Saturday, January 19, 2008


This Irving Penn photo is the frontispiece of the Makers of Modern Architecture. That’s Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the left, the Seagram Building (“it’s only a model”) in the middle, and Philip Johnson on the right. Johnson is somewhat startling because this isn’t the iconic image of the naughty, wizened pixie in big round glasses proclaiming, “I am a whore.” He was young once. Is it just me, or does he look like a mischievous German here? Twice now I’ve read Robert Hughes’ retellings of how Albert Speer gave him a signed copy of his work to give to Johnson, and how Johnson, embarrassed, buried it in the banquettes at the Four Seasons. For Johnson had this connection with Nazism that was largely suppressed during his long life. It was no secret he wrote for the fascist Father Coughlin’s newspaper in Berlin and tried to get an American Nazi movement going between 1934-37, but as a wealthy man, a cultural broker, an assiduous ass-kisser to corporate America, and a powerful voice at MoMA, well, the dead dogs stayed pretty low. He supposedly atoned (designing a shul in Port Chester gratis, working up a nuclear reactor for Israel, telling softball pitcher Charlie Rose in 1993 that his support for Nazism, “was the stupidest thing I ever did.”) He tried to brush if off by saying blond boys in leather made him hot, but there seems to have some real affinity there. He liked power. As late as 1951, he was writing, “Personally I think the Nazis were better than Roosevelt, but I haven’t time to dig up the proof.” And people could still be surprised by his anti-Semitic remarks late in life. Van der Rohe did some work for the Nazis before getting out in 1938, but MoMA wouldn't touch that as long as Johnson was on the board. Too close for comfort, evidently. The deeper you look, the more cloacal the glittering institutions become, no? While most of Johnson’s work is derivative, gimmicky, and ugly, I do like one of his buildings, the old MoMA guesthouse at 242 E.52nd. Brick below, with a central wooden door, and three-window painted steel above. Since he appropriated, if not stole, most everything, somebody else probably did the work on it. Even the trademark round glasses came from Le Corbusier. Who, it seems, was palsy-walsy with Vichy…

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