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Modern Architecture's Most Intense Rivalry

In Architecture's Odd Couple, historian Hugh Howard examines the fraught relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson.

[Photos: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images, Horst P. Horst/Condé Nast/Getty Images]

The following passage, excerpted with permission from Architecture's Odd Couple by Hugh Howard (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), describes the start of a rocky relationship between star architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson. The two men started corresponding in 1931 when Johnson, then a young curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, started putting together the groundbreaking exhibition, International Style, and Wright, almost 40 years Johnson's senior and already a famous architect, was preparing work for the exhibition.

Ever the class bad boy, Frank Lloyd Wright had executed Philip Johnson Johnson’s assignment in his own way. Though he designed his submission specifically for the International Exhibition, Wright resisted the label; rather than international, he believed, "the house itself...might truthfully be called twentieth-century style."

His inspiration flowed first, as it always did, from the proposed site. His House on the Mesa was to be native to its setting, which was several flat, elevated acres with a panoramic vista of the Rocky Mountains. In the late 1920s, he had made a series of automobile trips to Arizona, where several of his projects were either in the works or in the planning stage. En route he observed terrain that appealed to him—again, he prided himself on his "fresh eye," and perhaps more than anything else, varied landscapes stimulated his imagination. When asked to submit a design to Johnson’s MoMA show, Wright recalled his travels through portions of Colorado, which offered stunning contrasts to the Midwest.

A visit he had made to a site on a trip to Denver to deliver a lecture, in December 1930, came to mind. Wright and his wife, Olgivanna, had been welcomed by a wealthy businessman named George Cranmer to his 22-room home, constructed on the highest point in the city’s fashionable Hilltop neighborhood. To Wright’s eye, the Renaissance revival-style house looked better suited to the Apennines than a mesa in central Colorado, but its parklike setting, swimming pool, stables, and gardens were still in his mind when he received Johnson’s invitation a few months later to contribute to the MoMA exhibition.

The model of the House on the Mesa that arrived belatedly in New York, in February 1932, retained the horizontal quality for which Wright was celebrated. But this house was not a Prairie Style home. Intending to reflect the "sweep of the mesa," he designed an expansive set of structures that stretched some 360 feet end to end. Wings extended from the main axis of the house to embrace the garden and two water features, as a swimming pool was elevated above a much larger sunken lake nearby. Wright designed a distinct structure for the garage and service quarters; a main block to contain the bedrooms; and a wing with billiard room, living room, and roof terrace. An open "sun-loggia" ran the length of the house, the backbone of the F-shaped plan.

Wright’s structural design called for use of the concrete-block system he had developed in 1923 ("textile block construction," he called it), employing patterned cast blocks, stiffened with steel reinforcing bars. However, he hadn’t been entirely deaf to the Internationalists’ conversation, as this new design simplified the look, using more plain blocks and fewer patterned ones, a shift that was symptomatic of other adjustments that Wright incorporated into his design for exhibition at MoMA.

To the careful listener, Wright’s lecture at the Denver Art Museum in 1930 hinted at new thinking. "Architecture of the future," he had told his audience, "will mean extensive use of glass, simplification of form, freedom of space, comfort, and utility," sentiments curiously akin to some of those Barr enumerated in the catalog for Modern Architecture: International Exhibition. To the careful observer, Wright’s use of cantilevered concrete roof slabs in the design of the House on the Mesa might have been seen as resembling their use in a widely known design by Miës van der Rohe for a country house dating to 1923.

The fenestration was also revealing—though not of immense sheets of plate glass like those used in Miës’s Tugendhat House, Wright had designed window walls. His glass walling on the house’s upper level, rather like stair risers and treads, stepped up and out, with only the downward-facing horizontal panes opening to permit air flow while the fixed vertical glass would block the strong winds of the exposed site. Cantilevered concrete floated above, suspending the glass screen in space.

Wright accomplished what he had said he would: The House on the Mesa was a "boundless new expression in Architecture, as free, compared with post and lintel, as a winged bird compared to a tortoise, or an aeroplane compared with the truck." Though not a certified International Style house—Wright hadn’t eliminated all ornament in favor of sleek, smooth surfaces—the flat-roofed House on the Mesa showed Wright moving the MoMA way.

Even if Johnson and exhibit co-curator Henry-Russell Hitchcock chose not to pay heed to Wright’s subtly shifting thinking, the man from Taliesin was certainly listening to the larger international conversation. He had adapted some of the principles the MoMA men cherished, including industrial materials, glass walls, and smooth surfaces.

