A Modern Take on Living Alongside Nature

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, January 10, 2009

As the old cliche suggests, a picture is worth a thousand words, but not when the subject is architect Philip Johnson's Glass House, one of the most famous and least understood homes in America.

Many who know it only from the iconic photographs of it perched on a bluff in the countryside near New Canaan, Conn., consider it to be the epitome of Modernist eccentricity. But visitors to the site, which is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and open part of the year for public tours, will likely reach a different conclusion.

From the photographs and frequently published floor plan, the house seems to be so simple -- a box with four glass walls -- that it could have been built from a quick sketch on a cocktail napkin. In fact, over three years, Johnson took the design through more than 70 sketches and 27 iterations before he arrived at his solution: two buildings that face each other across about 30 yards of grassy terrace.

One of the buildings, of course, is the transparent glass house. The other, known as the Brick House, is its mirror opposite, a box with solid brick walls broken only by a door on the side that faces the Glass House and by three large windows on the back.

One of the first revelations to a visitor is how carefully Johnson choreographed arrivals. From the main road you can see nothing of the two main structures; they emerge slowly and at an oblique angle as you proceed down a long curved driveway. Another surprise is how carefully the architect incorporated his buildings into the landscape. The freestanding Glass House overlooks at least half of the extensive acreage, while the Brick House is built into a hill with a restricted view out the back.

Diminutive as it seems in most photographs, the Glass House is surprisingly big. At 1,700 square feet, its footprint is similar to that of a typical suburban ranch house. With Johnson's artful placement of furniture, however, it's impossible to see this entire area at one time. Instead, the architect controlled the experience by orchestrating a series of beautifully framed views. Even more amazing, visitors feel as if they are outdoors while they are actually in an enclosed, controlled environment.

Inside, a visitor's first reaction is likely to be, "Could I live with all this glass?" That's followed quickly by, "Could I live with such minimal furnishings?"

The sleeping area, which occupies about a third of the area and is separated from the rest of the house by a six-foot-high row of wood cabinets, has only a bed, side table, desk and chair. The kitchen, which occupies one corner of the living area, is pared down to one L-shaped counter with all the appliances and storage incorporated into the base cabinets below it. The dining area, holding down another corner, has a large sculpture, a modest-size table for four and several large potted plants. The central seating area, which overlooks a small pond, contains two side chairs, a chaise, a glass coffee table and a painting displayed in a standing frame.

The only enclosed space is a cylinder-shaped bathroom that is finished in blue-green tile.

Although Johnson was highly opinionated about architecture and designed a number of houses with glass walls, he did not intend his house to be a manifesto for how others should live or even as a full-time residence for himself. He designed the Glass House to please himself and fit his idiosyncratic lifestyle.

Independently wealthy, he had a full-time staff to wash the windows, stock the larder and keep everything ready for the next wave of visitors and parties. Johnson, who died in 2005 at age 98, knew seemingly everybody in the arts. Over the nearly 56 years that he owned the house, he used it to hold what has been described as one of the longest-running salons in America.

The Glass House can also be a place for private reverie, as I discovered recently when I had the unusual opportunity to spend some time in it by myself. But, with so much nature at hand, I found it hard to imagine doing any serious work or even reading a book.

Evidently, Johnson had the same problem. In a documentary film made when he was almost 90, he said he found it impossible to work at his desk because every time he paused to look up, the views were too hypnotic to return to his task.

The Brick House, identical in length to the Glass House but only half as deep, is its opposite in looks and ambience. While the Glass House invites guests to embrace nature, the Brick House allows them to shun it. Its exterior is almost entirely encased in brick. The interior has a reading room and a single bedroom with large panels that slide in front of the door and the round windows on the rear, blocking view and sunlight. Visitors are thus encased in a space of sensuality and soft earth tones -- the walls, carpet, settees and bed covering are all light beige.

For visitors today, it is hard to appreciate the shocking sensation that the complex created when it was completed in 1949. Although a spare, Modernist aesthetic had been evolving in Europe for 30 years, there were few examples in the United States, and most were known only among architects.

Equally shocking at that time was the limited number of materials that Johnson used -- brick, painted steel and glass -- and the absence of embellishment or ornament. In less skillful hands, such austerity has produced what many consider a cold and sterile look, but Johnson humanized his design by surrounding his two buildings with the vivid colors of the countryside.

The Glass House and Brick House were the first of Johnson's projects at his New Canaan property. Over the next 44 years, Johnson and his partner, David Whitney, bought 41 adjoining acres and renovated three old buildings, including a barn and two houses, one dating to 1735. In addition, Johnson designed and built another four buildings -- a library, a visitor center and two galleries to house the paintings and sculpture that he jointly owned with Whitney. Johnson also designed, commissioned or purchased eight large outdoor art installations that he called his "follies."

Each of Johnson's subsequent buildings and projects is quite different from the others, reflecting the evolution of his work over the decades.

The last of these, which Johnson finished in 1995 and called Da Monsta, is used today as a small visitor orientation center. It's a quantum leap from all that preceded it, a curvaceous sculpture where nothing is straight or plumb. It's also a tantalizing bookend to a remarkable career that will make visitors wonder where he might have taken his architecture if he had lived a few more years.

Katherine Salant can be contacted via her Web site, http://www.katherinesalant.com.

© 2009, Katherine Salant

© 2009 The Washington Post Company