Philip Johnson: Architecture’s “International Style” and Fascist Nationalism

Bill Freind, Rowan University

The designs of modernist architect Philip Johnson are prominent landmarks in many city skylines. However, Johnson was a Nazi sympathiser, and the development of his architectural style is inseparable from his fascist politics. In the latest of the #ModernistMoments series, Bill Freind examines this political-aesthetic instability in Johnson’s career.

On February 9, 1932 the inauspiciously titled “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” opened at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. The show was organized by three men: Alfred H. Barr, the 30 year-old director of MOMA; Henry-Russell Hitchcock, 28 and a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; and Philip Johnson who was 25 and who, although he would become one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century, had no formal training in architecture at the time. Hitchcock and Johnson published a book entitled The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 concurrently with the exhibition, although Johnson acknowledged that Hitchcock had written it. Barr lays out the three principles of the style:

 … emphasis upon volume – space enclosed by thin planes or surfaces as opposed to the suggestion of mass and solidity; regularity as opposed to symmetry or kinds of obvious balance; and, lastly, dependence upon the intrinsic elegance of materials, technical perfection, and fine proportions, as opposed to applied ornament.[1]

Le Corbusier’s Villa Besnus, in Vaucresson near Paris (Charles Gerard, 1924)

Intentionally or not, both the exhibition and the book made this architecture both famous and immediately recognizable, laying the groundwork for both the “glass box” skyscraper that would become the default building for global capital and the “midcentury modern” style of houses in the US, despite the fact that Johnson would claim in 1994 that “it seems crystal clear that what Russell wrote was a history of the previous great decade, not a prescription for the next one.”[2] The only explanation for the choice of 1922 as a date comes in a somewhat opaque reference: the style “appeared already plainly by 1922” (49). Hitchcock seems to have in mind works such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Besnus (above right) and Mies Van Der Rohe’s plans for a brick country house (below), which he actually seems to have designed in 1923 or 1924.

Mies Van Der Rohe’s design (Creative Commons)

The book begins in a very strange way: “[s]ince the middle of the eighteenth century there have been recurrent attempts to achieve and to impose a controlling style in architecture such as existed in the earlier epochs of the past.”[3] But who has attempted to “achieve and impose” this “controlling” style? The answer would seem to be time itself: “[t]he nineteenth century failed to create a style of architecture because it was unable to achieve a general discipline of structure and of design in the terms of the day.”[4] By way of contrast, Hitchcock suggests “[t]oday a new single style has come into existence” that “exists throughout the world, is unified and inclusive” and has emerged through “directed evolution.”[5] In other words, the International Style is created by some powerful and unspecified movement of history, which would suggest that to defy it is to defy history itself. The vaguely authoritarian tone of those lines becomes more explicit as the book progresses:

The continued existence of Romantic individualism is not a question of architecture alone. There is a dichotomy of the spirit more profound than any mere style can ever resolve. The case against individualism in architecture lies in the fact that Wright has been almost alone in America in achieving a distinguished architecture; while in Europe, and indeed other parts of the world as well, an increasingly large group of architects work successfully within the discipline of the new style.[6]

This is a truly stunning claim: innovation in the arts comes not from individual creativity but through conformity to a style that, if we are fortunate, somehow emerges from the spirit of the time. Unsurprisingly, this infuriated Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Hitchcock and Johnson had asked to join the exhibition only because he was too prominent to exclude. Wright at first claimed he was withdrawing, then agreed to stay if the museum consented to distribute his essay “Of Thee I Sing.” While Wright’s prose is often unclear or turgid, he clearly recognized a central problem with Hitchcock’s claim:

The community interest in these United States is not communism or communistic as internationalists’ formula for a “style” presents itself. Its language aside, communistic the proposition is. Communistic in communism’s most objectionable phase: the sterility of the individual its end if not its aim [sic] and…in the name of “discipline”![7]

