Even as odd couples go, Wright and Johnson seem an unlikely choice for a dual biography. The two men interacted with so many cultural giants that Howard could have yoked each to any number of others — Wright and Louis Sullivan, Johnson and Mies van der Rohe. Then there is the matter of the achievement gap. Wright is one of the greatest architects of all time. While Johnson is certainly an important historical figure, Howard concedes that he was a lesser design talent (despite the book jacket’s claims to the contrary). Had it not been for Johnson’s gift for publicity, his famous razor wit, his work at MoMA and the public fascination with his Glass House, it is likely that he would be remembered today as just another accomplished member of the Modernist pack. The other difficulty facing Howard is that Wright and Johnson didn’t pal around all that much. Wright preferred to be as far from the East Coast as possible. For Johnson, New York City was the center of the universe.
So Howard has a case to make. He unpacks the story gradually, giving us a thorough examination of the occasions when Wright and Johnson crossed paths. Along the way, he breaks out to explore that thrilling moment when modernism was taking hold in America
Despite their shared Midwestern origins, the two men took an almost immediate dislike to each other. Wright was almost 40 years older than Johnson when they began corresponding in 1931. Johnson had just started working as a curator under Alfred Barr at the newly formed Museum of Modern Art, and was busy preparing what would be a groundbreaking exhibition on the new International Style. As the most famous architect in America, Wright (or Mr. Wright, as he liked to be called) expected star treatment. But the 24-year-old Johnson, who had an ego to match Wright’s, wasn’t having it. Even though Johnson was not yet a trained architect, he had already begun to see himself as an arbiter of architectural taste. In his view, Wright was a has-been whose best work was behind him. Yet, despite his belief that Wright had “nothing to say” to the new architectural movement, Johnson felt he had to acquiesce to the wishes of the MoMA board and include him in the show. Johnson would later quip that Wright was “the greatest architect of the 19th century.” Wright would forever bristle at his treatment by the “New York boys.”