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Architecture’s Odd Couple:
Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson

By Hugh Howard
Bloomsbury Press, 2016
Reviewed by Alex Beam

Praise first: Hugh Howard is a honey of a writer. He has a fluid and descriptive prose style, and if you are looking for capsule biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson, Howard delivers both here. Architecture’s Odd Couple treats the reader to lengthy digres­­sions on the creation of the Museum of Modern Art, the construction of Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater — Johnson said it “excited his bladder” — and 25 fascinating pages on the Guggenheim Museum.

So . . . what does the Guggenheim have to do with Johnson, who is mentioned only once in that chapter? Well, nothing. Howard gamely records that Wright’s Guggenheim and “Johnson’s” Seagram Building were “rising simultaneously” in Manhattan, in “an undeclared compe­ti­tion.” It’s hard to imagine two buildings that have less to do with each other. Pier Luigi Nervi’s Modernist George Washington Bridge bus terminal was being built around the same time. Was that part of the competition, too?

Howard’s dubious attribution of the Seagram Building to Johnson raises a second big problem with this book, in addition to the well-scripted padding. The author wants us to believe that The Master and The Magpie are the two “grand men of American architecture,” who would become “inextricably linked in the evo­lu­tion of mid-twentieth-century architecture.” 

Really? To prop Johnson up to Wright’s level, Howard takes a number of liberties. It’s pretty rich, for instance, to attribute the magnificent features of the Seagram Building to Johnson. In her 2013 book, Building Seagram, Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Seagram’s founder Sam Bronfman, wrote: “Although Mies [van der Rohe] was unquestionably the archi­tect of Seagram, Philip’s interest in what one can best call ‘atmospheric lighting’ would be the source of his major contributions to the building.” 

Howard does admit to some doubts about Johnson’s overall role in the Seagram project but then concludes: “Whatever Johnson’s contribution to the overall look, his work . . . clearly elevated him to the A-list of New York architects.”

Whatever, indeed. The false equivalence that places Johnson on a plane with Wright permeates the book. Howard makes much of Johnson’s elegant 1942 thesis project for Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the courtyard residence at 9 Ash Street in Cambridge. But even he concedes that the house “bore an unmistakable resemblance to a Mies design”; 9 Ash is a so-called Mies courthouse run through a Xerox machine, which didn’t exist at the time. 

Howard then devotes a whole chapter gassing about Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. Even Johnson admitted this famous borrowing was Mies’s Farnsworth House dumped on the ground, instead of magically hovering on angel-white, 5-foot-tall rolled steel girders. “The idea of a glass house comes from Mies van der Rohe,” Johnson wrote in a monograph on his glass house. “My debt is therefore clear.” 

Howard makes Wright and Johnson out to be great rivals, but I don’t see much evidence that the two men interacted at all. Johnson barely appears (three Index mentions) in Meryle Secrest’s 634-page Wright biography. In two of those three appearances, he is being blown off by Wright’s hostile quips. The most famous one occurred just before a Wright appearance at Yale, in 1955. “Philip!” Wright shouted, seeing Johnson in the crowd. “I thought you were dead. Little Phil, an architect, all grown up, and actually building his houses out in the rain.”

That was payback for Johnson’s sugges­tion that Wright was “the greatest American architect of the 19th century,” a jab that Wright never forgot nor forgave.

When Johnson visited Wright at his Taliesin headquarters in 1945, Wright murmured, “Ah, the prince visits the king.” There are, indeed, fascinating odd-couple rivalries in 20th-century architecture —  Johnson and Mies, to name just one. But this is not one of them.

Alex Beam recently published The Feud, a book about modern literature’s odd couple, Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson.

The Tale of Tomorrow: Utopian Architecture in the Modernist Realm
Edited by Robert Klanten and Sofia Borges
Gestalten, Berlin, 2016
Reviewed by Hubert Murray FAIA 

A mostly pictorial collection of cool-looking architecture from the mid-1940s to the mid-’70s, The Tale of Tomorrow amounts to not much more than a crisply printed, highly eclectic collection of unconventional buildings and their architects.

Many of the architects and their buildings are familiar to students of this period: Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Eero Saarinen, Kenzo Tange, Louis Kahn, and Buckminster Fuller are represented. There are, too, the lesser knowns and under-recognized: Bruce Goff and Herb Greene working in Oklahoma and the Southwest; Zvi Hecker in Jerusalem and the Negev; John Lautner in California; Bertrand Goldberg in Chicago; and Lina Bo Bardi, an astounding Italian architect who built prodigiously in São Paolo. Then there are the ranks of the obscure, such as Jean Daladier, a French geodesic enthusiast; André Waterkeyn, archi­tect of the Atomium, icon of the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958; and Piet Blom, author of the Kubuswoningen, 38 upended cubes in Rotterdam, intended as affordable living quarters.

Notwithstanding the bemused delight one has in reviewing these oddities, the two principal authors are uncertain guides. Definitions are hard to pin down. “Tomorrow,” “utopian,” and “Modernist” are used interchangeably, with “optimism,” “idealism,” and “futurism” thrown in for good measure. These terms can surely be blended into a utopian vision, but the reverse is not always true. To be a Modernist, a futurist, an optimist, or even an idealist does not necessarily constitute utopianism. Utopianism is primarily a social and economic vision of the future, of which built form is only a secondary feature, a reflection of an ideal. 