Calling Hitchcock and Johnson “communistic” completely misreads their motivations: while some of the architects in the exhibition, especially Walter Gropius and those affiliated with the Bauhaus, were informed by left-wing politics, Mark Lamster notes the exhibition “all but eliminated any concern for progressive social values”[8] and they placed Gropius and a Bauhaus model in a preliminary gallery. At the same time, Wright was certainly correct that there was a strong authoritarian tendency in Hitchcock and Johnson’s aesthetics, and it’s worth remembering that 1922, the year that marked the beginning of the exhibition, was also the date of Mussolini’s march on Rome, so the emergence of the International Style was matched by the emergence of a hypernationalist, fascist government in Italy. Johnson was less interested in Mussolini than in Hitler, who he first saw in October 1932, eight months after the opening of the exhibition, when he attended a Hitler Youth rally in Potsdam. Johnson said he was caught up in the “febrile excitement” of the rally, and called Hitler a “spellbinder.”[9]

Philip Johnson in 1933 (Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons)

A little more than a year later, in December 1933, Johnson would resign his position at MOMA to create with his friend Alan Blackburn the National Party, an organization that, according to an article in the New York Herald Tribune, was “distinguished from all other political aggregations, juntas, parties or groups, past and present, by a complete lack of a platform.”[10] Despite the sarcastic tone, that was an accurate assessment, as Johnson emphasized action over policy or even thought: “[a]ll you need is faith, courage, and loyalty. If you have them, you’ll get things done…. Beyond that nothing is needed, not even consistency. The only necessary consistency is consistency of feeling.”[11] Although the party lacked a coherent political ideology, it was predicated on an inchoate, irrationalist authoritarianism – which of course is true of many people drawn to fascism. The party’s slogan, “the need is for one party,” was simultaneously vacuous and revealing: as with the Roman fasces that served as the model for fascism, unity is predicated on the both transcendental and largely undefined myth of the nation, and this mystical “need” echoes the authoritarian tendencies in Hitchcock’s celebration of the dominant architectural styles that he and Johnson celebrated.[12]

Searching for a suitable authoritarian, Blackburn and Johnson first decided to offer their services to Huey Long, the populist Senator from Louisiana. Unsurprisingly, Long and his advisors recognized that Johnson and Blackburn were powerless dilletantes and declined their services. (It’s worth noting the irony of Johnson endorsing Long’s Share Our Wealth program, since Johnson’s personal fortune was about half a million dollars at that time.) After Long was assassinated in 1935, the pair turned their attention to Father Charles Coughlin, the demagogic and anti-Semitic Roman Catholic priest whose radio broadcasts made him one of the most powerful political figures in the US. When Coughlin addressed a crowd of 80,000 at Chicago’s Riverview Park, he did so on a huge platform that Johnson had designed — and that he had modeled after the stand he had seen at Hitler’s 1932 Potsdam rally.

Johnson drifted through a variety of short-lived political allegiances, but his commitment to Nazi Germany never wavered. He met with Nazi officials in New York and Washington D.C., and his biographer Mark Lamster suggests he may have been “exchanging information on the activities, politics, and membership of American fascist circles and discussing the means by which the Germans might disseminate their propaganda.”[13] William Shirer, the American journalist who later wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, suspected Johnson was a Nazi spy, and by September 1940 Johnson was the subject of at least five FBI case files.[14]

While any number of artists in the twentieth century endorsed anti-Semitism and various forms of authoritarian politics, Johnson’s unambiguous support for Nazi Germany is particularly egregious, and yet he never received the attention directed at, for example, Ezra Pound. In part, that was due to Johnson’s talents with spin, hype, and public relations: discussing his racist, fascist past, he offered tepid apologies, deflections, and hand-waving. For instance, he suggested his enthusiasm for National Socialism stemmed from the sight of “all those blond boys in black leather.”[15] His proposal to the Berlin Government to rebuild the area around the Friedrichstrasse is an appallingly masterful demonstration of his ability to downplay his Nazi past: in the first paragraph of his pitch, he glibly asserts “[p]olitics interest me only in so far [sic] as it fosters or impedes the production of architectural beauty. For example, I loathe Hitler but love Friedrich Wilhelm IV: bad client, good client.”[16] I want to emphasise the audacity of that claim: in a proposal to the Berlin government to rebuild a section of the city never fully reconstructed after being bombed in World War II, Johnson simultaneously offers a sly wink and nod to his Nazi past, while absurdly claiming that to him Hitler was merely a “bad client.”

