Philip Johnson’s Glass House is more than the epitome of International Style and more than a temple of Modernism. The Glass House, as the architect’s estate is known, is a modernist experience with a capital “E,” one that reawakens an appreciation for the major architectural, art and design movements of the second half of the Twentieth Century.
During Johnson’s lifetime (1906′005), the only way to view the Glass House, its counterpart, the Brick House, and the other visionary structures on Johnson’s 47-acre estate, was to be an invited guest.
The majority of connoisseurs had to be content with Johnson’s commercial ventures. Fortunately, they stretch across the United States like diadems of glass and steel. Among his International Style and post-Modernist buildings are California’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, the IDS Center in Minneapolis, New York City’s AT&T building (now Sony Plaza), the Lipstick Building and Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater.
For foodies with aesthetic leanings, there was also the option of dining in the Johnson-designed Four Seasons Restaurant on the ground floor of the Seagram Building in New York City, a construction on which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Johnson collaborated. A glorious double header for sure, but still a far cry from New Canaan where Johnson was his own client and played with form without having to adhere to the restrictions of a commission.
To visit the Glass House in its heyday was not only to see architectural projects that changed the way America worked and lived, but also to mingle with the creative giants and trendsetters of the times. Mies van der Rohe, Alfred Barr, Lincoln Kirstein, A.M. Stern, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and David Grainger Whitney †Johnson’s life- and creative partner †were as much a part of the landscape of the Glass House as the ancient stone walls and manicured forests that the 1949 structure looks out on.
Upon Johnson’s death, the property came under the stewardship of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. On April 30, the past transitioned into the future as the Glass House opened to the public. Access is limited to groups of ten escorted by a docent †one group on the property at a time. It is a strategy that offers intimacy and the feeling of going one-on-one with Johnson’s immense creativity and obvious love of art.
“We have tried to leverage the physical with the cultural and historical,” Christy MacLear, director of the Philip Johnson Glass House, explained.
In addition to choreographing as personalized a Glass House experience as possible, MacLear’s multipronged strategy initiates the New Canaan Modern Home Survey, part of an overall program called “Preserve the Modern” that could lead to landmark status for some of the homes. Glass House Fellowships for young designers will be launched in 2008-2009. It is all part of an effort to bring new understanding to Modernism because, MacLear said, paraphrasing Johnson, “You cannot know the future without first knowing the past.”
The Glass House makes the overriding principles of International Style Modernism palpable. Academically stated as architectural volume over mass (planes rather than solidity), indifference to symmetry and absence of applied decoration, the form has had as many critics as proponents.
Looking at the Glass House from the outside and then experiencing it from within is a Eureka moment that suddenly makes the aesthetic crystal clear. The later structures on the property advance Modernism’s basic premise and surface Johnson’s obvious delight in toying with form, broadening it with classical allusions and evolving what would become known as post-Modernism. There are moments when, looking at the buildings, it is easy to believe that Johnson was in conspiracy with the elements, conjuring such things as a berm structure and, toward the end of his life, a “structured warp.” The reality check is the occasional mistake that has been abandoned, but not before turning it into something practical, like a doghouse on the property.
Such is the legacy of a man who did not embrace architecture as a profession until he had achieved success as a critic, historian and director of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) fledgling department of architecture. Johnson’s landmark 1932 exhibition titled “The International Style” introduced modern architecture to the American public. The Glass House established him as a leading arbiter of design.
For a see-through structure minimally furnished, the Glass House is remarkably cozy. Perhaps it is the proportions or the location, a crest surrounded by four seasons worth of changing land- and skyscape. Or perhaps it is simply that one should not make assumptions based on appearance. The Glass House literally proves, as Johnson once declared, that “the only real test for architecture is to build a building, go inside and let it wrap itself around you.”
Inside, everything from a comfortably worn, tufted prototype of Mies’s famous chaise to Nicolas Poussin’s “Burial of Phocion,” which was selected by Alfred Barr, MoMA’s first director, is arranged according to Johnson’s plan. Even the tabletop items have a specific layout.
Conceived as a composition with the Glass House is the Brick House. Usually cropped from photographs of the Glass House, Brick House serves a dual purpose. It contains the support systems for the Glass House as well as guest quarters with a bedroom and library. Brick House’s only windows, other than skylights, are three portholelike forms on the rear of the building. Johnson said they allude to Filippo Brunelleschi’s Fifteenth Century Duomo in Florence.
Brick House was completed before Glass House, and it was in the vaulted bedroom based on the breakfast room of Sir John Soane’s London home that Johnson spent his first nights at the property. In the library, Gaetano Pesce chairs offer a colorful counterpoint.
Calling the estate his “50-year diary,” Johnson designed it in a way that flowered over time. In 1955-56, he added to the glass and brick composition a circular concrete pool with a rectangular platform. It seems to effortlessly offset an early Donald Judd concrete installation near Brick House.
