I have more than a passing interest in architecture. It fascinates me to an extent that is almost diametrically opposed to my views of vernacular architecture in my home country, New Zealand and its population's obsession with home ownership at any and all cost. I am predisposed, biased is probably the proper term to modernism though I think my pervasive disposition is towards humanism in most aesthetic endeavours. Though architecture lives somewhere between aesthetics and functionality in the way Corbusier described houses as 'machines for living'. I tried to commission the design of a home once - to be built at Piha overlooking the beach that was my wife's favourite place. The very well known architect I thought would be our man visited us. For nearly three hours he and I discussed existentialism and classicism in a sweeping arc, not even fuelled by alcohol. We doodled together, shaping the promise of a place with huge living areas - most of them outside because of constraints on the percentage of a site the built structure could occupy. Preliminary drawings were made and paid for but the home was never started. I learned first hand how much fun the process of designing a home could be - and also how important it is to have a rapport with your architect.
I wonder if I would have had a better rapport with either Johnson or Wright? I suspect my admiration would lean towards Wright - he was a genius of the highest order, inventing and imaging new forms for living that referred powerfully to their place in the American landscape. As a mid-westerner through and through his emphasis was on the horizontal, mirroring the great horizons of the plains. He learned his craft as an engineer and a draughtsman in the offices of Louis Sullivan, the father of the Skyscraper who made Chicago the thrusting (literally) capital of the efficient use of vertical space on a small footprint. Wright had a long career - spanning two centuries. As an architecture critic, before becoming an architect himself, Philip Johnson pigeon-holed Wright as the greatest architect of the 19th Century - a jibe that sets in place the foundation of the thesis in this book which contrives to make more of the pair's interaction and relationship than probably truly existed. They are are study in overlapping comparison, rather than lives in close proximity suggested by the title (a reference to Neil SImons' hit play/film/TV show The Odd Couple where neat, uptight Felix Ungar and the slovenly, easygoing Oscar Madison are forced to cohabit by circumstance).
Despite the motif drawing a long bow I found the book easily readable and its material satisfyingly interesting. The depiction of Wright's delivery of the initial drawings for Falling Water make the events gripping and astonishing. I enjoy reading about the ways of creative people. Wright's were idiosyncratic, to say the least. Of course the dwelling he created - for all its flaws in execution - it is 'a 12 bucket house', apparently. A description of the number of vessels required to catch the leaking rainwater from its flat roof design and construction. The Guggenheim museum is also a remarkable tribute to a man who was 90 when ground first broke next to Central Park in Manhattan - a place Wright generally speaking found medieval compare to freedom and space of the mid-west. He died before the museum was complete.
Johnson's trajectory is detailed in the book but it doesn't really end with a satisfying conclusion. He was never Wright's architectural equal - despite his importance in bringing modernism to theUnited States from Europe - mostly via his association with Mies van der Rohe, whom Johnson greatly admired after visiting the Czech home Mies had built, applying the principles of 'less is more' and brutal functionality that would culminate in a collaboration on the Seagram Building in New York city.
The story of the Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut is detailed but in a less visceral way than Wright's escapades - possibly a reflection of the subject matter. I admire The Glass House and have visited it. But compared to the Solomon R Guggenheim museum it is very much chalk to Wright's cheese.
Aside from the over-promise of the premise, student's of architecture and the artistic history of the 20th Century will enjoy this book. I don't think it will shed much new light on the subject materiel for academic audiences or design nerds.
As a footnote I wanted to know more about the Baroness Hilla von Rebay who persuaded Guggenheim to create a museum of 'non-objective art' and who hired Frank Lloyd Wright as its architect. She was the museum's first director but was ousted in a coup on the death of Solomon Guggenheim.
Architecture's Odd Couple
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This blog is a notepad of contemporaneous and sometimes extemporaneous thoughts about creativity, strategy and ideas.