What We're Reading

Looking at architecture as personal passage and national journey

The Philip Johnson Tapes by Robert A. M. Stern

The Philip Johnson Tapes
The Monacelli Press, $40

In 1985, architect Robert A.M. Stern conducted a series of 10 interviews with his long-time friend Philip Johnson, then nearly 80 years old and at the peak of a storied and brilliant career. Published now in one volume, the talks are a revelation, rendering a deeply nuanced portrait of a legendary architect—and an occasionally controversial figure.

In these interviews, Johnson recalls his upbringing in Cleveland and student days at Harvard, as well as the trips taken abroad with his mother—voyages to Greece, Egypt, and Italy that opened his eyes to the splendors of ancient architecture. Johnson's rise was meteoric, and in his mid-20s he helped launch a landmark exhibition of International Style architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. This was the dawn of modernism in America, and Johnson was present from the outset.

Although these conversations provide insight into Johnson's considerable output—which includes the famed Glass House of 1949, that exquisite distillation of geometric transparency in New Canaan, Conn.—they are all the more illuminating on the architect's interior life. We see Johnson as a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality. And we encounter a decidedly unsavory side, as well, one that he would repudiate later in life: his anti-Semitism and attraction to Nazi Germany.

Johnson ran hot and cold with many of his colleagues, and his characterizations are often memorable. Here he is, for example, describing architect Raymond Hood: "Very rough, very bristly … He felt like a hairbrush. Very quick and snappy and impatient." As for Frank Lloyd Wright: "He was a very, very great man. But he and I didn't get along. It was a love-hate relationship from the beginning."

Johnson died in 2005, and his reputation, which rose and dipped throughout his career, is now undimmed. All the more reason to welcome this volume's publication. Not only do the Philip Johnson tapes document the life of a man, they chart nothing less than the evolution of the modern movement. —Sudip Bose

Who Will Love It: American architecture enthusiasts

Where to Keep It: Your place of pride

How to Describe It: Insightful


Roots of Home: Our Journey to a New Old House by Russell Versaci

Roots of Home: Our Journey to a New Old House
The Taunton Press, $45

Russell Versaci has done it again. The Virginia architect who celebrated contemporary interpretations of classic forms in Creating a New Old House delves into the history of traditional American designs in Roots of Home. It's an absorbing and illuminating book that will prove indispensable to students—and just plain admirers—of American houses.

Illustrated with Erik Kvalsvik's luscious photography, this book reads like your favorite-ever art history class. Versaci surveys the country's building traditions, then launches into an absorbing discussion of the four major components of America's architectural heritage: Spanish, French, English, and Continental. Each part is further broken down by building types: the French Creole cottages of the Mississippi Valley, for example, and the French Colonial plantation houses of the Gulf Coast.

Plans and photographs enliven Versaci's narrative, as do sidebars: "Telling Detail" deconstructs architectural elements such as French doors or transoms; my personal favorite, "History Preserved," spotlights a single structure that epitomizes a building style.

Versaci isn't elitist. He embraces thoughtful renovations and additions, and salutes new communities that respect vernacular styles, among them neotraditional neighborhoods in Florida.

With his signature blend of architecture and history, Versaci gives fans of the past, and builders of the present, an inspiring read that will have you clamoring for Volume II. —James H. Schwartz

Who Will Love It: Dreamers hoping to build (or preserve) a traditional house

Where to Keep It: On the kitchen table. You'll want to leaf through leisurely

How to Describe It: Inspiring

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