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The Architect Who Flirted With Fascism

DW Staff (jp)January 28, 2005

Philip Johnson, who died this week at the age of 98, might be acknowledged as one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, but he never quite lived down his reputation as a Nazi sympathizer.

The Philip Johnson House in downtown BerlinImage: dpa Zentralbild

The man often described as the elder statesman of US architecture always had a special place in his heart for the German capital, and his influence is evident to any visitor in central Berlin. Unfortunately, the city also featured in one of the murkiest chapters in his career.

Philip Johnson in Berlin
U.S. architect Philip JohnsonImage: AP

His "Philip Johnson House" at Checkpoint Charlie on the upmarket Friedrichstrasse was built in 1994. And perhaps somewhatt ironically, the architect famously responsible for the politically charged Holocaust memorial in Berlin is a Philip Johnson protégé. Peter Eisenman might be no stranger to scandal himself, but he's never been reviled as Philip Johnson (photo) was when he expressed admiration for Hitler in the 1930s.

After years cultivating a determinedly controversial image as an architect, it was only in his old age that Johnson spoke openly about private matters such as his homosexuality and his past as a Hitler disciple, explaining that he'd become "fascinated with power" during his time in Berlin in the 1930s.

"I have no excuse (for) such utter, unbelievable stupidity. ... I don't know how you expiate guilt," he once said.

Overwhelming the negatives

For many critics, the Nazi association dogged him throughout his career, but it was largely forgotten by the mainstream and did little damage to his career.

Peter Eisenman
Peter EisenmanImage: AP

His work went a long way to canceling out his questionable politics, and in the 1980s and 1990s, he championed the careers of both Peter Eisenman (photo) and Frank Gehry, two pre-eminent US architects and both Jewish. In the post-war years, he was also happy to work with Jewish clients, even designing a nuclear reactor in Israel, completed in 1960. Many saw his choice of commissions as a deliberate attempt to distance himself from the earlier charges of anti-Semitism.

"We forgave, but we didn't forget," Gehry was quoted Wednesday. "He was so powerful a force for the good in our profession that it overwhelmed all negatives."

"The Hitler mystique"

Born into a wealthy family in 1906, Johnson had an elitist, aristocratic take on the world and experiemnted with a number of architectural different styles during his career.

He first made his name curating an exhibition on the International Style in 1932 at what was then the brand-new Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1953 creating its renowned sculpture garden. His initial fascination with the International Style was spawned in Germany, which he first visited in 1928.

Männer der SA marchieren im Stechschritt an Adolf Hitler vorbei 1938
Nazi party leader Adolf Hitler is standing in an open cabriolet as he acknowledges an SA parade in honor of his birthday, in front of the German Chancellory in Berlin, April 20, 1938. Standing beside the car is SA chief Viktor Lutze. (AP Photo)Image: AP

In 1932, he attended a rally in Potsdam and saw Hitler speak. Transfixed by what he called Hitler's "mystique," he fast succumbed to a romantic, Nietzsche-esque image of Fascism, and began working as German correspondent for the right-wing US magazine Social Justice. Back in the US, he founded a set up a short-lived political party based on the National Socialists. American colleagues even suspected him of spying for the Third Reich.

"I lost my mind," he said in later years about his misalliance with Fascism.