They were rivals who shaped American architecture, but to call them an ‘odd couple’ overstates their relationship
Frank Lloyd Wright was a true original – creator of buildings both flawed and brilliant, a devout believer in his own genius, nature-loving, midwestern, New-York-hating – who sought to realise an American pioneer spirit, one that broke with the old world of classical columns and pediments. He would speak with quasi-biblical language about the truths he claimed for his life and architecture. He was, arguably, America’s greatest architect.
Philip Johnson was perhaps most at home at his table in the Four Seasons restaurant off Park Avenue, a space of sophistication and great cost created to his designs. He was urbane, Europhile, plagiaristic, fascinated with the superficial, a self-confessed “whore”, sociable, political, an operator both Machiavellian and Mephistophelean. He was a mostly terrible architect, who nonetheless managed to create or assist in some of the most influential buildings of 20th-century America. The critic Paul Goldberger called him “the greatest architectural presence of our time”, which was roughly right – a presence rather than an actual architect.
Johnson was gay, Wright given to homophobic barbs. So they didn’t have much in common. Except that they were also both attention-seekers and masters of self-promotion. Both lived long, Wright to 91 and Johnson to 98, and each reinvented his career more than once. They liked dressing up, Wright in cape and porkpie hat, Johnson in fedora and fine suits. Both made it on to the front cover of Time magazine alongside images of their most famous works – Wright’s house Fallingwater, dramatically suspended over a waterfall, and Johnson’s “Chippendale” skyscraper for AT&T, a tower that looked like 18th-century furniture. They both had unfortunate sympathies for Nazi Germany, Johnson more than Wright. […]