Wright had decided to come along for the ride: He understood that a house need not be defined by its footprint alone but also by the form it took on rising into space. He was no convert—he was no one’s disciple, ever—but he was looking around thoughtfully, just as the Europeans had given his Wasmuth portfolio serious consideration (Miës: "The work of this great master presented [in circa 1910] an architectural world of unexpected force, clarity of language and disconcerting richness of form"). The Europeans had adopted his free-flowing floor plans; and Wright’s House on the Mesa was closer to the work of the International Style of the Europeans than Johnson and Hitchcock could (or Wright would) acknowledge.

Certainly Johnson understood that Wright’s entire career had been an assault on the traditional view of architecture as plain boxes; as Hitchcock wrote of Wright, he "was the first to conceive of architectural design in terms of planes existing freely in three dimensions rather than in terms of enclosed blocks." With the House on the Mesa he showed signs of moving away from ornament, even a willingness to think in terms of volumes, making the house grow larger as it rose. But Johnson still saw Wright as the outsider, and according to Johnson, the House on the Mesa was "a striking example of Wright’s individuality and his skill in adapting a house to its surroundings. Hitchcock concluded it was merely "a striking aesthetic statement of romantic expansiveness." In response, Wright bristled.

Inevitably the critique of the International Exhibition came from within. To the consternation of Johnson, Hitchcock and MoMA founding director Alfred H. Barr Jr.—though surely not to their surprise—the man from the Midwest, armed with verbal slings and arrows, clambered out of the Trojan horse they had invited into their midst and attacked.

Wright had good reason to lash out. Two publications accompanied the show. The first to appear was the catalog, published by MoMA and bearing the same name as the exhibition, Modern Architecture: International Exhibition. Soon to follow was the independent book that Johnson and Hitchcock had been at work on since the summer of 1930, released as The International Style Since 1922. Taken together, the two volumes constituted something of a manifesto, and as the exhibition did, made the case that, having seen architecture’s future, the authors had identified it as the International Style.

Crucial to the underlying argument was the placement of Wright in the architectural past, and the New York Times and other papers picked up the message. Wright’s fears had indeed been realized: Upon viewing him in the context of the Europeans, Art News found his work wanting: "After continued contemplation of the new modes, even the work of such moderns as Frank Lloyd Wright begins to look overloaded and fussy."

In his carefully crafted foreword to the catalog, Alfred Barr had set up Wright’s demotion. He described Wright as "a passionately independent genius whose career is a history of original discovery and contradiction...[and] his work, complex and abundant, remains a challenge to the classic austerity of the style of his best younger contemporaries." In short, Barr said, Wright was "one of the style’s most important sources." As for Johnson and Hitchcock, they didn’t even bother to find a place for Wright’s work in The International Style Since 1922; he and his designs were omitted altogether.

Wright decided that he had been no more than a tool in the hands of the MoMA men, that his status in their exhibition was that of an antique and an outlier. He said as much to Philip Johnson: "I no longer count...because I am historical...[so] I insist that every trace of my name in connection with your promotion be removed from the show when the show at the Museum of Modern Art closes." Since the exhibition was booked to travel to fourteen more American cities where Wright was expected to be a significant draw, Johnson once again felt himself on the brink of disaster.

A new scramble to placate Wright ensued and, again, he relented. This time Johnson arranged for publication of a Wright essay in the magazine Shelter, in which Johnson had recently invested. Even when Wright’s article appeared (titled "Of Thee I Sing," it was an unbridled attack on European Modernism), he had further complaints. "[My article] appears with objectionable editorial comment under an objectionable pirated photograph of the damaged model of the ‘House on the Mesa’ taken from an objectionable angle that best serves your objectionable propaganda." Furthermore, Wright was irked that an editor’s note preceding "Of Thee I Sing" condescendingly described it as a "clarification."

Wright vented his anger again, offering his most picturesque outburst to date. He lambasted the entire MoMA team, including the other architects in the show, but placed the biggest blame squarely on Johnson. "In short, Philip my King, a strange undignified crowd you are, all pissing through the same quill or pissing on each other. I am heartily ashamed to be caught with my flap open in the circumstances."

Wright addressed the letter to Johnson, but Hitchcock drafted his reply first, penning it in the heat of the moment. He expressed his shock that Wright "should descend to unanswerable vulgarity." Hitchcock attempted to respond to some of Wright’s specific comments, but his hurt feelings repeatedly bled onto the page. "I must say that at last I am convinced that there is no future reason for attempting to remain on working terms with you," he wrote in the letter’s opening lines. In its last ones, he added, "I regret now that we have ever begun to know you personally." In between, he joined the pissing match himself, offering, "I suppose you can comfort yourself with the consolation—a proud one it is—that Michelangelo was impossible to get on with—and posterity has forgiven him."

