charles Jencks that contained within it an interview with Johnson. Jencks confronted Johnson with the passage from Shirer’s Berlin Diaries. Johnson retorted: “Shirer’s a very irresponsible journalist…very third rate writer…” But Johnson had to agree with the account, excepting any possibility that he was a spy: “Yes it was that night in Danzig that Shirer writes about. But uh…I really, I’d suppose that anyone who wasn’t actively crusading was suspicious and I probably did lean over backwards…no I was wrong…I hoped something good would come out of it. No this was before concentration camps were started of course. But still no excuse. Speer has it right, I know, but of course I weren’t no spy.”
But while he alluded to Speer’s acceptance of full responsibility for Nazi war crimes, Johnson himself neither accepted full responsibility nor detailed his own actions. Instead, he changed the topic to what he thought of Speer:
Oh, reading Speer is one of the really exciting things. Have you read the architectural section? Oh, but read the architectural part. Because Speer was an extremely sensitive man and really a businessman architect ””? he’d be good in America, a really great skyscraper architect, an organizer. But with this mad architect ””? uh ””? Hitler, who didn’t have any intention to run the country at all ””? during the war. Spent the time designing ””? and made the drawings himself sometimes. Oh, you must take a glance at the book.
What the … HITLER! An architect? Mad architect? Somehow it made a lot of fortuitous sense as if Johnson had suddenly illuminated a whole area of the architect’s dreams, the secret desires and warped fantasies which usually cannot stand the light of day and remain hidden ””? even to the architect himself. But Hitler! A Thousand Year Reich…
Yet just as Jencks picked up on a brilliant moment of insight into both the identity of the contemporary architect and on Johnson as archetypal contemporary architect, he dropped it, ending his interpretation of Johnson’s statement by stating that “At best ””? in his self-mocking comments or his Sheldon Museum ””? he attains a level of candid introspection and exaggeration usually reserved as moments of truth for the court jester.” Johnson had become the bad boy of architecture again, his past indiscretions just part of his candid persona.
In another interview with Johnson by John W. Cook and Heinrich Klotz’s for their book Conversations with Architects, Johnson himself turned the interview toward Hitler:
Hitler …was, unfortunately, an extremely bad architect. The only thing I really regret about dictatorships isn’t the dictatorship, because I recognize that in Julius’s time and in Justinian’s time and Caesar’s time they had to have dictators. I mean I’m not interested in politics at all. I don’t see any sense to it. About Hitler ””? if he’d only been a good architect!…if you go to Rome today, you’ll find that the Terza Roma was much better than what’s been done in the Republic, in the same area, since the war. So let’s not be so fancy pants about who runs the country. Let’s talk about whether it’s good or not.
In other words for Johnson the ethics of patronage is irrelevant, only the quality of the design left behind: “whether it’s good or not.” In a subsequent exchange, Johnson explained that he also loved Stalin as he thought the dictator might build something. “Hitler,” he continued, “was a terrible disappointment, putting aside the social problem…”
Johnson calls for a collapse of history: we are to put aside the “social problem” of the Third Reich. But this is consistent with the rest of the interview in which Johnson took pains to dismiss the myth that Mies’s flight from Germany might be motivated by distaste for Hitler’s politics. In its stead he created a new myth of Mies who fled Germany because he couldn’t get any commissions under the Nazi regime. Mies, it turned out, was just like Johnson, a true architect, apolitical or more properly committed to an aesthetic ideology of the importance of architecture over all else. Johnson explained that his own goal as an architect was not to inspire or improve people but rather to entertain them. He gave as an example a “maffioso numbers man,” who could be given a proper environment: “He’ll go on killing his people, but I hope to amuse him in between.”
Remarkably, in the Foreword to the Cook and Klotz book, architectural historian Vincent Scully could only remark “In the interview with Philip Johnson, I find Cook and Klotz unnecessarily tedious ””? with their bits about travertine and Hitler and all. But everybody baits Johnson, and he asks for it and usually comes dancing through it with a fine, brittle, Balanchine-like rigor ””? as he does here.”
In recent years, Johnson has maintained a public ambivalence on the issue. For example, in an article in the May 1993 issue of Vanity Fair Johnson stated that “I have no excuse [for] such utter, unbelievable stupidity. … I don’t know how you expiate guilt,” when asked if he would have built for Hitler in 1936, he replied “Who’s to say? That would have tempted anyone.” He says that the he went to Germany “to see what a country at war was really like,” as well as because he “had always been interested in the German language,” and “brought up with the prejudices of my class and background and all that. I was fascinated with power.” But Johnson doesn’t mention his antisemitic writings, his subsequent erasure of history, or examine the repercussions of his actions.
