People Who Live in Glass Houses

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Philip Johnson’s Glass House — All Photos: Eirik Johnson

Earlier this week I made it up to New Canaan, Connecticutt to see Philip Johnson’s Glass House, which opens to the public for the first time this month. In the 1980s, Johnson willed the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, with the stipulation that he could remain in it until the time of his death. Johnson and his partner David Whitney both died in 2005, and since then the National Trust has been sprucing up the house and the other high concept structures, including a library and two mostly underground art galleries, that Johnson added to the property over the years, each new structure reflecting the next wiggle in the serpentine evolution of his architectural thinking.

The National Trust is now conducting tours of the site, six a day for about ten people each. You can book through their Glass House website, though advance word of mouth was so strong that all of the spots are already taken for the remainder of this year.

Book anyway, even if it’s for next year, because this is a trip worth making. The Glass House, which I’ll write about in a larger context in Time next week, is a very famous place that until now only the lucky few have actually seen. I’ve looked at pictures of the place all my life, but I wasn’t prepared for how profoundly, and strangely, beautiful it would be. It’s literally a work of art, as much a conceptual or installation piece as a house. I don’t know of any other building that distills the idea of a building so forcefully to its most basic elements, taking away almost everything until the house is just a compartment to frame your experience of nature. To paraphrase Franz Schulze, who was a biographer of both Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, it’s a Classical framework for a Romantic experience.

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The idea of a glass house owed a great deal, of course, to Mies, a debt Johnson was careful to aknowledge from the start. (What else could he do?) Mies had begun drawing up plans for his mostly glass Farnsworth House in 1946, plans that Johnson, one of Mies’ most important American disciples, certainly knew of. But work didn’t begin on the Farnsworth House until six months after Johnson’s was completed in 1949. It was the Farnsworth House that inspired Schulze to come up with that Classical/Romantic idea, but it applies just as well if not better to the symmetrical and even more transparent Glass House.

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Most pictures of the Glass House crop out the much less appealing guest house that Johnson built just across from it. (Actually, the guest house was completed first.) Called the Brick House, it’s also the place where the plumbing and electrical systems for both houses are tucked away. As counterpoint to the transparency of the Glass House, the Brick House is almost entirely enclosed by windowless brick on three sides. Strangely, one of its two rooms is decorated in a style that can fairly be described as Miami Beach/Casbah. Nothing could be further from the austerities of the Glass House than this soft beige chamber, with its Fortuny wall coverings and its vaulted ceiling, supposedly based on the breakfast room of the John Soane House in London but looking more like it was borrowed from a Morris Lapidus hotel. One question you ask yourself when you see the Glass House is “Where did the guy have sex?” Then you open the door to this room and go: “Got it”.

In that connection I was interested in something Philip Kennicott wrote in today’s Washington Post, where he suggested that the two houses may have been a metaphor of sorts for Johnson’s life as a gay man. One part of his life ascetic and open to inspection. The other part a concealed pleasure palace. For most of his life Johnson was in no way closeted. He had the money to live as he pleased. But he also spent most of his adult life in pre-Stonewall America, a tough proposition and one prone to produce compartmentalized lives. Johnson might have scoffed at Kennicott’s speculation, but I think he’s on to something.

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