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Monday, January 9, 2012

Philip Johnson's Glass House

(This article first appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Artillery magazine.)

Philip Johnson’s Glass House, completed in 1949, is one of my all-time favorite buildings. Never mind that Johnson borrowed heavily from Mies van der Rohe, or that he also designed a number of notable eyesores: the false-fronted 1001 Fifth Avenue, the Chippendale-crowned, post modern AT&T headquarters (now Sony Plaza) and the pink marble “Lipstick” building—infamous these days as the onetime home to Bernie Madoff’s offices (all in New York City). On the plus side, Johnson also designed the sublime Rockefeller guesthouse and the almost perfect, original MoMA addition and sculpture garden; projects that are more in keeping with the aesthetics of his New Canaan, Connecticut masterpiece.

A sublime structure in a sublime setting, the Glass House is both rich and modest. Built for one, it’s the chicest monastic cell you will ever come across. The design is simplicity itself, composed of a rectangle bisected by a central cylinder that encloses the bathroom and provides housing for the all-important hearth. Aside from glass, brick is the predominant material; used to form the cylinder and to compose the striking herringbone floor, it’s also visible through the windows at the Glass House’s pendant structure, the Brick House. There’s a freestanding galley kitchen that when not in use, is hidden under hinged, wooden panels. Concealed behind a built-in cabinet is the acetic bedroom with the bed, and off to one side, a desk, where Johnson wasn’t ever able to work because he found the view so distracting. (He would eventually build a separate more enclosed structure for his study.) His favorite perch was at the dining room table facing north, from which vantage point, he could admire what he called his “very expensive wallpaper.” The Barcelona chairs, ottomans and récamier, elegant, restrained, sculptural, suit the setting perfectly.

A sizeable Elie Nadelman sculpture, Two Circus Women anchors the south end of the house, helping to define the space. The only other piece of art in the house is a large painting attributed to Poussin that’s mounted on a handsome Johnson-designed stand, a necessity given the glazed walls, but a design solution that turns the painting into an object as opposed to flat, wall decoration. Johnson bought the 17th century work at the urging of his mentor, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., founding director of MoMA. It’s an unexpected choice, but it works well in the space, its earthy palette echoes the dark bricks and landscape just outside the glass walls. At certain times of the year when nature’s colors synch with it, the flow between the two must be seamless. The painting depicts the burial of Athenian statesman, Phocian, sentenced to death for treachery and buried in disgrace outside the city walls. As my guide pointed out, the subject may have had particular resonance for Johnson, whose youthful flirtation with Nazism left him feeling ostracized. I kept thinking of its elegiac theme as I wandered through the grounds of what is in essence a memorial park, with 14 (mostly Johnson-designed) folly-like structures that call to mind 19th century mausoleums dotting the 47-acre estate.

Johnson viewed the Glass House as one wing of a larger edifice that included the Brick House as its opposing wing diagonally across the “courtyard” of open lawn. The “doorway” was where the paths from the parking area begin; the gravel lining them, which crunches when you step on it, the “doorbell.” Near the entrance, a large, rather blah Donald Judd circle is balanced by the swimming pool on the far side of the courtyard. The pool, round with a rectangular plinth for sunning/diving cutting across it at one end, is a Suprematist painting made three-dimensional.

Though it mirrors the Glass House in length and shape, the Brick House is its polar opposite. Complete exposure is replaced by almost total concealment. The Brick House contained amenities impossible in the Glass House, including the mechanical components of both buildings, storage and privacy. Johnson referred to the Brick House bedroom as the “sex room” (he enjoyed being titillating) and it certainly has the aura of a seraglio. The familiar arch and column motif seen repeated in many of Johnson’s designs, lends a middle-eastern flavor to the room. Fabric panels ensure that the outside world is sealed off. Despite the fact that they’re Fortuny and the room itself is appointed simply, there’s something undeniably Liberace about it. Originally, the Glass House was Johnson’s weekend retreat with the Brick House at the ready when he desired more privacy or if the weather was too hot or cold, eventually Johnson lived there full-time, and fittingly would die there in 2005.

