Architect “frenemies”: Philip Johnson and Frank Lloyd Wright

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Philip Johnson was one of the most influential American architects of the past century, and so was Frank Lloyd Wright. Even though they were unlike in architectural style, philosophy and age, historian Hugh Howard argues in “Architecture’s Odd Couple” that the two were “frenemies” who bookended 20th century American architecture.

The Four Seasons
The Four Seasons (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

If you power-lunched in Manhattan in the last 50 years it’s likely you’d have eaten at The Four Seasons, the famed restaurant in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets, designed by Mies Van der Rohe.

Now the restaurant is ending its long run. It is set to close this weekend, and much of its contents will be auctioned off on Tuesday, July 26.

One of the boldface names who held court there for decades was the architect Philip Johnson.

Frank Lloyd Wright, left, and Philip Johnson

“He was a man who had a very important dining table at his favorite restaurant, The Four Seasons,” said historian Hugh Howard. “It was a place where any architect who was anybody or who wanted to be anybody cherished an invitation. And they came and they talked architecture. And having Philip Johnson’s stamp of approval on what you were doing was in the last quarter, say, of the twentieth century, absolutely invaluable because he was the maestro that he was.”

Johnson is one of the most influential American architects of the past century; in large part due to his power as a kingmaker.

And he had a very interesting relationship with another giant of modern architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Their philosophies, tastes and ages could not have been more different. Wright championed nature and organic forms, and spoke out against the steel-and-glass structures of the International Style that Johnson championed.

But Howard argues that the two were “frenemies” in his lively double biography, “Architecture’s Odd Couple.”

“Between the two of them they really bookend 20th century American architecture. That is to say, circa 1900, when Wright was inventing the prairie style and was about to leave his wife and head to Europe and become a world famous personage, thanks to the Weymouth portfolio,” Hughes said.

“At the other end of the century we got Philip Johnson who, if you would have turned on the television in, say, the 1990s, you’d probably find him talking to Charlie Rose or you’d see him on the cover of Time magazine or something like that. He was the chief talking head in American architecture at that point.”

Hear more about the two men and their tense relationship in DnA’s interview with Hugh Howard: