Philip Johnson’s Glass House

If you’re interested in architecture and landscaping, I recommend a trip to New Canaan to see Philip Johnson’s Glass House.  I took a fabulous tour about two weeks ago with my alumni association and learned a lot!  I was familiar with his architectural works such as the Sony Plaza on Madison Avenue, the Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center, and his contributions to the Seagrams Building (which he worked on with Mies van der Rohe), but knew nothing about his life in New Canaan.

Surprisingly, Johnson did not begin his architectural career as an architect, but rather as  the first Director of the Department of Architecture at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), a post he held from 1930 to 1936. Throughout his life he maintained a relationship with the museum, to which he donated over 2,000 works of art, including ones by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg.

In late 1945, Johnson purchased the initial five-acre parcel in New Canaan, which was his weekend retreat.  He cleared the trees, and over the next 50 years continued acquiring land, modifying the grounds, and erecting over a dozen follies, pavilions, and other structures.   Currently the estate is 49 acres.  Johnson felt that architects should also be landscape architects, and you can see how he shaped the property to keep the eye moving but also to surreptitiously reveal what he termed “events on the landscape.”

The Gate and entryway to the Glass House

For Johnson, appearance and ritual were extremely important – the buildings and grounds, invoking elements of ancient Greece and Rome, are designed to orient how you approach a building.  You enter the property through a gate of two colossal columns and proceed procession-like down a path bordered by a pine grove and rolling hills. 

1995 Da Monsta, Frank Stella inspired building

On the left you encounter the last building built on the property – Da Monsta, constructed in 1995, was inspired by Frank Stella’s design for a museum in Dresden, Germany.  

Interior of Da Monsta, built 1995

Made of modified gunnite, Da Monsta uses warped, torqued forms in both it’s exterior and interior, giving you a kind of funhouse feel when you’re standing inside it. (It’s used as a gallery).

The Study

A short distance away, surrounded by tall grass and wetlands you’ll see the Studio, a workspace/library built in 1980, where Johnson kept some 1,400 books on architecture! 

View of Brick House and Glass House

Continuing on the walkway, on the right-hand side you’ll come to the Brick House, which  not only stands opposite the Glass House, but is also oppositional to it, in that brick and glass are reversed, with the portal windows mirroring the round shape of the Glass House’s brick bathroom.  These buildings are two volumes on an exterior courtyard; indeed, the Brick House is considered the other half of the Glass House. Unfortunately the Brick House is closed due to a renovation project. 

The Glass House, photo courtesy of Brett Whysel

The Glass House wasn’t Johnson’s idea;  Mies van der Rohe had discussed the idea with him in the 1940’s, and included the design for his glass house, The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, in the 1947 exhibit of his work at MOMA. However, that house wasn’t built until 1951; Johnson’s Glass House was completed in 1949, whereupon he moved into it, and lived there until his death in 2005.  The Glass House is exactly that – 55 feet by 33 feet, of exterior glass walls (and doors) with one interior room, namely the cylindrical bathroom, made of brick, with a fireplace carved in its “back’’! (My thanks to photographer Brett Whysel who kindly let me use this photo – check out his website!)

Living room in the Glass House

Furniture is laid out so as to imply rooms; the living room contains Mies van der Rohe’s 1929 Barcelona chairs and an area rug; the bedroom is separated from the rest of the house by a row of closets on one side.

View of the Lake Pavilion and the Monument to Lincoln Kirstein

Even though the Glass House is set on a promontory, you can’t see it from the main road. It fits seamlessly into the landscape, offering wonderful views of of the pond and woods beyond, which Johnson remade as an old European wood.  Johnson and his partner David Whitney held weekend dinners/salons here, giving many young architects their start.  From the Glass House you can see the Lakeside Pavilion (very small, not built to scale) and further back the staircase to nowhere, more formally known as Monument to Lincoln Kirstein whom he befriended when they were undergraduates at Harvard.

One Through Zero, Robert Indiana, cortenz steel

On the grounds you’ll find a permanent circular cement sculpture by Donald Judd; this one by Robert Indiana, One Through Zero is on display until November 30th.

Buried Earth Building

The Buried Earth Building (or “the art bunker”) is a red sandstone bermed structure – think tomb of Agamemnon – where he and Whitney kept large-scale works by artists they collected. Whitney, who was a gallery owner, art collector and adviser, had an original eye, and personally knew many of the artists whose work he and Johnson owned, including Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. 

Untitled (Boni Lux), 1993 and La Banana e Buona, 1988, Julian Schnabel

Inside  the very large interior are three rotating “poster-racks” which display two paintings per spindle, allowing you to view six at a time (a total of 42 paintings could be stored this way).  The day I went, Julian Schnabel’s work was on display (and will be until August 14th)   

Light/shadows in the Sculpture Building

We also visited the Sculpture Gallery.  Built in 1970, the glass roof (supported by tubular steel rafters containing cold cathode lighting) creates complex patterns when the sun is at the right angle.  The interior of the 5-level building has a series of bays containing modernist works by George Segal, John Chamberlain, Frank Stella and others.

Johnson died in January, 2005;  Whitney passed away some six months later.  The Glass House is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

I highly recommend a visit.  The Glass House is open for tours on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday between May 1 and November 30;  the tour guides are very knowledgeable.  You might also want to make time to explore New Canaan, which has about 80 Modernist Houses.  If you want to get a bite to eat, I can recommend Solé, 15 Em Street in New Canaan, about a 5-minute walk from the Glass House Visitor’s Center.

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