Behind the Glass House the land falls away to a pond, which boasts a “floating” pavilion that Johnson designed in 1962. It’s primarily an ornamental feature adding interest to the view, but Johnson also used it as a picnic venue. Inspired by the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain, the pavilion references its famous arches and columns that seem to go on and on, using Johnson’s attenuating spin. A Mannerist folly, the structure is much smaller than it appears and is placed slightly away from the shore, so that you must step across a couple of feet of water to get to it. Johnson enjoyed the concept of “safe danger” and orchestrated encounters with it in other areas of the property, most notably the rail-less footbridge that crosses a creek. Above the pond is the Cubist tower Johnson constructed in honor of his best friend, Lincoln Kirstein, who founded the New York City Ballet.

In 1965 Johnson completed the underground painting gallery modeled on the Treasury of Atreus in Mycenae. His partner, David Whitney, was a curator and serious collector and given the constraints of the Glass House it became necessary to build a structure that could contain their growing collection of large, statement paintings, Warhol, Salle, Schnabel, Rauschenberg and Stella. Johnson devised a nifty series of three circular tracks with movable panels, allowing 42 paintings to be moved around easily for display. While the building worked for two-dimensional artwork, it functioned less well for three-dimensional pieces and so in 1970 Johnson built the Greek village-inspired, sculpture gallery. He devised a mechanical glass roof intended to open up like a gull-winged car to create the illusion of being outside. The roof proved problematic not only because the mechanics failed, but on sunny days its tubular supports cast prominent shadows that are distracting and compromise one’s experience of the sculptures.

Johnson referred to the small building built in 1980 that houses his library and study as an “event” on the landscape. Like something in a Precisionist painting, its vernacular is vaguely industrial, vaguely agricultural. In either case, the design connotes work. And it was here that Johnson could sequester himself to read, think and produce, surrounded by his books and the tools of his trade. The building was originally white stucco, but after Johnson built his final structure, Da Monsta, nearby, which he painted a dramatic red and black, he decided (using the advice of color consultants) to change the Library/Study to a more simpatico and, to my eye, safer bronze that Johnson referred to as an “emotion,” not color.

Four years later, Johnson built the Ghost House behind the Library/Study on the foundation of an old barn. Constructed of chain-link fencing and featuring a broken façade, the structure was influenced by Robert Venturi and Frank Gehry. Though the “house” is but a folly, Johnson has succeeded in finally uniting inside and outside. Vines are allowed to grow up within the Ghost House before they are periodically cleared out, creating dramatically different effects depending on the season.

Johnson’s final structure built in 1995 was his most experimental. Based on a Frank Stella design for a Dresden museum, it’s both sculpture and structure, a tour de force made of modified gunnite shot onto a pliable wire mesh superstructure creating dramatic angled walls and graceful curves. For Johnson it was almost a living thing and he coyly christened it: “Da Monsta.” He considered it his apogee, though in fact he’d reached that 46 years earlier. While I like aspects of Da Monsta, most notably its shape, I’m not wild about its fun house apertures. I kept wondering what Da Monsta would have been like if Johnson had taken Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-de-Haut as a reference point and painted it white to conform to the then white library/study rather than introducing a new color and painting the earlier building to conform to it

Johnson loved nature and the Glass House allowed him to live in it sheltered within a transparent box. He liked to refer to himself as a landscape architect and his treatment of the land is masterful. Composed of gently sloping meadows and woods, it looks natural but has been planted and pruned to Johnson’s exacting standards, creating handsome woodland vistas and interesting juxtapositions of plants. Like a director tinkering with a stage set, Johnson was hands-on, sometimes supervising distant landscaping projects using a bullhorn.

Insecure, prone to depression and sometimes difficult, Johnson was also wealthy in his own right, bien élevé and could “talk the talk.” Though the money may have trammeled his creativity, his polish guaranteed his position as society darling despite the fact he produced a number of mediocre, even ugly buildings. In this respect, he’s always reminded me of Ayn Rand’s Peter Keating. But at least Johnson admitted he was an emulator and gave credit to the architects he referenced.

Johnson’s work didn’t so much evolve as vacillate from one extreme to another. Above all, he seemed to be a pushover for whimsy, which did his work no favors, dating it rather quickly. Yet, when he was able to reign in that inclination, his work soared. The retrained elegance of the Glass House is so timeless it could have been built just yesterday. It must have bedeviled Johnson to have attained his apogee so early in his career never to reach such heights again. But he remained passionate about architecture, freely indulging it at his New Canaan “hameau du roi.” In the process, he created an iconic monument to his vision. One must admire his willingness to experiment and his incredible zeal for what was both avocation and vocation.

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