A group of architects, designers, artists and academics has urged New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to remove architect Philip Johnson’s name from their galleries and titles on account of his ‘fascist’ past.

Philip Johnson, one of the most celebrated architects of the 20th century, was responsible for the design of museums, theatres, libraries, houses, gardens and corporate buildings, many of which were architectural masterpieces. He was also the recipient of the first Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1979.

Johnson’s association with the MoMA spanned more than six decades; he was the founding director of the museum’s Architecture and Design department. He died in 2005.

However, Johnson’s controversial past as a Nazi sympathiser in his younger days is casting a shadow on his architectural legacy, with the Johnson Study Group – a largely anonymous collective documenting the architect’s involvement in Nazi activities – asking for his name to be dropped from all spaces at the MoMA.

In a letter published in late November, this group called upon the Harvard Graduate School of Design (Harvard GSD), MoMA and other public institutions to remove his name from "every leadership title, public space, and honorific of any form”.

"Philip Johnson's widely documented white supremacist views and activities make him an inappropriate namesake within any educational or cultural institution that purports to serve a wide public," the letter read.

“There is a role for Johnson’s architectural work in archives and historic preservation. However, naming titles and spaces inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for curators, administrators, students and others who participate in these institutions.”

The group also mentioned Johnson’s failure to include “a single work by any Black architect or designer” in the architectural collection during his tenure at the museum. Among the 30-plus signatories to the letter are architects and artists being featured in a forthcoming MoMA exhibition, ‘Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America’.

Harvard’s response

As a student at Harvard, Johnson designed a house – his first built project – in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1941 for his Masters of Architecture thesis. The Philip Johnson Thesis House, as it was popularly known, was bought by Harvard GSD in 2010 and restored in 2016.

In response to the letter, the dean of Harvard GSD, Sarah Whiting acknowledged that Johnson’s “racism, his fascism, and his strenuous support of white supremacy have absolutely no place in design”. Consequently, the house will be formally called ‘9 Ash Street’ after its physical address.

“Philip Johnson's global influence in architecture in the 20th century and his grip on the field even now, 15 years after his death, cannot be overstated,” said Whiting.

“And the power he wielded and continues to wield make it critical that not only his own work as an architect and curator continues to be reappraised, but also that the consequences and persistent legacy of his influence in shaping the field and canon of architecture continue to be scrutinized.

“At the GSD, we are committed to doing our part to bring much-needed, long-overdue change to the field, to a fundamental reorientation toward inclusion. Johnson’s influence runs deep and wide, and across generations, and yet he is also just one figure among the entrenched, paradigmatic racism and white supremacy of architecture. Undoing that legacy – of the field, not only of Johnson – is arduous and necessary, and as a school and community we are committed to seeing it through.”

MoMA under pressure

Following the prompt action by Harvard GSD, the MoMA is now under increasing pressure to respond to the Johnson Study Group by removing Philip Johnson’s name from all the gallery spaces and titles.

However, the museum is taking this issue very seriously and is extensively researching all available information, according to a spokesperson.

Image source: AIGA