“When architects get jealous, it always means there’s something special going on,” said Ulrich Franzen, a brutalist architect who died in 2012. He’s one of the large cast of characters who enliven Hugh Howard’s entertaining double biography of Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson. “Architecture’s Odd Couple” traces the career of these two extraordinarily long-lived designers from before the beginning of the 20th century until almost the end of it. It casts their rivalry — and sometimes bitter personal relationship — as essentially productive, a wary dance of scorn and admiration, and ultimately mutual influence and emulation, between two men who advanced American architecture from the Victorian age to the emergence of post-modernism in the 1970s.
They were very different personalities, with radically different approaches to the craft they pursued. Wright was an idealist, steeped in a romantic rhetoric of Art and Democracy, American to his core, intent on reforming the world through an organic architecture that was rooted to place, embedded in the natural world, horizontal in form, and pre-industrial in its rich, handcrafted detail. Johnson was an opportunist, a dilettante and a showman, better at finessing the social, bureaucratic and economic obstacles to building than at actual design. Wright had ideas and made them manifest; Johnson played with ideas and made them sexy. Between them, they shepherded American architecture through the age of muscular modernism, with its utopian aspirations in the real world, to the age of discourse, where what architects say about their work often matters as much as the work itself.
“It is knowledge of architecture,” Wright wrote, “that is essentially not only the salvation of twentieth-century life, but . . . the very basis of our future as a civilization.” As Wright and Johnson wrangled over his participation in Johnson’s “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, the Prairie School master lamented the vulgarity of the younger generation: “Propaganda is a vice in our country. High power salesmanship is a curse. I can at least mind my own business.” Johnson, in a letter to his mentor, Alfred Barr, MoMA’s first director, took a more cynical view: “What I most want to do is to be influential.”
Yet in that episode, as in many others during their entwined careers, they needed each other. Wright, in the 1930s, wanted to refresh his career, find new clients and assert his historical place at a moment when European modernism was about to make everything he had done for decades look almost quaint. Johnson couldn’t tell the story of international architecture without including Wright, whose 1910 “Wasmuth Portfolio” had riveted many of the young European architects who would shape architecture from the 1930s through the middle of the 20th century. In a larger sense, Wright needed and probably craved Johnson’s approval, the hunger of an old egotist for new adulation, and Johnson was too clear-sighted about his own talent not to recognize that Wright was a colossus while he himself was merely an operator.
That doesn’t become entirely clear until the final chapter of the book, when Howard puts the contributions of the two men in perspective: “He built one great house — his own, of glass — and contributed to one great urban building, a monument to whiskey,” the author writes of Johnson’s best work, the transparent, rectangular belvedere he built for himself in Connecticut and the Seagram’s Building in New York, which he worked on in partnership with Mies van der Rohe. Johnson was “an aesthete, not an artist.” By contrast, “Wright’s work transcended style and even time.” And, “Wright’s genius was, quite simply, of a greater magnitude than Johnson’s.”
That clear-eyed assessment comes on the last page of the book, which is unfortunate but inevitable given the author’s effort to write a compelling dual biography. The only weakness of his account is that it isn’t easy to weave together two biographical threads when one figure is so obviously greater than the other. And while the rivalry between them drove both to great verbal sport — Johnson, Wright once said, “is a highbrow,” and “a highbrow is a man educated beyond his capacity” — it’s not clear that it was the animating spirit that defined them.
The strain occasionally shows. Citing a passage from “The Shining Brow,” the 1960 book by Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, in which her husband damns the Seagram’s Building with faint praise, Howard writes: “With Mrs. Wright’s help, the Master returned from the dead, firing a pointed bon mot that Philip Johnson knew perfectly well was aimed in his direction.” When Wright lands the late-career commission to design the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the author writes: “Though the fees represented a return to solvency . . . that seemed less important to the impecunious Wright than the chance to design a building that would again remind the world — and the likes of Philip Johnson and his International cadre — of Wright’s genius.”
That seems a stretch, though Wright’s ego was monstrous and he grew more prickly and irascible as he aged into his 90s. But it’s a small bit of psychological speculation and authorial contrivance in a book that is distinguished by clarity, narrative energy and evocative description. “Architecture’s Odd Couple” is an appealing primer in 20th-century American architecture, with myriad insights into the vanity and interpersonal politics of the two men who dominated American architecture for a century.
Philip Kennicott is art and architecture critic for The Washington Post.
By Hugh Howard
Bloomsbury. 352 pp. $28