Stephen Bayley

The original and the copyist

Hugh Howard’s joint biography calls them Architecture’s Odd Couple. But the world-class genius and the fashionable copyist never really had much to do with one another

Architecture is sometimes described as the second oldest profession, but often — in both theory and practice — it competes with the first. In his splendiferous office in Manhattan’s Seagram Building, Philip Johnson confirmed this when he told me, ‘Remember, son, I’m a whore.’ True to his vocation, this was a line he had often indiscriminately used.

Architects need to have big personalities because their responsibilities are so huge. Frank Lloyd Wright said that surgeons can bury their mistakes, but architects have to live with them. And so do the rest of us. Few of us have ever met a reticent, self-deprecating architect.

In the middle of the last century the Institute of Personality Assessment at the University of California performed psychometric tests on leading architects, now the subject of Pierluigi Serraino’s interesting new book The Creative Architect. But really all you have to know about the architectural personality disorder is that Wright was the inspiration for the megalomaniac Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

The title Architecture’s Odd Couple is inspired by Neil Simon’s 1965 Broadway play with two divergent characters: a Mr Tidy Paws who is forced to cohabit with a male slut. Between Johnson and Wright there were also marked contrasts. Johnson, the younger man, was rich, gay, Harvard, metropolitan, squeaky-clean, sleek and not much fussed by principles of any sort. In Germany before the war he had camply noted that the Wehrmacht’s ‘green uniforms make the place look gay and happy’. His schmoozing the Nazis led to a cameo role in CBS reporter William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary (1941) which became notorious. Johnson later apologised, but one suspects he rather enjoyed the notoriety, if not the reason for it.

Frank Lloyd Wright was built from different materials.

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