Philip Johnson, Nazi Sympathizer and Synagogue Architect

Philip Johnson (1906-2005) was a major force in 20th-century American architecture, playing a pivotal role in the evolution of both the modern and postmodern styles and designing such celebrated Manhattan landmarks as Lincoln Center and the Seagram Building. While his Nazi sympathies during the 1930s have never been a secret, a new biography by Mark Lamster shows they were deeper and longer-lasting than previously assumed. Armin Rosen writes in his review:

Johnson had been enthralled by a Hitler Youth rally he attended in Potsdam in 1933 and wrote an article that same year lauding the Third Reich’s architecture; later he would witness two of the notorious annual Nuremberg rallies, in 1937 and 1938. Johnson [became] an adviser to Father Coughlin in the mid-1930s—the future architect designed the speaking platform, a menacingly stark white wall with disturbing similarities to his later building designs, that the pro-Nazi demagogue used during a September 1936 address in Chicago that drew 80,000 spectators. Johnson [also] consorted with German officials in Washington and New York. . . . [Lamster] marshals abundant evidence that Johnson was also an anti-Semite, at least for a time. . . .

Johnson . . . only broke with fascism in late 1940 when support for the Nazis became personally and professionally untenable. In a particularly lame bit of attempted t’shuvah, Johnson donated the princely sum of $100 to United Jewish Philanthropies in the fall of 1941. . . .

And then, a funny thing happened: the war ended and Johnson became kosher, even for Jews. Johnson quickly convinced everyone that he had changed. Robert Finkle, a young Jewish architecture student, began a long stint as Johnson’s protégé and lover in the mid-50s. Johnson designed the Kneses Tifereth Israel synagogue in Port Chester, New York. . . . In 1956, Johnson began designing the Norel Soreq nuclear research facility in the Israeli town of Reḥovot, which opened in 1960.

But is there any connection between Johnson’s early politics and his work itself? Rosen writes:

[It’s] hard to ignore the authoritarian characteristics of some of his more celebrated work. Many of Johnson’s greatest structures are both gigantic and strikingly blank, and they work because they hold the Olympian vision of the architect against a viewer’s relative smallness. Johnson’s aesthetic values have a deeply sinister glint to them in light of his personal history; worse still, it’s hard or maybe impossible to disentangle those values from the qualities that make his buildings so distinctive.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Anti-Semitism, Architecture, Arts & Culture, Nazism

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy