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The friendly enmity of two American architectural giants

NONFICTION

Architecture’s Odd Couple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson

By Hugh Howard

Bloomsbury

352 pages, $28

By Jack Quinan

Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother, Anna, so wanted him to become an architect that she hung pictures of Gothic cathedrals around his crib. When he was 9 she introduced him to the abstract design exercises of the Froebel Kindergarten blocks. High school found him drafting after school for a local Madison, Wis., engineer.

At 19 he began to work in the Chicago offices of Adler and Sullivan, where after three years he was made supervisor of their 30 draftsmen. Wright established his own office in 1893 and in 1901 he created the first of 60 Prairie houses (including the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo) along with the Larkin Administration Building and Unity Temple. Then, just after his work was given unprecedented coverage in the Architectural Record in 1909, he abandoned his office and his family and sailed away with the wife of a client to publish his work with Ernst Wasmuth in Berlin.

The 100 handsome folio-sized lithographic plates of Wright’s radically modern architecture excited the imaginations of a group of young European architects that included Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, but his marital infidelity and its subsequent consequences sent his career into a tailspin for more than 20 years. In the interim, the young Europeans created an architecture of their own based upon a synthesis of Wright’s principles and Cubism that came to be known as the International Style.

Hugh Howard’s nimble narrative in “Architecture’s Odd Couple” is centered upon the moment when Wright, having spent much of the six years from 1916 to 1922 in Japan far from America’s consciousness, returned in 1923 to find that much had changed. Thanks to the Bauhaus in Germany, Le Corbusier’s work in France, and that of J. J. P. Oud in Holland the International Style had become a major force in Europe and was beginning to seep into North America in the mid-1920s. Dedicated to an organic ideal in architecture, Wright was appalled at what he called the work of the “white box boys.”

Howard’s book is about the on-again off-again relationship between Wright and Philip Johnson, a pairing that a novelist couldn’t have improved upon. In 1930, when they first met, Johnson at 25 was tall, handsome, wealthy and urbane. Wright at 64 was short, had been raised in near-poverty, was brazenly outspoken, and given to an outlandish mode of dress by contemporary standards. They were truly an odd couple.

Johnson’s career up to their initial meeting in 1930 differed totally from Wright’s meteoric rise in that Johnson studied philosophy at Harvard (Wright spent one semester in college), made an extended tour of Europe in 1927-28 looking at art and architecture (Wright preferred the arts of Japan), embraced Hitler’s National Socialism (Wright’s politics were more left-leaning) and served, unpaid, as director of the Department of Architecture of the newly formed Museum of Modern Art in New York. In fact, Johnson only embarked on a career in architecture at the age of 36 when he entered Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. But the troubles between them had begun in 1930.

Johnson and his collaborator, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, were avid supporters of the new European architectural modernism. With the blessing of Alfred Barr, the director of the MOMA, they conceived an inaugural exhibition in 1932 in celebration of the International Style that would include its few American practitioners to be titled “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition.” The question was what to do about Wright? Although he was acknowledged by everyone concerned as the pioneering figure of the movement and as America’s greatest architect, Wright’s work didn’t fit the International Style model as Hitchcock and Johnson defined it. Wright, eager to regain his pre-1910 stature, was fully aware of his status and proved to be extremely difficult, even to threatening several times to withdraw from the exhibition, thereby driving Johnson to distraction.

Wright won that battle.

Hugh Howard moves fluidly from Wright to Johnson and back in chapters that alternate between key moments of intersection between the two men and their major works. Wright’s Edgar J. Kaufmann House, “Fallingwater,” of 1937, was pivotal in their relationship in that it shot Wright back into the forefront of architecture, forcing Johnson to reevaluate him.

As Johnson began to emerge as an architect in his own right through his association with Mies van der Rohe in the building of the Seagram Building in New York in 1950 and his own glass house in New Canaan, Connecticut, he became one of a second generation of American modernists and the battle between them continued – on again because of their differences and off again as, like old warriors, a certain affection and respect developed in Wright’s last years.

Johnson was never a great architect but he was prolific, knowledgeable about history, and attentive to new trends. He built numerous press-worthy tall buildings, houses, and museums and became an influential figure in the discourses that swirled around architecture after the 1950s. The glass house that he built for himself garnered a riot of public interest but irked Mies van der Rohe for its similarity to Mies’ Edith Farnsworth House near Chicago and gave Wright the opportunity the opportunity to chide him with: “Ah, Philip, still building those glass houses and leaving them out in the rain?”

Howard’s epilogue, “A Friendly Wrangle,” is a thoughtful and touching account of the denouement between the two men and a fitting conclusion to a lively and insightful chapter of American architectural history.

Jack Quinan is a former curator of the Darwin D. Martin House.