Architects and designers call on the MoMA to remove Philip Johnson’s name

Undoing a Harmful Legacy

Architects and designers call on the MoMA to remove Philip Johnson’s name

Architect Philip Johnson pictured in Boston, 1967. (City of Boston Archives/ Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Less than three months ahead of the (pushed-back) opening of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, the first exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to examine the ties between architecture and African American and African diaspora communities, seven architects, artists, and designers featured in the forthcoming show have signed a letter demanding that the MoMA remove the name of the late Philip Johnson from all titles and public spaces due to what the letter describes as his “widely documented white supremacist views and activities.”

In addition to his prolific architectural output, Johnson was a MoMA curator, patron, trustee, subject, and institutional figurehead who had and continues to have posthumously vast associations with the museum.

As the November 27 letter states, the racist, antisemitic worldview held by Johnson makes him “an inappropriate namesake within any educational or cultural institution that purports to serve a wide public.”

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

As of this writing, the letter, which is also addressed to Johnson’s alma mater, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and “any other public-facing nonprofit in the United States” that uses his name for honorific purposes, has been signed by a total of 31 artists, architects, designers, and educators, including, as mentioned, seven of the architects and designers featured in the upcoming MoMA exhibition. Diana Budds at Curbed was the first to report on the letter, which was initiated by and published on the Instagram account of the Johnson Study Group.

Formed this past summer amid the historic Black Lives Matter-led social justice and anti-racism movement, the largely anonymous collective is dedicated to examining Johnson’s lasting influence on MoMA and design institutions as a whole while considering his “significant and consequential commitment” ties to white supremacy.

Along with members of the Johnson Studio Group, signees of the letter include Amale Andraos, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; artist Xaviera Simmons; Alvin Huang, founder and design principal of Synthesis Design + Architecture and associate professor at the USC School of Architecture; Bryan C. Lee Jr., design principal of New Orleans-based Colloqate Design; Jennifer Newsom of Minneapolis-based practice Dream the Combine, and Kate Orff, founding principal of landscape architecture and urban design studio SCAPE.

V. Mitch McEwen, co-founder of Atelier Office and assistant professor at the Princeton University School of Architecture, was among the signees who is also a member of the Johnson Study Group and a featured architect in Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America. The other letter-signing architects and designers featured in the exhibition, which runs from February 20 through May 31, are Felecia Davis, Sekou Cooke, Emanuel Admassu, Olalekan Jeyifous, Germane Barnes, and J. Yolande Daniels.

As detailed in the letter, the openly gay, Cleveland-born Johnson used his early tenure at MoMA (he worked in various capacities at the museum from 1932 through 1988 including heading the Department of Architecture and Design from 1932 to 1936 and then again from 1944 to 1954) as a “pretense to collaborate with the German Nazi Party, including personally translating propaganda, disseminating Nazi publications, and forming an affiliated fascist party in Louisiana.” In his curatorial role, he also omitted the work of Black architects and designers from the collections under his purview. “He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in the field of architecture, a legacy that continues to do harm today,” the letter explained.

The inaugural Pritzker Prize winner’s decidedly more-than-flirtatious relationship with fascism has been explored in-depth since his death in 2005, including in Mark Lamster’s 2018 book, The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century. His Nazi associations were even the subject of an FBI investigation although he was ultimately never prosecuted.

The letter concludes by calling on all members of MoMA and alumni of Harvard GSD to cease supporting these institutions until Johnson’s name is scrubbed from all titles and places. It specifically implores white allies to step up: “Organize. Spread the word. Further the impact. We must not only speak of undoing the work of white supremacy, we must call it out by name and uproot it.”

AN has reached out to Justin Garrett Moore, executive director of the New York City Public Design Commission and a signee of the letter, and Barry Bergdoll, former Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design (2007-2013) at MoMA and current Meyer Schapiro Professor of art history in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, for further comment and insight.

We have also reached out to the MoMA for comment and will update this article accordingly.