“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 the 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.”