This confusion of meaning and expression is revealed in Klanten’s introduction: “We thought we could cast a better world in raw concrete and sweeping glass and cantilever it over the edge of our flawed present, over the chasm of our human failings, and into the open, untouched air of an ideal future . . . it felt like architecture might save the world.” Classic utopians such as Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and Ebenezer Howard (each of whose architectural legacies are models of elegant design) would have flinched at the idea of architectural design being the primary goal of an ideal society. It is the architecture and the planning that is at the service of, and a reflection of, the ideal social and economic relations they had in mind. 

Confusion extends into the arrangement of the four main chapters. “The Road to Modernism”; “Houses of Love and Freedom”; “Social Utopias”; and “Spiritual Sculptures” each suggest a reasonable way of classifying the diverse material, only to be confounded throughout with an arrangement by architect, not by type. Thus, for instance, William Pereira’s Transamerica Pyramid appears under Social Utopias and Ricardo Bofill’s Kafka’s Castle housing development is classified under Spiritual Sculptures.

As with any compendium of selected works, there is also the question of what is in and what is out. If this period fostered utopianism anywhere, surely the newly independent countries of Africa and Asia had dreams for the future. Notably absent are Chandigarh in the Punjab, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew’s University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and Hassan Fathy’s experiments with vernacular housing in postwar Egypt. 

As pure utopianism, the Matromandir (a place of meditation resembling a giant gilded golf ball set in watered lawns) at Auroville in Tamil Nadu, India, is in, but disappointingly, the collective resi­dence for this ashram, Golconde in Pondicherry, an outstanding work of refined Modernism by Antonin Raymond and George Nakashima, is overlooked. In the United States, Modernism is rep­re­sented by numerous individual houses (for example, Monsanto’s House of the Future), but the quintessential utopian visions of this period, Soleri’s Arcosanti in Arizona and Disney’s epcot (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), are inex­plicably absent.

Hubert Murray FAIA is an architect and planner who lives in Cambridge

New Aging
By Matthias Hollwich with Bruce Mau Design
Penguin Random House, 2016
​Reviewed by Philippe Saad AIA 

This book taps into important concepts of the contemporary discourse on aging: fitness of mind and body, the importance of sociali­zation and staying active in your environment, technological connectivity, developing healthy eating habits, downsizing your home and responsibilities, and — most important — embracing and accepting the fact that we are all aging.

The author, principal and co-founder of Hollwich Kushner Architects, takes an optimistic view of life. He conveys an important message beneficial to people of all ages: Life does not end when one gets old, and old age is just another chapter in life — especially if, in some utopian future, we are to live forever! However, the book’s positive take on aging seems to downplay three of the main challenges aging people struggle with — depression, sickness, and poverty — which can weigh down any ambition to live by the recommendations of this guide. 

Without acknowledging these major difficulties, New Aging becomes
a fictional essay with dynamic layouts, coupled with colorful illustrations
of a utopian lifestyle. The book fails to address the nuances of getting old, and it doesn’t elaborate on the tools necessary to guide people through the aging process. Moreover, it doesn’t define its audience, either in regard to age or generation. 

In some of the illustrations and concepts, we can see that the book targets baby boomers; in other illus­trations and chapters, it is Generation X that is the center of discussion (the ones who might live forever). So is the intended audience 40-year-olds who first experience signs of aging, 50-year-olds going through a midlife crisis and depression, or 60-year-olds who are anxious about the next chapter of their lives? In many instances, the book seems to be written from the perspective of, and for, a rich and bourgeois urbanite with a leisurely schedule — someone possibly depressed, struggling to find meaning in life. 

Instead of dwelling on advice about writing memoirs, downsizing respon­sibilities, hiring a contractor to build a room with a view, or advocating for the architectural profession by recom­mending people meet with architects to ensure their bedrooms are suited for a hospital bed when it is needed, I would have liked to hear more about the progressive concept of never retiring (touched upon only very briefly in one chapter). The author could have delved into why the tail end of the baby boomers and subsequent generations might shed the retirement concept entirely, which would have helped clarify New Aging’s audience.

This book uses buzzwords super­fi­cially in an attempt to situate itself in the realm of the aging discourse. It fails on several fronts: from why one should stop denying the aging condition and instead carefully plan the next chapters in life to embrace the inevitable, to why the upcoming generations might never retire and how to go about it. The title could have easily been reduced to its subtitle: “How to live smarter now to live better forever.”

The dimensional guidelines and room checklists offered to the reader represent the book’s saving graces. Condensed and well illustrated, they make accessible the architect’s cheat sheets when designing for an aging population. When it comes to embrac­-ing the aging process, “Dare to ask for help” is the sentence that stands out most. 

Philippe Saad AIA, a senior associate at DiMella Shaffer who has worked on the design of senior-living, multifamily residential, and higher education projects, also serves as president of the nonprofit Greater Ashmont Main Street.