A Temporary Solution

John Hill
4. March 2021
Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

As part of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, now on display at MoMA, a sign bearing Philip Johnson's name has been covered by the manifesto of the Black Reconstruction Collective.

A call for the Museum of Modern Art, Harvard University, and other institutions to remove the name Philip Johnson from any titles, spaces, and other honorifics first happened in late November, a few months before the late-February opening of Reconstructions, when The ---- Johnson Study Group posted an open letter signed by more than 40 people, including most of the exhibition's participants. Harvard GSD took action soon after, removing Johnson's name from the thesis house he designed and built in Cambridge as a student; it is now known simply by its address, 9 Ash Street. But MoMA, which has a gallery and a curator position named for Johnson, had been silent on the matter until the opening of Reconstructions, when it allowed the Black Reconstruction Collective — a group founded by ten of the eleven contributors to the exhibition — to cover the sign "The Philip Johnson Galleries" with its manifesto. The statement, as seen above, is positioned at the entrance to the third-floor galleries in the 2004 section of the museum.

Johnson founded MoMA's Architecture & Design Department in 1932, the same year he curated, with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the influential Modern Architecture: International Exhibition. Later that decade, Johnson embraced fascism, attending several American Nazi Party rallies and traveling to Germany to attend the Nuremberg rally of 1938 and meet with Nazi officials (because he was wealthy and therefore did not take money from the German government, he was never tried). "In his later years," Mark Lamster writes in his 2018 biography of Johnson, "Johnson expressed deep remorse for his behavior but never acknowledged his complicity with the Nazi state, which even now remains unresolved." With protests over "Johnson's commitment to white supremacy" gaining momentum, a more lasting resolution to his complicity may follow Reconstructions — that is, if MoMA removes his name from the gallery when it takes down the BRC manifesto. But given Johnson returned to MoMA and devoted many decades of his life to the institution — as a curator, a trustee, and a donor — such an action is far from a given.

Manifesting Statement, The Black Reconstruction Collective

A nation constituted in conflict with its own ideals would need to be reconstructed before it could be fully constructed. It would need to go to war with itself and win, then reconstruct itself differently. This is not rebuilding but reconstructing to the core of governance, citizenship, history, infrastructure, and the distribution of land. Paradoxically, the people who did the constructing and must now do the reconstructing are likely to be the same—laborers in one instance and authors in another—designers of this nation and of themselves.

The Black Reconstruction Collective commits itself to continuing this work of reconstruction in Black America and these United States. We take up the question of what architecture can be—not a tool for imperialism and subjugation, not a means for aggrandizing the self, but a vehicle for liberation and joy. The discipline of architecture has consistently and deliberately avoided participation in this endeavor, operating in complicity with repressive aspects of the current system. That ends now. We commit ourselves to annihilating the willful blinders that have enabled architecture to continue to profess its Eurocentrism as a virtue and claim apolitical ends.

We reject the boundaries established by nation-states, challenge the spatial manifestations of anti-Black racism, and encourage creative agency and liberatory practices. This collective portal unites activists, scholars, architects, artists, and organizers across time and space. With this commitment to Black freedom and futurity, we dedicate ourselves to doing the work of designing another world that is possible, here, where we are, with and for us.

(Source: MoMA website)

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