550 Madison Avenue (David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons)

Nonetheless, that deflection was successful and Johnson was awarded the contract to build the American Business Center, also known as Philip Johnson Haus, adjacent to the former site of Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. Perhaps the Berlin government felt that Johnson’s claims weren’t wholly inaccurate: by the late 1970s, Johnson had abandoned the sleek modernism of Mies van der Rohe for a slick postmodernism that glibly appropriated and juxtaposed historically incongruous styles, as demonstrated by his building at 550 Madison Avenue in Manhattan (right), known first as the AT&T Building and later the Sony Tower.

While that building was widely reviled, it was praised by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, who said it was “more in the spirit of his own work than anything he had seen by an American architect since 1945.”[17] Johnson apparently returned the compliment, since the American Business Center includes a ceiling based on Speer’s design for the Reich Chancellery in 1939 – another sly and appalling reference to his Nazi past. In that gesture, Johnson reduced the atrocities of the Third Reich to little more than decorative touches in a monument to the triumph of global capitalism that is literally situated in the location where both National Socialism and European Communism were defeated.

That’s an important and telling detail. While Johnson’s life and career might seem to be marked by aesthetic and political inconsistency, one thing remains consistent: his desire for a power that can transcend borders to shape, direct, and control the masses. That first emerges in his valorization of a “controlling style” in architecture and is made more explicit in his full-throated support for National Socialism. When those were exhausted or defeated, Johnson refashioned himself as, in his words, “a whore” who is “paid very well for building high-rise buildings.”[18] Johnson’s authoritarianism merely shifted to unquestioning support for global capitalism.


Notes

[1] Hitchcock, Henry-Russell and Philip Johnson, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (New York: Norton, 1966) 29.

[2] Hitchcock, 16.

[3] Hitchcock, 34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hitchcock, 35-36.

[6] Hitchcock, 43.

[7] Wright, Frank Lloyd, “Of Thee I Sing” in The Collected Writings of Frank Lloyd Wright, Volume 3 (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993) 114, ellipsis in original.

[8] Lamster, Mark, The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018) 103.

[9] Lamster, 114.

[10] “Two Quit Modern Art Museum for Sur-Realist Political Venture,” New York Herald Tribune, December 18, 1934, 1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Johnson and Blackburn were drawn to the writings of Lawrence Dennis, who, although largely forgotten now, was perhaps the most prominent voice of American fascism. A former child preacher who had subsequently attended Exeter and Harvard, Dennis was also a Black man who was passing as White.          

[13] Lamster, 165.

[14] Lamster, 182.

[15] Schulze, Franz, Philip Johnson: Life and Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 110. 

[16] Johnson, Philip, “Berlin Alternative” in Philip Johnson: Recent Work (London: Academy Editions, 1996) 43.

[17] Lamster, 366.

[18] The Charlottesville Tapes, commentary by Jacquelin Robertson (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1982) 19.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Freind is Professor in the Department of English at Rowan University. He is the author of American Field Couches (BlazeVox Books, 2008) and the editor of the collection Chrysanthemums and Scuba Divers: The Writings of Araki Yasusada (Shearsman Books, 2011). He has published articles in Poetics Today, the Journal of Modern Literature, Paideuma and other journals. He is at work on a manuscript entitled Advertising the Avant-Garde: Mass Communication and Innovative Art.

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