DAY TRIPPIN’: Philip Johnson’s Glass Masterpiece

Considered an icon of American architecture, Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan is a required stop for architecture buffs and pilgrims of Modernism.

Published October 22, 2015 4:24 PM
5 min read

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Glasshouse-thConsidered an icon of American architecture, Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan is a required stop for architecture buffs and pilgrims of Modernism.

By Margot Clark-Junkins

Glassgouse-openerConsidered an icon of American architecture, Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan is a required stop for architecture buffs and pilgrims of Modernism. But even if you do not worship at the altar of Modernism, and you prefer your walls slightly less see-through after your morning shower, the Glass House is well-worth a visit, especially now, at the height of autumn, when the leaves are scarlet and gold.

Philip Johnson was one of America’s greatest modern architects. Some of his most famous designs are in Manhattan, including the Seagram Building (designed with Mies van der Rohe, 1956), Four Seasons restaurant (1959), the AT&T Building (now called the Sony Building, 1984), and the Abby Aldrich Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Here in Westchester, Johnson designed the Neuberger Museum of Art, on the campus of Purchase College (1969). In 1979, Johnson was the first recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

glasshouse 0875Born in 1906 in Cleveland, Ohio, Johnson attended Hackley School in Tarrytown, and entered Harvard University in 1923. In 1928, he befriended Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe, who had just completed his “German Pavilion” in preparation for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona.

By 1930, Johnson had carved out a niche for himself as head of the newly formed Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1932, he curated a ground-breaking exhibition called “The International Style: Architecture since 1922.” This exhibit profoundly influenced the future of American architecture, ushering in a cadre of forward-thinking architects like Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Marcel Breuer.

Johnson entered Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1940 to study architecture under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. He graduated in 1943 and returned to his position at MoMa from 1946-54.

Meanwhile, he began to design for his clients and, in 1945, he prepared schematic drawings of a glass house for himself. The Glass House was completed in 1949. It was where Johnson and his longtime partner, David Whitney, spent much of their free time and entertained the artists of the day.

When Johnson died in 2005, NY Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote that “the serene Glass House, a 56-foot by 32-foot rectangle, is generally considered to be one of the 20th century’s greatest residential structures…it was inspired by Mies, but its pure symmetry, dark colors, and closeness to the earth marked it as a personal statement: calm and ordered rather than sleek and brittle.”

After Johnson’s death, the Glass House partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and opened to the public in 2007. From the Visitors Center in downtown New Canaan, a shuttle bus whisks you seven minutes down the road and you are there. Crunching along the gravel path (“Nature’s doorbell,” Johnson liked to say) leading up to the Glass House, the reflection of the trees and sky in the glass is striking and quite lovely.

The structure is comprised of one large, rectangular room, just ten inches off the ground. The walls are almost entirely glass; the supports are of painted steel. Radiant heat comes up through the brick herringbone floor. Open floor plans were rare in 1949 and the kitchen is neatly tucked away under hardwood counters that swing down on brass hinges to cover work surfaces.

In the center of the room, a suite of chrome and leather “Barcelona” furniture by Mies van der Rohe rests on a soft white rug. While the scenery is clearly the star of the show, Johnson does permit us one other visual treat — a lush pastoral landscape attributed to the 17th-century painter Nicolas Poussin. Johnson uses the painting to draw your eye away from the wood-paneled movable partition wall just behind it, which serves to screen off the sleeping area from the more formal gathering spaces.

GLASShouse-chairThe bed is modest, with a plain coverlet; a desk and a small lamp are close at hand. There are no curtains anywhere. The bathroom is cleverly concealed in a circular chamber behind the living room fireplace; it is lined in malachite-green mosaic tiles and has a leather ceiling (there are no windows in the bathroom).

Johnson, who lived to be 98 years old, had a voracious appetite for new ideas. He refused to be tied to a single design aesthetic, though his critics felt he ought not to have deviated from the “gospel” of Modern architecture. His inquisitive nature is evidenced by the 13 additional structures he added to the 49-acre site over time. The impenetrable-looking Brick House is like the Glass House’s alter ego. There is a massive white Sculpture Gallery with sharply angled skylights and an underground bunker filled with precious paintings. The chain-link, ivy-encrusted Ghost House was designed in 1984 in honor of his friend, architect Frank Gehry. A quirky hut called “Da Monsta” features crazily angled walls of brightly colored gunnite with narrow slit windows reminiscent of medieval towers.

Philip Johnson was fond of surrounding himself with creative people, and to that end the Glass House hosts musical performances each spring and a chic summer party in June. Executive Director Scott Drevnig has fostered a number of successful collaborations between the Glass House and artists, musicians, and dancers “…to recreate the legendary salon of Philip Johnson.”

The Glass House is open May 1-November 30. Tours are available Monday and Thursday through Sunday. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit www.theglasshouse.org.

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