After pondering the matter for a few additional days, Johnson chose a different tack. He held his fire, shrugging off Wright’s insults, and assumed a more apologetic tone. He admitted to being "greatly upset" by Wright’s letter, but added, "There have been many misunderstandings on both sides...[and] I myself am not clear as to what mistakes I may have made in interpreting your point of view."

Johnson played diplomat, expressing the wish that they meet in person to talk things over. He even proposed taking Wright up on his repeated invitations to come to Taliesin, admitting, in a placating tone, "I feel as strongly as ever that I have a great deal to learn, much more so after this experience of trying to make an exhibition." Johnson’s letter was evidence of one lesson he had learned: To snipe back at Wright would only provoke the man further. Johnson’s curatorial role had placed him in the middle, with an implied responsibility to act the role of mediator; thus, his moderate tone.

That didn’t mean he had shifted his thinking. What he didn’t say to Wright was that his essential view of Wright as Prairie Style architect remained. Just the weekend before he had written to Oud in Rotterdam, telling the Dutchman, "Frank Lloyd Wright was included only from courtesy and in recognition of his past contributions."

Yet Johnston had demonstrated himself a worthy adversary. As if in compliance with some warrior code, Wright had tested the young man’s tenacity, his flexibility, his ability to do a big, brave thing—and Johnson had passed. Not long after his third threatened withdrawal from the show, Wright extended an invitation. "Of course, you will be welcome at Taliesin at any time," he wrote to Johnson. "Any feeling I have in this whole matter is directly personal to no one."

Johnson took Wright at his word, agreeing to visit in July. The timing meant that he arrived shortly after Wright’s first viewing of the International Exhibition.

Wright’s finances had precluded a trip to New York in February, and having missed the first edition of the International Exhibition at MoMA, he went instead to Chicago’s Sears, Roebuck building in June (it would be one of the show’s two non-museum stops, the other in Los Angeles, at luxury department store Bullocks Wilshire). Despite its evident popularity—Wright described having to elbow his way through a "jammed crowd"—the exhibition itself, predictably enough, failed to win him over. Attempting as usual to offer the last, best bon mot, he dismissed what he saw in Chicago as "the exhibit of Phil. Johnson’s traveling ‘Punch and Judy’ for European modernism."

Late in June, Johnson and Hitchcock traveled to Chicago to conduct research for another architectural show at MoMA (Early Modern Architecture: Chicago 1870–1910, which would open the following January, posed the argument that Chicago, not New York, was the birthplace of the skyscraper). Despite the ebb and flow of hard words during the preceding months, the two Easterners took a break from their research into the three architects that they had cast as their protagonists for the Chicago exhibition (H. H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Wright). Heading northwest, they drove the two hundred miles to the verdant Helena Valley in Wisconsin to spend a long July weekend.

They sought the sprawling domicile that sat just shy of the hilltop. Johnson first spied Wright’s characteristic "great sheltering roof," as he put it. Like the wings of an unimaginably large eagle, the low-pitched hips seemed to float at the horizon line on the ridge. As the visitors approached, however, another aspect of the house’s character grew more apparent.

As if Frank Lloyd Wright’s once-manorial house hadn’t been sufficiently ravaged by two disastrous fires, the whims of its owner were once again being visited upon the place: Wherever he lived, Wright was never content to stop changing things. Taliesin most definitely remained a work in progress, and Johnson would recall Wright’s home on this visit as a construction site with "no phone...two-by-fours under all the cantilevers, and plumbing [that] didn’t work."

Once inside, Johnson, to his surprise, warmed to what he saw. "The living room at Taliesin East felt very intimate," Johnson observed, despite its large size and miscellany of contents, which ranged from drafting tables and chairs to a great hearth. "The room just kept growing with the people," Johnson remembered, "and it was intimate the whole time."

Unexpectedly impressed by what he saw, Johnson asked Wright directly, "How in hell did you do this particular space?"

Wright offered no prescription. "He didn’t have the foggiest notion," Johnson remembered. "It just came naturally, like Mozart’s music to Mozart."

Wright offered only, "I do it the way a cow shits."

