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The Rivalry Between Iconic Architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson

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(GERMANY OUT) FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT (1869-1959). American architect. Wright beside his model for the Guggenheim Museum, New York City. Photographed 1953. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Frank Lloyd Wright beside his model for the Guggenheim Museum, New York City. Photographed 1953. (ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The new book Architecture’s Odd Couple examines the tense, and at times adversarial, relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson, arguably the two most influential American architects of the twentieth century. (And the longest lived, with Wright surviving until age 91 and Johnson reaching 98.)

Philip Johnson, known for his architectural achievements, at his desk in his New York City office. (Photo by Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Philip Johnson at his desk in his New York City office. (Photo by Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Johnson and Wright began corresponding in 1931 when Wright was preparing work for the International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which was curated by Johnson. Wright, who was 40 years older than Johnson, was a handful from the get-go, resisting the show’s modern design theme and fretting over the possibility that the world of architecture was passing him by. He bitterly lamented to Johnson that “I no longer count…because I am historical,” before insisting 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.”

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater House (also known as the Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. Residence) in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, 1970s. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House (also known as the Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. Residence) in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, 1970s. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Johnson, meanwhile, was depending on Wright’s name to generate interest and publicity for his exhibit, even though he thought Wright’s designs were antiquated and overdone. He admitted to friends that he’d only included Wright’s work in the exhibition out of respect for his previous contributions to the field, and had omitted Wright’s work entirely from his 1930 book, The International Style Since 1922. He was forced to mediate between Wright and his own colleagues as Wright’s correspondence got angrier and more personal (“a strange undignified crowd you are, all pissing through the same quill or pissing on each other” is one choice quote), but his view that Wright’s designs were clunky and old-fashioned never changed; he was known to remark that Wright was “the greatest architect of the nineteenth century.”

A blue hour photograph of the Chapel of St. Basil, design by renowned architect Philip Johnson, located on the University of St. Thomas Campus in Houston, Texas, USA. The chapel is well know, not only because it's a Philip Johnson design, but also because it incorporate three geometric forms: a cube, a circle and a linear plane.
A blue hour photograph of the Chapel of St. Basil, design by renowned architect Philip Johnson, located on the University of St. Thomas Campus in Houston, Texas, USA. The chapel incorporate three geometric forms: a cube, a circle and a linear plane. (Getty)

This incident set the tone for their professional relationship. Despite their rivalry, or perhaps because of it, both men influenced each other to produce some of the most enduring, influential architectural work of their time. They could hardly be considered friends, but the book suggests that their relationship was ultimately symbiotic. Click here to order Architecture’s Odd Couple directly from Bloomsbury Publishing.

Architect Philip Johnson with a model of the David Lloyd Kreeger house in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Horst P. Horst/Condé Nast via Getty Images)
Architect Philip Johnson with a model of the David Lloyd Kreeger house in Washington, D.C. (Horst P. Horst/Condé Nast via Getty Images)