In Philip Johnson's Glass House, His Masterly Vision Is Crystal Clear

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007

NEW CANAAN, Conn., June 21 -- Your first thought on approaching Philip Johnson's 1949 Glass House is that it has the same problems as a very small bikini. Would my life look good in this? Could it stand the exposure? And what kind of major reformation to my habits and vices would it take to fit into this thing?

Fortunately, it had some storage.

The house, which opens to the public Saturday as a National Trust for Historic Preservation site, is austere, but not threatening. It is one of the great monuments of modernism in America, by one of this country's longest-lived and most influential architects. Johnson, who built some of the slickest skyscrapers to grace the New York skyline (his curvaceous "lipstick" building on 53rd Street is still dangerously pretty), also helped define the cleanest lines of the International Style. The Glass House, a picture of which graces almost every book on 20th-century American architecture, was just that: a rectangular pavilion of steel supports and glass walls, with a brick "core" that contains a small bathroom and a fireplace.

It is still looking spectacular.

Since Johnson and his partner David Whitney died in 2005, curators have restored its flat roof and brought some of the paths that snake around the hillside it sits on up to ADA code. They've obviously kept up the landscape, which is so integral to its beauty, so that the house looks just as it does in pictures, like a transparent box in the middle of painting by John Constable. They also replaced a few tiles and mended a bedspread.

But the evidence of daily life has not been scrubbed from the house. The line of walnut cabinets that define the sleeping area are a little scuffed. The ceiling shows signs of the old, leaking roof. The kitchen, a simple open plan of cabinets and an almost antique electric stove, is a real estate agent's nightmare. You can hear the officious salesman: Just tear that out, put in some stainless steel and you're good to go.

Which, fortunately, will never happen. In 1986, when Johnson was getting into his 80s, he willed the house and its surrounding 47-acre campus to the National Trust, though he retained the right to live there until his death. A ribbon-cutting Thursday helped introduce the house to its nervous neighbors in New Canaan, once a center of modernist architecture, now a tony, leafy enclave with a distressing number of tacky McMansions.

Fears that large hordes of tourists would not only overwhelm the Glass House -- which is surprisingly small -- but also perturb the locals has made this a National Trust site you have to put on your calendar. Only small groups will be allowed in, and access is by advance reservation (already sold out through the end of this year). Curators expect that 15,000 people will be able to see it in any given year.

But that's a lot more than saw it in its past life, when Johnson and Whitney (a prominent modern art curator and collector) lived there.

"From an honored invitation, to a pilgrimage destination," said Richard Moe, head of the National Trust, at Thursday's ceremony, which was attended by local politicians and more than a few people who knew the house from its glory days when Johnson held court there. Fred Noyes, the son of Eliot Noyes (like Johnson, a prominent Harvard-trained modernist who helped make New Canaan the center of a daring new domestic style in the mid-century), remembers the house from when he was a boy.

"I used to splash around in the pool," he said.

Curiously, Hilary Lewis, a Johnson scholar, said she can't remember the architect himself ever swimming in the pool. She added, "There was a certain puritanical quality to Johnson."

Puritanical, but in a limited, aesthetic and intellectual way. The house itself is all about reduction. In the living room, a single painting (by the French baroque artist Nicolas Poussin or one of his followers) defines the space. Because there are no walls on which to hang it, the painting is placed on a specially designed easel that becomes an imaginary wall, and a powerful invitation to compare the painted landscape of the 17th century with the real one framed by the house's windows and steel beams. Throughout the house and its surroundings -- filled with buildings Johnson designed throughout his long career -- a game of artifice and nature is kept in motion.

Before he built the Glass House, Johnson saw plans for Mies van der Rohe's glass-walled Farnsworth House near Plano, Ill. Johnson borrowed the idea, refined it and finished his own glass house before Mies could finish his. Although both are now under National Trust stewardship, and both are icons of modernism in America, they seem conceived in a very different spirit.

Mies raised his house off the ground, which makes it seem something like an altar for priestly living, a sacred space apart from nature. Johnson's glass house is simpler and more rooted in its landscape. If it is sacred, it is in a more animistic way, more in the tradition of Saint Francis of Assisi than the ascetics (Johnson, according to Lewis, even named two of the trees on his property after his parents: Homer and Louise).

Johnson's house is also rooted to its dark twin, known as the Brick House, which sits across a small, immaculate patch of grass. They were built at the same time, as a single, unified structure with two very different faces. The solid surfaces of the Brick House, also known as the Guest House, are broken only by three circular windows on one side (there are also skylights).

Everything that can't be done in the Glass House can be done in cozy seclusion in the Brick House, the main bedroom of which is entirely covered in cloth panels and a strange folly of white vaults that look like a cross between New York's Lincoln Center and a Turkish bathhouse. It is the prototype of every boutique hotel room perched on the precipice of kitsch.

On its own, the Glass House seems a moralistic exercise -- exposing, refining, revealing -- a prescription for rigorous and reductive living. It suggests a Platonic ideal of intellectual life, though Johnson is said to have found the proximity to nature distracting, and he escaped to the Brick House to read.

But seen as a single entity, the Glass House/Brick House structures add up to the gayest house in America, an architectural enactment of a life lived with a rigorous division between the public and the private. Not that Johnson, a man who enjoyed wealth throughout his life, lived that particular dichotomy of hiding and revealing in the way that less fortunate men had to. But even at the level of its mechanical systems, the two-house dyad seems like a metaphor for the publicly brilliant homosexual: The Glass House is enticingly open but dependent on the Brick House for its hidden electrical and plumbing connections.

Saturday's gala opening should be star-studded. Frank Stella and Jasper Johns are among the artists expected to attend, as is choreographer Merce Cunningham, who defined an austere ideal of dance for an austere age in the middle of the 20th century. Cunningham's company will re-create a performance it gave on the Johnson property in 1967. Expensive tickets, for an expensive picnic, will yield money that will go toward buying a four-acre plot north of the campus, where mini-mansion encroachment is dreaded.

And with that, the National Trust will add an icon of America's optimistic age to its roster of more traditionally historic properties. The trust's leaders hope that the attention drawn to the architecture of this era by the opening of the Glass House will encourage preservation of other modernist houses -- the modest size and stoic demands of which often disappoint the only people rich enough to preserve them.

But it will also likely rekindle interest in Johnson himself. When he was in high demand as an architect of skyscrapers (his most notorious is the Chippendale-shaped AT&T building), he was considered by many too eclectic, even facile. But to see his home, and its many children around it (an underground art gallery, a sculpture pavilion, a private library), is to comprehend him as an architect of intellect and exploration, and most of all, an astonishing sense of balance and taste.

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