Further, when told that the Schulze biography might attract a lot of attention, Johnson flipply replied “Well, sex and Nazism can do that,” referring to the book’s discussions of his homosexuality as well as his Nazi past. Johnson would appear to believe that one is just as “bad” as the other, equating the homosexual population condemned by the Nazis with the action of its condemnation and conversely domesticating Nazism as something that “bad boys” do.
Johnson makes no apologetic gesture toward his past behavior unless he is confronted by direct questioning, nothing even as paltry as an open letter accounting for and regretting his past actions and condemning the motives that led him to them. Although Johnson admits to his past activities when pressed, he generally only acknowledges what is offered, which until the Schulze book came out was mainly the period he tried to get close to Huey Long. Yet Huey Long is rather safe: the Kingfish, as far as he is remembered, is a part of Americana. Johnson is more reluctant to talk about his activities in Nazi Germany, his activities for a Nazi-funded propaganda movement expressly aimed to convince the American people that Germany wasn’t the enemy. Johnson seems to be upset that the whole matter was ever mentioned and still appears to hope that it will all be forgotten so that we can get down to the business of appreciating him for his role as architect and patron.
At the same time, Johnson continues to promote the same philosophical motives that led him into what Schulze calls “the inglorious detour.” In a recent interview, Johnson detailed the continuity between his politics and architecture:
I learned the German language, when I was young, because I was interested in reading Nietzsche. And I still read Nietzsche, in German, because it’s much better. He’s a poet and a thinker. That’s why I was initially attracted to Hitler, who totally misunderstood Nietzsche, really. But there was enough similarity between them so I got very excited about it. That was long before the problems for the Jews came up. It all ended in the frightful war, so of course, it was wrong. …
Art, of course ””? Nietzsche said it ””? is the most important thing in the world. Art is with us in order that we not perish from the truth ””? if you understand truth as he did. Nietzsche felt that art is more important than philosophy. The hierarchy of important things in the world starts with art, not with looking for truth, or science, or anything. Well that naturally appeals to artists. And of course, the ‘will to power’ sounds like a horrible term, but that’s what will to power means. Will to power means, ‘How can I do the best art in the world?’ Nietzsche’s image got all warped because of Hitler. And of course, Nietzsche came long before him and wouldn’t have approved of him at all.
But Johnson’s reading of Nietzsche isn’t radically different from the Nazi goal of the aestheticization of the world. As far back as his 1954 lecture, “The Seven Crutches of Modern Architecture,” Johnson quoted Nietzsche’s views on architecture: “In architectural works, man’s pride, man’s triumph over gravitation, man’s will to power assume visible form. Architecture is a veritable oratory of power made by form.” For Johnson, the architect stands as a Nietzschean figure, wielding architecture as the unmediated will-to-power against the masses.
Johnson’s disciple Peter Eisenman has also repeatedly cited Nietzsche as his muse. In a recent debate with Leon Krier, an architect who has on occasion attempted to resurrect the architecture of Albert Speer on the grounds that it is ideologically neutral, Eisenman explained just what it means to be an architect in Nietzschean terms:
…Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra … is a book that both Leon and I understand very well and it probably brings us very close together. I believe that it was on page 61, (although I’m not certain as I didn’t bring the book with me. I don’t like reading from prepared script because I respond to the presentness of this situation) but it was something about the creator. What Nietzsche says is that the creator is a lonely person and must always stand apart from and perhaps against the mass, and will always be in a sense outside and alien to the existing order. In that sense, I guess that I agree with Leon that the creator must have a degree of certainty to do that. I think that Nietzsche then asks the question, how does one have the right to be a creator? In other words, how does one have the right to stand outside? What is that right that allows one to arrogate to one’s self that possibility?
My answer to that question is that people who are not creators don’t think about that right. They remain within the mass always. I don’t think we are talking today about those individuals, architects sometimes, poets, physicists, whoever has had that need to stand outside and therefore the right to stand apart. To be those wanderers who always understand what presentness is because the need to creation is always involved in presentness. Great architecture, I would argue, has never been liked by the masses. The great monuments always have been, in their time, not necessarily liked or understood. We do not know, when we build today, whether we have either caught the spirit of our time because it’s an elusive thing; nor whether we catch the presentness or whether we are building, as Leon said, in the spirit of all time. I think it’s the willingness of the creator to take that risk; the risk of being alone and of attempting to define that elusive condition. That is what makes an architecture of presentness.
