Harvard to remove Philip Johnson’s name from the building he designed as a student
The Harvard School of Design (Harvard GSD) will no longer be referred to as a private residence on 9 Ash Street in Cambridge as the “Philip Johnson Thesis House”. From now on, this house, designed and inhabited by Johnson when he enrolled at Harvard in the 1940s, will be known only by its physical address.
The move was announced by Harvard GSD dean Sarah M. Whiting days after the Johnston Study Group, a largely anonymous collective devoted to examining Johnson’s notorious racism and collaborative efforts with the Nazi Party, issued a public letter addressed to both Harvard and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), two institutions with deep ties to Johnson.
The letter, which was initially signed by more than 30 architects, designers, artists and educators, called on MoMA and Harvard to remove Johnson’s name from all titles and spaces due to the “Widely documented activities and visions of white supremacy”.
“Johnson’s architectural work has a role in archives and historic preservation,” the letter said. “However, naming titles and spaces inevitably suggests that the honoree is a role model for curators, administrators, students, and others who participate in these institutions.”
Signatories to the letter included most of the architects and artists featured at the upcoming MoMA exhibition, Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, including V. Mitch McEwen (also a member of the Johnson Study Group), Felecia Davis, Sekou Cooke, Emanuel Admassu, Olalekan Jeyifous, Germane Barnes, and J. Yolande Daniels. The exhibition is the first at MoMA to examine the links between architecture and African-American diaspora communities.
Whiting’s response letter, which is addressed directly to McEwen and other members of the Johnson Study Group, begins by acknowledging that “Johnson’s global influence on architecture in the 20th century and his dominance in the field thus far, 15 years after his death may be exaggerated “and that his” racism, fascism and strong support for white supremacy have absolutely no place in architecture. “
Whiting goes on to explain that the Johnson-designed house owned by GSD “does not have an official registered name, although it is generally referred to as Thesis House, Philip Johnson Thesis House or some variation.” She adds: “But I fully agree with his strong point about the power of institutional nomenclature and the integrity and legitimacy it confers. So we are taking steps to officially recognize the home within the university simply as ‘9 Ash Street.’ , the physical address of the house “. It is important to note that Johnson’s name not physically tied to the house, nor to the formidable wall that protects it from the street, through a sign or other type of sign.
Calling the name change “a minor but enlightening step to make room for other legacies to come,” Whiting concludes his letter by saying:
We do not pretend that our work, as a school, ends here. At GSD, we are committed to doing our part to bring about much-needed and long-awaited changes in the field, for a fundamental reorientation towards inclusion. Johnson’s influence is deep and wide, across the generations and yet he is also just one figure between the paradigmatic and entrenched racism and the white supremacy of architecture. Undoing this legacy – from the field, not just from Johnson, is arduous – and necessary, and as a school and community we are committed to making it happen.
AN reached out to MoMA to comment on the initial letter and will provide an update when there is a demonstration.
This article is originally published en The Architect’s Newspaper.