An in-depth portrait of two “grand men of American architecture.”
The prolific Howard (Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War: America’s First Couple and the War of 1812, 2012, etc.) offers up another sterling book of popular history, one about the “peculiar calculus” of the “flint and steel” friendship between two great architects of the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and Philip Johnson (1906-2005). Fierce rivals for nearly 30 years, they were the “yin and the yang, in love and in hate, the positive and the negative charges that gave architecture its compass.” Both could be imperious, inspiring, trivial, and proud. Wright was mostly a cantankerous coot. He was the unreformed romantic, Johnson the modernist who still liked the classical. Howard starts by nicely summarizing the early careers of his subjects. Wright’s career early on had been dramatic and successful, but in the 1930s, he was languishing. In 1931, Johnson wanted Wright’s work represented in a traveling Museum of Modern Art show he was organizing. Wright agreed but later withdrew; his letter included a snide remark about Johnson’s homosexuality. Only after Lewis Mumford interceded did Wright capitulate. The show helped resuscitate Wright’s career. In 1935, he designed an iconic home for a wealthy client in Pennsylvania: Fallingwater; Johnson “always spoke grudgingly of [it].” They continued to compete: Wright did the Guggenheim Museum, Johnson did the Seagram Building. Howard describes them as a “dog and a cat forced to share the same home.” In 1949, Johnson finished his most iconic structure, the Glass House, as something of a rebuttal to Wright’s now-famous “waterfall cottage,” as Wright called it. Minimalist and modern, Johnson’s own residence outside New Haven was made of glass and framing, “akin to a plain black frame on a photograph.” Over time, Johnson came to recognize the value of their “odd alliance,” finally admitting Wright was the greater architect.
New light is shed on both architects in this absorbing, well-organized, delightfully told story.