Harvard University is removing Philip Johnson’s name from a private residence he designed as a graduate thesis project after a group of architects and designers denounced Johnson’s “widely documented white supremacist views.” The house will now be known instead by its physical address, “9 Ash Street.”
In an open letter dated November 27, a collective known as the Johnson Study Group cited the renowned American architect’s collaborations with the German Nazi Party in the 1930s, including his translation and dissemination of fascist propaganda, and called on every public-facing nonprofit to remove Johnson’s name from titles and spaces. During his five-decade tenure at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he founded the Architecture and Design department, no Black designers or architects entered the collection, the authors added.
The letter specifically addressed MoMA, where a gallery and a curatorial position are named after the architect, and Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), which owns the building formerly known as the Philip Johnson Thesis House. (MoMA has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
Johnson designed and lived in the private residence while completing an architecture degree at the school in the 1940s, and the building eventually served as his thesis project. With its floor-to-ceiling windows, it is sometimes described as a stylistic precursor for one of his best known designs, the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. In 2010, Harvard purchased and renovated the home, which had fallen into disrepair.
In a letter to V. Mitch McEwen, an assistant professor of architecture at Princeton University and a member of the Johnson Study Group who sent Harvard the missive, GSD Dean Sarah Whiting said that “[Johnson’s] racism, his fascism, and his strenuous support of white supremacy have absolutely no place in design.”
“At the university, the house doesn’t have an official name on record, although it is usually referred to as the Thesis House, or the Philip Johnson Thesis House, or some variation,” Whiting wrote. “But I fully agree with your strong point about the power of institutional naming, and the integrity and legitimacy it confers.”
McEwen is one of seven signatories of the Johnson Study Group letter who will be included in Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, MoMA’s first exhibition dedicated to the architecture of the African American and African diaspora communities in the US, opening in February 2021.
“The architecture world is just so complicit with white supremacy that people bat an eye and keep going,” McEwen told Curbed. “It sets up a standard for abuse — that’s what the title of ‘Philip Johnson’ does; it’s what a gallery named after Philip Johnson does.”
In a message, the Johnson Study Group told Hyperallergic, “The Dean of the GSD has responded swiftly and acknowledged that this is a part of broader work to do. Why can’t MoMA respond in this fashion? It is important to note the extremity of Johnson’s activity, and the extent to which we are talking about violence and sedition in support of white supremacy.”
“This is not a matter of ‘bad people’ or ‘viewpoints,’” the group continued. “This is a matter of institutions taking responsibility for untethering themselves from legacies of white supremacy. Not naming something after a Nazi collaborator and fascist should be the no-brainer step before you even begin to outline the real work.”
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Author: Valentina Di Liscia