An enemy of principles
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 January 2005)

Philip Johnson, who died on Tuesday in the famous Connecticut home he built for himself in 1949, played architecture as a game of winners and losers. Winners like Johnson changed styles as fashion demanded, manipulated the media till they became celebrities and scooped up the big commissions. Losers stuck to their artistic principles and worried about placating their bank managers.

While Johnson was at Harvard in the 1920s, his father gave him stock that made him forever rich. He joined the Museum of Modern Art as a curator without salary, even paying privately for his secretary. There he made history as a propagandist for the new by organizing the 20th century's most influential exhibit on architecture, the 1932 show that introduced Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and other European stars to America.

As an architect, Johnson became Mies's disciple and built his own elegant Glass Box house as a copy of Miesian design. In his hatred of ornament, Mies had no more loyal follower than Johnson. Or so it seemed.

But after Mies died in 1969 Johnson modified his views. Glass boxes, he began saying, were boring. He eventually joined the enemies of Mies by becoming a postmodernist. He designed the pink-granite AT&T Building (now the Sony building) in New York, the one that looks like a Chippendale chest of drawers swollen to elephantine size. For Houston he designed a 56-storey bank tower shaped vaguely like Dutch gable roofs. He designed a Gothic-in-glass building for Pittsburgh and another in Victorian style for San Francisco. When criticized at a conference in 1982 he answered: "I do not believe in principles. I am a whore and am paid very well for building high-rise buildings." He may have meant that ironically, but some considered it the simple truth.

In Johnson's hands, architecture began to look as capricious as television and cultural history became a pattern book of shapes anyone could borrow on a whim. He made another turn when he emerged as discoverer of what he called, in his 1988 Museum of Modern Art show, "Deconstructivist Architecture." The exhibition helped publicize Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind, who soon escaped the label and emerged as individualists. In that period Johnson designed the CBC's Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, a clumsy piece of work that sits awkwardly on the street. He said it was deconstructivist, therefore up to date, but he never explained why.

Johnson had a tendency to fall for what looked like the coming thing. Perhaps this was why he adopted the cause of Adolf Hitler and Nazi ideology. A dozen obits I've read this week make his fascism sound like a fleeting error, but Franz Schulze, in his biography, Philip Johnson: Life and Work, shows it was much more.

It began when Johnson was caught up in the excitement of a 1932 Nazi rally near Potsdam. As a homosexual he found it erotic (as he said, "all those blond boys in black leather"), but he fell for Nazi ideas as well. In 1934 he left the museum to spend all his time spreading fascism. He became so anti-Semitic that for a while it affected his view of Mies. (He wrote in a letter, "the patrons of Mies are Jews and do we want them?")

He tried to start an American fascist party, failed, and instead attached himself to Father Charles Coughlin, who built a national audience on radio with anti-Semitic sermons broadcast from Royal Oak, Mich. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Johnson travelled with the Nazi troops, sending articles back to Coughlin's newspaper, Social Justice. One article said weak leadership in France had encouraged those who "always gain power in a nation's time of weakness -- the Jews." He wrote with enthusiasm about seeing Warsaw burn, "a stirring spectacle." William L. Shirer, in his book Berlin Diary, said of Johnson: "None of us can stand the fellow and suspect he is spying for the Nazis."

Johnson fell silent before the U.S. entered the war. Later he said he had no excuse for "such utter, unbelievable stupidity." His life as a fascist ran from 1932 to 1940, from age 26 to age 34. But great success has a way of absolving sins. Journalists who knew of his lurid past avoided mentioning it in print. On Wednesday, The New York Times obit demonstrated how far forgiveness has gone with a misleading allusion to "his brief involvement in right-wing politics." Brief? Right-wing? It lasted eight years -- and "right-wing" had nothing to do with it.

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