The Mystic and the Modernist

Review: Hugh Howard, ‘Architecture’s Odd Couple’

Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson
Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson / AP
July 10, 2016

Long gone are the ages of witty, thoughtful insults. Today’s Internet wars are shameless, artless, and ephemeral, further cheapened by anonymity and the hive mind’s attention deficit disorder. But, luckily for us, artifacts of a time when rivals took their intellectual fistfights to print or television still remain.

In his dual biography Architecture’s Odd Couple, Hugh Howard captures the relationship between the eccentric, genius, all-American Frank Lloyd Wright and the wealthy, ambitious, Euro-obsessed architect Philip Johnson. Both men were egotists—one vying not to be forgotten, the other scrambling to make his mark. Their relationship would alternate between enmity and respect throughout the twentieth century, but Wright, a generation older and an inimitable giant, was in a league altogether different from Johnson—and the young architect knew it.

The Harvard-educated Johnson was born into wealth and put a lot of thought into his image: he dressed well and drove fancy cars. The young charmer was something of a ‘superfluous man’ until he took a trip to Europe in the late 1920s. There his love of classical architecture somehow (there’s not a lot of explanation from Howard) transformed into a love of glass houses. The "new architecture" Johnson espoused rejected ornament, prioritized function over symmetry, and promoted "honest" buildings free of facades.

Upon return to America, Johnson became "Modernism’s midwife." He had been planning to introduce the public to all his favorite Europeans, Le Corbusier and the like, in a modernist exhibit at the newly opened Museum of Modern Art—but MoMa’s trustees asked that he include an American or two.

Enter the mid-Western mystic, Wright. Though desperate to regain notoriety after years of scandals—not detailed by Howard—and financial woes, Wright disliked Johnson’s modernism and could not stomach being a mere "contributor" to the show. He withdrew at the last minute by telegram and chastised Johnson and his company as "propagandists" whose buildings all looked the same, no matter the architect. "My way has been too long and too lonely to make a belated bow to my people as a modern architect," he wrote. Johnson returned the favor, dubbing Wright the "greatest architect of the 19th century."

Years later Wright built his masterpiece, Fallingwater, a home suspended on a "tray" over a waterfall, surrounded by lush greenery. He followed a philosophy of "organic architecture:" he built his homes as though they had emerged from the ground, with local materials, harmonious with their landscape—not wholly fabricated in factories, like the modernists. Wright also rejected the idea of a house as a box with walls, instead advocating for free-flowing spaces delineated by self-made furniture—what Johnson later hailed as "the processional element."

While the modernists saw Fallingwater as a "recapitulation" of their own work, Wright claimed it was original. Though Howard is quick to point out aspects of modernism that made their way into Wright’s style, Fallingwater, if anything, one-upped modernism: it sported modernist features, like a flat roof and concrete, while being an immensely livable and beautiful building. As Wright once allegedly said, "we are going to beat the Internationalists at their own game."

Meanwhile, across the pond, Johnson was making a foray in fascism. A lover of "order in society and in buildings," he found himself attracted to Nazism—and under FBI surveillance. After some time, Johnson realized his attempt to curry influence in the realm of politics was failing, and he returned to architecture. He built his ‘masterpiece,’ now known as the Glass House, in the late 1940s—but he was never a natural draftsman like Wright. Nor was he a full-fledged architect until the 1950s. Half-critic, half-architect, Johnson's work was often driven by a desire for beauty and fame, and his designs often imitated the architects he was obsessed with, especially the German Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Of course, Johnson’s Glass House, located on a hill in a traditional New England town, shocked everyone from fellow residents to art critics. Ever the P.R. man, he published a pre-emptive defense of the structure that explained its place in architectural history as well as its classical foundations. Wright made fun of the place incessantly, despite visiting it many times. On one occasion, he stepped inside with a puzzled look on his face. Johnson’s maid waited expectantly until Wright broke the silence: "I don’t know whether I’m supposed to take off my hat or leave it on."

It was only later in Johnson’s life that his personal style, and Wright’s influence, began to show. He grew "bored with glass boxes" and started designing "witty" and "warm" interiors, like the dining room at the Four Seasons in New York. But even his glass house, with its open interior, was Wrightian: it is integrated into surrounding nature by virtue of its transparency, just like Wright’s homes were integrated by way of shape and material. Landscape is its purpose.

During a trip through America in the 1830s, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that there was nothing less poetic than the life of an American. But, he wrote, while Americans did not have great poets, they had poetic ideas: "The American people views its own march across these wilds, draining swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature."

The most American, and poetic, aspect of Wright’s designs is their relationship with the American wilderness. He rejected the uniform, straitjacket look of European modernism—not only because it was ugly, but also because it was undemocratic. Democracy for Wright was not mind-numbing equality; it was the greatest form of aristocracy. In 1939 he wondered aloud to a group of British architects: "Really there is no good reason why a democracy should not have, and be free to will and to possess the best. Is not democracy the highest form of aristocracy that the world has ever seen—the aristocracy of the man, the individual, his qualities as a man making him the aristocrat?"

Johnson, who kept maids his entire life, may have agreed. But he came to his architectural Americanness later in his career, initially following European trends that bucked the bourgeoisie, while Wright consistently built homes that were truly American because they were based on, and embraced their landscape. It is this difference, emphasized perhaps unintentionally by Howard, that serves to underscore Wright’s brilliance. Read Architecture’s Odd Couple for an introduction to Wright’s beautiful buildings, his spectacle of an ego, his architectural-political philosophy, and for his influence on Johnson—the younger, fame-hungry architect who ends up serving as Wright’s aperitif.

Published under: Book reviews