The Harvard Graduate School of Design will no longer refer to one of its houses as the Philip Johnson Thesis House in response to an open letter criticizing its namesake’s white supremacist views, Dean Sarah M. Whiting wrote in a letter last month.
Though the house did not have an official name, it was often called the Philip Johnson Thesis House or Thesis House because it was the thesis project of architect Philip C. Johnson ’27 when he attended the GSD in the 1940s. The building, which is owned by the GSD, will now be formally referred to by its physical address: 9 Ash St.
Whiting’s statement said removing the name was just one step in addressing Johnson’s legacy and other figures who contributed to what she called the “white supremacy of architecture.”
“[Johnson’s] racism, his fascism, and his strenuous support of white supremacy have absolutely no place in design,” she wrote in the Dec. 5 letter.
The high-profile open letter that Whiting was responding to, dated Nov. 27, was written by the Johnson Study Group — a collective of prominent architects and designers — and called on the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the GSD, and other public-facing non-profits to excise Johnson’s name from public spaces and honorifics.
“There is a role for Johnson’s architectural work in archives and historic preservation,” the Johnson Study Group wrote. “However, naming titles and spaces inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for curators, administrators, students and others who participate in these institutions.”
A prominent architect and curator, Johnson attended the College and later studied at the GSD. He worked as the first head of architecture and design at MoMA. His buildings include Manhattan’s Seagram Building and Lipstick Building, as well as a personal residence made entirely from glass — the “Glass House” — in Connecticut. He died in 2005.
But Johnson’s legacy has also been characterized by his widely documented white supremacist views. The Johnson Study Group’s letter noted that he attempted to form a fascist party, circulated Nazi publications, and did not feature a single work by a Black designer or architect during his five-decade tenure at MoMA.
Contemporary artist Xaviera Simmons lauded the GSD's “swift response,” but said it was only the first in a series of actions she hoped the school would take.
“It starts with bold moves like taking names off. It starts with supporting reparations for descendants of slavery. It starts with acknowledging the land theft of this country,” Simmons said.
Whiting’s statement claimed that removing Johnson’s name would be the first of many steps, as Simmons hoped.
“We do not pretend to think our work, as a school, ends here,” Whiting wrote. “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.”
Katherine “Kate” Orff, a landscape architect and MacArthur fellow who graduated from the GSD in 1997, signed the letter in support of the Johnson Study Group. In an email to The Crimson, she noted that anti-Semitism and racism have rarely been subjects of discussion amongst architects and designers.
“Everyone was so focused on glass and light and proportion that the literal Nazisim right in front of us was unseen,” Orff wrote. “I think people read the letter and think, ‘it is about time!’”
Orff added that in her field of design, legacies of colonialism and elitism still remain. More work is needed to promote inclusion, she wrote.
“If we want to forge new paths in design culture that are more shared, more collective, purposeful and more civic-minded, then we need to keep reassessing the legacy of figures like Johnson,” she wrote.
Design School professor Toshiko Mori, who had recommended in August 2020 that the GSD divest the house at 9 Ash St. to fund a new social justice program, applauded Whiting’s decision in an email.
“The renaming of the property proposed by Dean Whiting is a brilliant interim solution that directs us to carefully start to evaluate the School’s associations, actions and legacies pertaining to white supremacist and racist issues embedded within its history,” she wrote.
Despite the GSD decision, Johnson’s name remains on a MoMA exhibition gallery and in their title for the chief curator of architecture and design.
—Staff writer Audrey M. Apollon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.