The Current

The dark side of Philip Johnson: how the famous architect helped the Nazis in WW II

We look at the career of famed American architect Philip Johnson, whose buildings dot cities all across the continent, including the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto. Author and architecture critic Mark Lamster tells us there was another side to Johnson — a fascist who helped the Nazis push their agenda during the Second World War.

Johnson has buildings in cities across Canada, U.S. — including Toronto's CBC Broadcasting Centre

Philip Johnson's most famous building is The Glass House, built in 1949. It's claimed that it was inspired by the burned-out buildings the Nazis left in their wake. (Harry Harris/AP; Douglas Healey/AP)
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The buildings of famed architect Philip Johnson are dotted in cities all across North America, but people living and working in his skyscrapers may not know the darker side of his legacy.

Johnson, who died in 2005, was a fascist in the 1930s and 1940s, helping the Nazis push their agenda in the United States.

Born to a rich family in Cleveland, Johnson struggled in school and suffered from bipolar disorder. He was also coming to terms with being gay in an intolerant time. Despite the challenges of his early years, Johnson developed an extraordinarily successful career as an architecture curator in the 1930s, but then threw his lot in with Father Charles Coughlin, a pro-fascist and anti-Semitic American-Canadian priest and political figure.

"He sort of just decided to throw it all away to become basically an alt-right nationalist political figure," said Mark Lamster, an architecture critic and historian, and author of The Man in the Glass House

Lamster spoke to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about Johnson's involvement with the Nazis. This is part of their conversation:

What was the relationship between Philip Johnson and [Father Charles Coughlin]?

 Very close. Johnson became an adviser to Coughlin in the 30s.

Coughlin, sort of an incredibly popular figure, radio figure, in the United States at that time with a tremendous audience — much like Rush Limbaugh today — although more virulently anti-Semitic.

He sort of just decided to throw it all away to become basically an alt-right nationalist political figure.- Mark Lamster

Johnson is fully into this sort of anti-Roosevelt, anti-Jewish, hyper-nationalist belief system — fascist frankly — and he tries to advise Coughlin who is starting his own political party. Johnson designs this very fascistic dais for a massive rally held by Coughlin in Chicago with 80,000 people. It looks very much like the Nuremberg rallies the Nazis [were] holding in Germany.

And that is not a coincidence?

No, Johnson goes to visit those. He is very much inspired by those.

He's fully invested in the full Nazi catalogue of eugenics, political ideas, etc. — and he's useful to them.

The Nazi state wants America to stay out of European affairs, as it conquers all of Europe. To have Johnston, a figure who can help mainstream fascism in the United States — through propaganda, through providing it with mailing lists, various other intellectual activities — it's very appealing to the Nazi state. And he becomes embroiled with that. His meeting with very high level figures in the Gestapo in foreign service, the German ambassador to the United States to try and promote the sort of American fascism. Really disturbing.

The FBI were watching Johnson but his wealth protected him, Mark Lamster tells Anna Maria Tremonti. 0:55

Well, what do you think motivated him to embrace Nazism?

I think he was a product of a conservative family, so some of those prejudices were ingrained in him. But he was also someone who had this sort of oedipal streak. And also this incredible streak of insecurity, and desire for attention, and a desire to sort of rattle people's cages. And I think this is the part that sort of comes out of all that molded together and creates who he is.

How does Johnson go about rehabilitating his reputation after the war?

Pearl Harbour comes and Johnson realizes that this whole fascist direction has been a giant disaster, and wrong, and he needs to reinvent himself. And this is when he goes to Harvard to become an architect, to stay out of the limelight for a few years and try and reinvent who he was.

I think he's, in some ways, very genuinely sorry for his foolish behaviour. But on the other hand opportunistic and cynical about it, which is sort of the two sides of the coin that Johnson always plays.

But he has these friends, Jewish many of them, many of them virulently anti-Nazi, obviously. And because they adore him, and they love him, they're willing to forgive him because he's so charming, because he's so brilliant.

A decade later we find him befriending Shimon Peres. They become very close and Johnson builds a nuclear reactor in Israel of all places. So this man who had been a proselytizer for the Nazi state is all of a sudden helping the Jewish state develop its nuclear program. So it's an extraordinary turnabout.

The Glass House was glazed on all sides with no partitions between rooms, with just a single brick core that acted as a fireplace. (Douglas Healey/Associated Press)

I want to talk about some specifics of his design. Let's start with the famous Glass House. The house in Connecticut that he built and lived in from 1949 until his death. It is a tourist attraction now. How did his witnessing of the Nazi destruction in Poland find its way into the design of the Glass House?

So, the house is just a simple glass box, with a brick, cylindrical, fireplace service core. And Johnson claimed that part of the inspiration was the burning buildings that he had seen, that were stripped down to just their frames.

That were torched by the Germans.

That's correct.

And he found that inspiring?

Yes.

Mies van der Rohe called Johnson's most famous building 'a hot-dog stand,' says Mark Lamster. 0:45

What were some of the other notable buildings that he designed.

He was tremendously prolific and he worked for a tremendously long period. So there are many, many buildings — virtually every major city in America and Canada has a Johnson building.

Johnson designed the CBC Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, which opened in 1992. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Which brings me to the building in which I am sitting ... the CBC Broadcasting Centre in Toronto. What do you think of it?

Yeah ... I mean, it's kind of generic. It's just a big lumpin' thing there, with these hokie grids and angles poking out of it. It's not a serious work of architecture.

At its core it has atriums, as I'm sure you've experienced, which are a Johnson hallmark. [There's] a sense of hollowness in many of these buildings, that I think is endemic with him.  

The atrium in the CBC Broadcasting Centre. Lamster said hollow spaces at the core were a hallmark of Johnson's buildings. (Gabrielle Foss/CBC)

I think it's a reflection of who he was as a person. I think Johnson often needed to be engaged by other people, so he created these social spaces, these big arcades and open places within his buildings' atriums. 

When people fill them up they can be really exciting, but they can also lack humanity.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. Q&A transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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