A few weeks ago I took a trip to the East Coast — it wasn’t really the best week for me to travel — there was an awful lot going on at work and at home that I needed to attend to — but I went to a little town in Connecticut called New Canaan because I got the opportunity to participate in something unique — a Conversation on Transparency at Philip Johnson’s Glass House. (New Canaan itself is a place with unusual history, worth checking out.)
I didn’t really know much about the Glass House or the event or what I was getting into when I signed up — only that Diego Rodriguez, who I think quite highly of as a design thinker & friend (go read his blog!), strongly recommended that I participate — so I did, and I’m really glad I did. It was a bit of a different world for me, but gave me much to think about in my own contexts.
I think it’s going to take me a few posts to write this up — I’ll need one for the place/context/history and what the National Trust is trying to do; will need one for the people & objectives of the Conversation Series; will probably need another for the ideas that came up. But want to capture some of my thoughts before they flit away, so will start writing. [I started writing this right away, anyway, but now am just getting around to finishing it.]
Philip Johnson was a complex guy, for sure. One of the leading architects of the Modernist movement, he’s built some of the most influential buildings of the 20th century, from his own residence, the Glass House, to the Seagram Building in NYC, to the Crystal Cathedral. What I didn’t know before is that he’s known as much for the people he influenced and mentored — many of whom were probably better architects.
Anyway, he built this house for himself called the Glass House, and it’s exactly what it sounds like — a house that he lived in for more than 50 years with walls made only of glass.
Building a house that’s completely transparent is more than just an architectural statement (and it definitely is a significant architectural statement) — it’s also a personal statement — a statement of values, of ideals. It’s made more interesting by Johnson himself — among other things, a gay man who had voiced support for Nazi Germany in the 30s (although he later clearly & obviously regretted it and couldn’t really even understand it). Think of that. To be a gay man (not openly, but more of an open secret) in mid-20th century America and deciding to build a house that anyone could see right into, and even through. There’s a lot to parse in there by people who know a lot more about the human psyche than I do, but right off the bat you can see any number of ideas: idealism, design, openness, exhibitionism, power — it’s a really complicated mix of things.
And it’s made more complicated by the fact that the Glass House isn’t really a glass house — or rather, that particular building is made of glass and transparent, but it’s situated in a much larger context — 47 acres of extremely maintained landscape, and something like 19 total buildings that make up, really, a house turned inside out. And the Glass House itself is the only building made of any significant amount of glass. (with the exception of the ceiling of the sculpture museum)
So there’s the Glass House, with a living room, kitchen (although minimal — they called it more of a martini bar), dining area, bathroom (in the brick column), plus some walnut cabinets in the middle. Made of steel & glass, with a red brick floor.
And the Brick House, made up of a small guest room, bathroom & library — purposely built to be a little uncomfortable, because he didn’t like his friends like Andy Warhol staying for more than a couple of days, as he said “guests are like fish, they should only last three days at most.” (Same basic dimensions as the Glass House opposite, same elevation & length, but half the width. (There’s definitely an optical illusion going on there — they look roughly similar.) The irony/symmetry/connection/whatever of the Brick House being opposite the Glass House is incredibly compelling.
And the art gallery, buried under a mound, as an homage to an Egyptian tomb for someone who’s name I now can’t remember. The point that Dorothy Dunn, our guide, made is that it’s a great irony for an art collector to build a house where the walls are glass — no place to hang art! So they built this underground bunker sort of thing, and it can hold a LOT of art for the space — the works are on a sort of giant rolodex system, so you can rotate in whatever art you want to look at. Mix & match. It was fun to get to look at all the things on the wheels behind the works that were showing.
The sculpture gallery, which is built sort of like a hothouse with a glass ceiling — and one of the guys who maintains it confirmed that it often feels like a hothouse — that it’s hotter than hell in the summertime. The space of the sculpture gallery is a little difficult to show with 2 dimensional pictures, so I’ll include a few, as well a bronze cast that is outside the front door called Ozymandias. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that particular statement.
One of my favorite buildings is his library — easily 100-200 yards away from the main house — and with a funny sort of shape. But it must have been a cozy place to read and work.
Right near the library, there’s the Ghost House — a primitive archetype of a house, really — I don’t know what it’s really for other than just, you know, looking like a house.
Out on the grounds there are a number of other things — at the front gate, there’s a place for receiving people that we didn’t spend much time near.
And there’s a little man-made lake with a sort of terrace — hard to really make sense of this, since it seems to have been built on a smaller scale, for effect — but you can see from my pictures that if you’re at all taller than me, you had to duck down a bit to be inside.
And a cinder block statue that didn’t make a ton of sense to me — except that it made sense when viewed from the Glass House itself, which I think is part of the point — a lot of the space was designed for experiencing from particular points of view, with the inside of the house being the most important one.
Even the grounds themselves were very manicured and varied, with streams, lots of different textures of foliage, etc.
Make no mistake: this is a beautiful & wondrous place. It’s not remotely like any other place I’ve been or heard of, and it’s amazing. I felt lucky to get a chance to go (tours are booked a year or so in advance, but the access that we got was more than a tour — it was total access, really). I also felt very lucky to get a chance to participate in the discussion on transparency — more on that, plus some more interior (such as it is) photos when I get a few more minutes to write.