Philip Johnson, Nazi Sympathizer and Synagogue Architect

December 6, 2018 | Armin Rosen
About the author:

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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