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Life in a Glass House

The opening to the public last month of architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, was a triumph. Tickets to the house that Johnson (1906–2005) built in 1949 sold out, and visits are booked until 2008. In the midst of the celebration, only cursory attention was paid to information highlighted a decade ago in Philip Johnson: Life and Work by Franz Schulze and “We Cannot Not Know History: Philip Johnson’s Politics and Cynical Survival,” an essay by Kazys Varnelis in the November 1994 issue of the Journal of Architectural Education. (And by Hilton Kramer in COMMENTARY.) For eight years of Johnson’s adult life, from 1932 to 1940, he ardently promoted Nazism and fascism. Johnson’s friends, like the architect Robert Stern, assert that Johnson had repented before his death at age 98 in 2005—although these second-hand apologia remain debatable.

In 1932, when Johnson organized an exhibit on the International Style in architecture at MOMA, he attended a Hitler rally in Potsdam, Germany (which, he later admitted to Schulze, “enthralled” him). Back in America, Johnson became a staunch supporter of Lawrence Dennis (1893-1977), the Atlanta-born author of The Coming American Fascism, who predicted that only fascism could save America. In 1934, Johnson formed a Nationalist Party and went to Louisiana to work with Huey Long (whom Dennis praised for being “smarter than Hitler”).

After Long was murdered in 1935, Johnson became a staunch ally of Father Charles Coughlin (1891–1979), a Michigan priest who starred in weekly radio broadcasts featuring anti-Semitic praise of Hitler and Mussolini. Johnson helped with the printing of Social Justice, Coughlin’s publication, and organized a vast Chicago rally for the demagogue, even designing a now-iconic podium for Coughlin, modeled on the one that Hitler used at Potsdam.

In 1938, Johnson was invited by the German government to attend a special indoctrination course in Berlin, to learn about Nazi politics and hear Hitler speak at a giant Nuremberg rally. Johnson wrote a series of fascist articles for various American publications; he reviewed Hitler’s Mein Kampf favorably, pooh-poohing the notion that Hitler or his book were anti-Semitic. He went so far as to compare Hitler to Plato: “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.”

In a series of further articles, Johnson “explicitly attacked the Jews, depicting them as malicious invaders, comparing them to a plague, and finally lying about their condition in 1939 Germany and Poland,” as Varnelis details. Only when the FBI and Office of Naval Intelligence began to take an interest in Johnson as a possible Nazi spy, did he finally drop politics to devote himself fully to architecture. The Glass House represents the culmination of Johnson’s politically-rehabilitated persona. And yet the public continues to ignore the full details of Johnson’s Nazi years.


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