Eisenman and Johnson’s drive to identify the architect with Nietzsche’s overman underscores the pervasiveness of Nietzscheanism in our culture, especially in art, architecture, and the historiography of those fields. In terms of the latter, a fundamental Nietzschean historical impulse underlies Heinrich W?É¬?lfflin’s basic project for art history ””? the same basic project which still motivates so much of art and architecture history today ””? to mark out the “monuments” from the insignificant. This demand of aesthetic over all else harkens back to a crucial moment where Nietzsche, in his Birth of Tragedy declared:
…we may assume that we are merely images and artistic projections or the true author, and that we have our highest dignity in our significance as works of art ””? for it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified …
Here lies the greatest problem with architectural Nietzschianism: the idea that life is only justifiable as an aesthetic phenomena, and thus overmen must make life a total work of art, excluding the aesthetically unpleasant Other. Is it ethically tenable to support a vision of a Nietzschean architect after the Holocaust? Can one go about creating an aestheticized space after the attempt to create an aestheticized space that was Nazi Germany?
Architecture must work through this question, which delegitimates it, but how? Elsewhere, Eisenman has written that after 1945, there is no “Truth” left, and architecture itself loses any possibility of meaning:
With the scientifically orchestrated horror of Hiroshima and the consciousness of the human brutality of the Holocaust it became impossible for man to sustain a relationship with any of the dominant cosmologies of his past; he could no longer derive his identity from a belief in a heroic purpose and future. Survival became his only ‘heroic’ possibility. The technocratic model, which was really just a disguise for the anthropocentric one, brought down the entire cosmological matrix. For the first time in history, man was faced with no way of assuaging his unmediated confrontation with an existential anxiety.
What does it mean to ‘survive’ after 1945? For Eisenman it means to live with a perpetual anxiety. But does this anxiety arise because we know that the same ideology responsible for these horrors is sold to us every day and that while we reproduce it wittingly or unwittingly we must do our best to try and fight it? Or does the anxiety arise because we are still fundamentally conducting business as usual and we must go on since that is how one gets ahead? Johnson, after all, is one of the great survivors.
Schulze cites an incident which problematizes Eisenman’s ’survival.’ During the late 1970s and early 1980s Eisenman made it known that he was working on a biography of Johnson, with the latter’s cooperation, to be published after his death. According to Johnson’s former partner John Burgee the biography was aborted after Eisenman told him, “I’m going to get him. I’ve got the goods on him. I’ve got photographs of him riding in a Nazi car. Lovers in Cambridge during school. I’m going to pull him down for good this time.” Burgee explains that he related the incident to Johnson and while Johnson initially reveled in the idea of being depicted as a colorful character, Burgee finally convinced him that Eisenman wanted to bring him down. Johnson had his lawyer draw up a contract and paid him ten thousand dollars to abandon the project. While Eisenman’s equation of Johnson’s closetedness as a homosexual and his repressed fascist past is disturbing, if Eisenman was bought out by Johnson he becomes Johnson’s accomplice.
In fairness to Eisenman, he has denied that this event ever took place. But whether or not this event ever took place is largely irrelevant. Eisenman and the larger historical-critical community in architecture were bought off. Even now that the Schulze book is out, the public secret is at work again. Notoriously pro-Johnson New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s review of Franz Schulze’s book barely mentioned Johnson’s fascist past, devoting only two sentences to the topic. Johnson’s friend Brendan Gill, in his New Yorker review assessed Johnson’s life and concluded “Against high odds and at whatever cost in private anguish, he has wrested a good time from the world ””? no mean prize.” Johnson, for Gill, is a true survivor and Schulze’s biography is a narrative of the triumphant wresting of a grand eccentric life against formidable odds. But if Johnson’s political activities and his philosophy of architecture were motivated by the same drive to aesthetic purity and the will to power over all else, shouldn’t we begin to ask if his architectural legacy is still all fun and games?
Schulze’s revelations seem to have changed little. Johnson’s legacy is still venerated world-wide. Since this spring, an image of the architect has smirked down on pedestrians at Berlin’s former Checkpoint Charlie to announce the construction of a mixed-use residential and office building designed by and named after him. Apparently even at a site of such historical rupture, cynical amnesia and the deification of the celebrity win out.