Approximately a decade later, Johnson completed the Painting Gallery, a remarkable structure composed of circular rooms embedded in the side of a mound. Johnson cited the Treasury of Atreus (circa 1250 BC), a Mycanaen tomb, as his inspiration. It has been suggested that the berm structure was also influenced by the earthwork sculptures of Walter de Maria and Michael Heizer.
Three circular underground galleries hold Johnson and Whitney’s collection of contemporary paintings. Poster racks filled with modern art in storage swing out, much like a gigantic Rolodex laid on its side. At one time, Johnson thought this could be a model for a small museum, but later adjusted that opinion based on security issues. That controversy did not prevent him from creating private earth berm structures like the 1965 Geier House in Cincinnati, Ohio.
On the walls and poster racks of the Painting Gallery are works by Johnson’s lifelong friend Frank Stella, Whitney’s chum Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, David Salle, Cindy Sherman and Julian Schnabel. Circular stools designed by Poul Kjaerholm provide the furniture design element.
The Sculpture Gallery nearby, one of three buildings not yet open to visitors, was completed in 1960. A brick cavity wall construction with canted glass roof, it gives a nod to the many stepped villages of the Greek Islands where, as Johnson noted, “every street is a staircase to somewhere.” The interior comprises a series of squares set at 45-degree angles to each other that can only be approached by stairs. Light pours through the slatted roof, creating shifting precisionist patterns that play on the walls and sculptures by Stella, George Segal, Brice Marden, John Chamberlain, Robert Morris and Andrew Lord.
The hub of creativity, Johnson’s private office, is set off on the side of a hill, with no path, as though perched there. A single room with a conical dome and fireplace, it was completed in 1980. Housed here are Johnson’s architectural books, a Parson’s-style desk and a prototype pair of Frank Gehry’s ribbon chairs. The one window in the library looks out on the “Ghost House,” a playful structure constructed of cyclone fencing that pays homage to Frank Gehry’s use of unusual materials. (Neither the library nor Ghost House are currently open.)
And then there is Da Monsta (begging to be pronounced with a hip-hop inflection). Completed in 1995, it is a capricious structure with almost as many influences as angles and planes. Johnson credited its genesis to the works of Gehry, Peter Eisenman, renowned Stamford, Conn.-based architect, and German Expressionist Hermann Finsterlin. However, the Da Monsta’s first model was called “Dresden Zwie” (Dresden Two) after the Stella design for a Dresden museum.
A far cry from the rectilinear shapes of the International Style, and bearing no relationship to post-Modernism, Da Monsta is a “structured warp” that could be a harbinger of future designs.
Like all the buildings at the Glass House, it, too, contains a surprise †in this case, a wood sculpture of towering form, flirty planes and jaunty angles that is the original prototype for Johnson’s last residential commission, the Urban Glass House on the western fringe of SoHo. (Because it was too tall for the site, a modified design was recently completed.)
Among the lesser structures that Johnson designed is the Lake Pavilion, completed in 1964. Viewable from the Glass House, it is a simple platform beneath a canopy of arches. Only 6 feet tall, Lake Pavilion could be nothing more than a folly were it not for the fact that Johnson built it around the time he was working on arches for the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. Not far away, precariously situated on a hill slope, there is a stepped sculpture called the Lincoln Kirstein Tower. Resembling an adult version of a jungle gym, it begs to be climbed. And climbed it has been. The incentive, other than its seductive form, is the secret inscription at the top, put there by Johnson. The inscription has never been printed.
Being designers’ designers, Johnson and Whitney left nothing to chance, not even the rolling countryside on which the buildings and structures stand. So meticulous were they in making sure every branch was in proportion, every canopy as luxurious as it could be, that nothing escaped manipulation. Amy Grabowski, director of external affairs, relates a telling anecdote: after Johnson’s death, when Whitney was still alive and preparing the new stewards for their forthcoming role, he noticed a groundskeeper sucking up pine needles. Whitney became very upset and ordered them replaced. Now when weeding is to be done, the pine needles are removed, the weeding tended to and the pine needles replaced.
Mies put it best †”God is in the details.”
Finally, there is but one component that seems to be lacking from this well of creativity, and that is the creativity of the performing arts. While there may have been many occasions that celebrated music, theater and dance, one stands out among the others. In 1967, Merce Cunningham, whose company was then in need of financial support, created a site-specific piece for the Glass House.
It was an historic occasion, attended by patrons of the arts. That singular performance will be recreated during the Inaugural Gala Picnic on June 22.
Appropriately, the Glass House opens to the public at a time when Modernism in all its forms is enjoying a renaissance. Visitors to the Glass House will find that the curators have gone to great lengths to assure that everything †from graphic standards to the commissioned works of young designers inspired by the Glass House †are in keeping with the aesthetic.
The Glass House is currently open to the public by appointment only through October, every day except Tuesday. For advance registration and tickets, 203-594-9585 or visit www.philipjohnsonglasshouse.org .