The time at Taliesin helped foster a Wright-Johnson-Hitchcock rapprochement. Although its principal subject would be the emergence of the skyscraper, the Chicago show that opened at MoMA a few months later featured the Winslow House, an early design of Wright’s that could be decoded as compressing the base-shaft-capital approach to the skyscraper that Sullivan favored. The Winslow House (1892–93) had been Wright’s first independent building. Johnson and Hitchcock in their catalog would call Wright "a disciple of Sullivan," a characterization Wright again quickly rejected. The catalog’s last entry read, "Leaving the field of commercial building, [Wright] created a new domestic style which was to affect the course of modern architecture profoundly."

The cold shoulder Hitchcock had directed toward Wright had clearly begun to thaw; Mumford noticed it even before Hitchcock himself did, wryly observing to Wright that "the learned Hitchcock . . . has almost become a disciple of yours, much though you might prefer to see him remain on the hostile side of the fence." Mumford’s note may have prompted one from Wright a month later, asking Hitchcock obliquely, "We see too little of each other...?"

The three men made an odd trio as they looked out over Wright’s acreage. Wright gave Johnson and Hitchcock the tour, and they admired the Hillside Home School (though Johnson also described it as a "total wreck"). The somewhat slovenly Hitchcock, who tended to bathe infrequently, his red beard unkempt, wore a pink shirt. The host, Mr. Wright, was the distinguished dandy, wearing a bespoke hat made by a hatter on the Place Vendôme in Paris. And the youthful but confident Johnson dressed in "lavender trousers, white shoes and pale green shirt," the utterly charming impresario who had proposed the exhibition that had been their field of battle. He had persuaded the board of trustees to proceed, chosen the architects, and installed the show. He had bullied Hitchcock into completing the text of the catalog (Hitchcock’s prose could grow convoluted, and Johnson had a lifelong gift for easy, aphoristic speech), and Johnson had edited the manuscript. All the while he had blithely treated Wright like a second-class citizen.

In Spring Green, however, their disagreements seemingly forgotten, Wright treated Johnson and Hitchcock as honored guests. Johnson reported Wright was "unfailingly polite, unfailingly generous," but Johnson thought he knew why. Wright permitted himself to overlook a great deal in those as passionate as he. "What appealed to him about Russell and me," Johnson concluded, "was that we were really interested in the art of architecture."

For Johnson, the show had been a rite of passage. He had told Barr his ambition was to be influential; the International Exhibition was a fulfillment of that wish. Johnson wanted people to pay attention.

Architecture was his vehicle, he had realized, eighteen months before as he gorged himself on Modernist buildings. It was the first time, he admitted with delight, that he knew "enough about anything . . . to be boring to people." Apparently he liked the sensation because, when Barr gave him the chance, he had taken charge.

His inexperience had suited the circumstances: No procedures were in place, little museum infrastructure, and few expectations. The galleries even lacked guards. "It was just a couple of people getting round a table," Johnson recalled of the exhibition’s making. "The 1932 show was done from my bedroom. I just talked to the printer and he came in and grabbed the stuff off my hands and that’s the way the catalogue was done. I just traveled and saw the stuff and took it off the architects’ tables. There was nothing to it."

On the other side, the wrestling match with Johnson and Hitchcock had brought out the best in Wright. In the years that followed, he aimed for new creative heights with a renewed energy, and some of the credit for stimulating him must fall to Johnson. The older man took a philosophical view of his relations with his critics: As Wright had written to Philadelphia Museum of Art director Fiske Kimball several year earlier, another man he regarded as no more sympathetic to the Wright way than the MoMA men, "You are a friendly enemy. They make ultimately the best friends."

On July 2, 1932, Alfred Barr named Johnson chairman of the museum’s newly established Department of Architecture. Johnson, the perpetual-motion man, would make exhibitions his mission for more than two years, and a series of shows went up under his aegis, including Machine Art, a collection of contemporary machine-made objects that won him admiring reviews in the New York papers ("Our best showman," offered the New York Sun, "and probably the world’s best"). He was regarded as a young man in a hurry—his co-workers recalled him as running, not walking, as he made his way around the museum, with a half dozen more shows to his credit before he suddenly resigned in December 1934, leaving Alfred Barr and art and architecture as abruptly as he had adopted them that afternoon in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He was restless to be influential in other arenas.

Even after Johnson’s departure, his view of Wright remained in place at MoMA for a few years; it become standard terminology at the museum in the mid-thirties to reference Wright, together with Sullivan, as "Half Modern." But Johnson also applied a clever aphorism of his own devising to the man with whom he had established an oddly symbiotic relationship. His words weren’t complimentary (nor were they intended to be); Johnson would not utter them publicly for Wright to hear for another twenty years. But his friends in those days recalled hearing his summary judgment.

Wright was, quipped Johnson, "the greatest architect of the nineteenth
century."

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