But perhaps in Johnson’s smirk we can find the key to Johnson’s philosophy. Johnson’s smirk is a manifestation of what Peter Sloterdijk, in his Critique of Cynical Reason, has identified as the dominant mood in contemporary culture: cynical reason. “Discontent in our culture,” Sloterdijk explains, “appears today as universal, diffuse cynicism.” Johnson’s trademark cynicism is not simply a personality trait but rather an allegiance to a world-view with a theoretical expression linked to his and Eisenman’s Nietzscheanism. While Nietzsche’s exposure of a will-to-power behind every will-to-know is a defining moment in western thought, Sloterdijk points out that Nietzsche accompanied it with a new way of acting: of thinking first and foremost about oneself and using whatever means necessary to survive and if possible, advance. “Nietzsche’s cynicism (cynicismus),” Sloterdijk writes, “offers a modified approach to ‘saying the truth’: It is one of strategy and tactics, suspicion and disinhibition, pragmatics and instrumentalism ””? all this in the hands of a political ego that thinks first and foremost about itself, an ego that is inwardly adroit and outwardly armored.” With Nietzsche’s explanation that “knowledge is power” in our hands, we can go either way. Today’s cynic ””? like Eisenman and Johnson ””? knows that the age of naiveté is over, but is able to keep working. The modern cynic understands what false consciousness is, Sloterdijk explains, but uses that knowledge to pull a fast one. Acting fundamentally in their own self-interest, cynics, as Sloterdijk puts it, “see to it that they are not taken for suckers.” The traditional critique of ideology is helpless in the face of cynicism, serving only to bolster the case of the cynic by pointing out the weak points in the cynical fa?É¬ßade.
What to do then? How do we operate after the knowledge about Johnson and the knowledge that the foundations of architecture are unsafe? If we choose to do nothing and not face cynicism, then we are nothing more than cynics ourselves. By excusing Johnson and Eisenman’s role in the cynical mentality or by saying that they just part of architecture and we can’t do anything about it, we do nothing more than legitimate cynicism. But how to proceed if ideology critique only strengthens the cynic?
Just as someone finally has to say that the Emperor was not wearing any clothes, the non-cynic discloses the public secret. Cynicism, Sloterdijk points out, is a corruption of Classical kynicism. The ancient kynic recognized and exposed the impossibility of Truth instead of using it for material gain, as the later cynic would. As opposed to ideology critique, which tries to expose delusions, the kynic exposes that the cynic is not deluded, but rather knows precisely what he or she is doing, ‘surviving’ at others’ expense.
The continuing diagnosis of the cynical mentality is an essential project in formulating a kynical strategy of resistance. The notion of the death of the author was a useful fiction for the 1960s, but today we can no longer abandon such a clear-cut division between text and biography and between theoretical structure and disciplinary power structure. In a kynical analysis of architecture as discipline, we must ask how the cynical mentality operates and how its power structures are formed. Cynicism is a way of stepping away from reality of deferring its consideration for another time. But this deferment cannot be endless. By exposing the operations of the cynic, we learn more about the fictional nature of our discipline and, based on this knowledge we can make our choices. While our choices are still within ideology, we will find that some choices are better than others: not every choice has to be cynical.
I wish to thank Jennifer L. Bell, Denise Bratton, David H. Bennett, Sander Gilman, Diane Ghirardo, Mark Jarzombek, Geoffrey Waite, and Val K. Warke for their contributions to this article in its various forms. I am also very grateful to William Morgan for the use of his photograph of Checkpoint Charlie, 1995.
Blodgett, Geoffrey. “Philip Johnson’s Great Depression.” Timeline June/July 1987, 2-17.
Dennis, Lawrence. The Coming American Fascism. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1936.
Johnson, Philip. “Aliens Reduce France to an ‘English Colony’.” Social Justice, July 24, 1939, 4.
Johnson, Philip. “Are We a Dying People?” Today’s Challenge June-July 1939, 28-37.
Johnson, Philip. “A Dying People?” The Examiner, Summer 1938, vol 1, no 3, 305-20.
Johnson, Philip. “Inside War-Time Germany.” Today’s Challenge November-December 1939, 17-25.
Johnson, Philip. “London and Paris: Midsummer 1939.” Today’s Challenge August-September 1939, 19-26.
Johnson, Philip. “Mein Kampf and the Businessman.” The Examiner, Summer 1939, vol 2 no 3, 291-96.
Johnson, Philip. “Poland’s Choice Between War and Bolshevism Is a ‘Deal’ With Germany.” Social Justice September 11, 1939, 4.
Johnson, Philip. “This ‘Sitdown’ War. Heavy Engagements of the Fortnight Have Been on Economic and Moral Front.” Social Justice, November 6 1939, 9.
Johnson, Philip. “War and the Press.” Social Justice November 6 1939, 12.
Schulze, Franz. Philip Johnson: Life and Work. New York: Albert A. Knopf, 1994.
Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Sorkin, Michael. “Where was Philip?” originally published Spy, October 1988, reprinted in Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings. New York: Verso, 1991, 307-311.
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