Well, the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut is bigger.
When Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, was featured in LIFE magazine soon after its completion in 1949, architects and designers downed martinis at the Oyster Bar, pondering the future of the International Style. But that probably wasn’t what most people were thinking about as they looked at the pictures. They likely wondered: How could he actually live in a clear box, without walls, without privacy, without any stuff?
The answer was Philip Johnson never really did live in the Glass House. At least not in the self-contained sense in which the rest of us occupy our homes. Instead, the Glass House was merely the focal point of what eventually grew to be a veritable architectural theme park on 49 meticulously tended acres, comprising 14 structures, in which Johnson and David Whitney, the collector and curator who met him in 1960 and became his life partner, and who died just months after Johnson, enjoyed their impossibly glamorous weekend existence.
From the bunkerlike Brick House where Johnson often slept and the tiny, turreted, postmodern Library where he worked surrounded by architecture books, to Calluna Farms, the 1905 shingled farmhouse and the subterranean art gallery, the collection of buildings formed Johnson’s idea of the perfect deconstructed home.
Johnson bought Calluna Farms for Whitney in 1981. Whitney got rid of the suburban pool and tennis court, reduced five bedrooms to two and kept only one bathroom. Calluna’s kitchen had no dishwasher, and only a modest refrigerator, alongside Whitney’s impressive collection of copper cookware and dozens of well-worn cookbooks. Whitney made a famous fish chowder luncheon every year when his peony and iris garden burst into bloom, and he was as exacting in his housewares as he was in his art and design collections (his estate was sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 to add to the endowment for the property).
Grainger, bought by Whitney in 1990, became the couple’s version of a man cave. He stripped it down to its 18th century footprint, painted it matte-black and installed a striking Michael Heizer window etched with mysterious lines. It had an early Pioneer flat-screen TV, but no bathroom. Sitting in coordinated, bodacious plaid chairs designed by Mattia Bonetti, Johnson and Whitney watched Stanley Kubrick films, “Easy Rider” and “The Graduate,” or noodled with custom-made wooden puzzles of artworks, some of which they owned, including a nine-panel portrait by Andy Warhol.
Whitney, over his years with Johnson (the two met when the 54-year-old architect gave a lecture at Brown; 21-year-old Whitney came up afterward and was invited on a tour of the Glass House), became an important art advisor and independent curator. By 1965, the couple had acquired so much art that Johnson designed the Painting Gallery to give it room to breathe. The subterranean gallery is an artwork itself — an earthwork — cut into the hillside above the Glass House. Inside, paintings by Johns, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and Warhol, who Whitney talked to regularly on the phone, were displayed on rotating panels, like giant flipbooks. In 1970, Johnson added the Sculpture Gallery at the north end of the property.
In the beginning, there were just two buildings: the Glass House and the Brick House, both about 15m long and finished within months of each other in 1949 on a five-acre plot, with a 30m wide grassy court separating them. History has downplayed the Brick House — from the outside it’s plain and it doesn’t fit well with the people-in-glass-houses narrative — but Johnson always knew it would be impossible to live entirely in the open, so he built a place to get some privacy.
The rest of the buildings came naturally, if gradually. The idea of having a slew of small houses for different activities, moods and seasons, complemented by decorative “follies”, was Johnson’s conception for the site from early on. He called it a “diary of an eccentric architect”, but it was also a sketchbook, an homage to architects past and present, and to friends like the dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein, after whom Johnson named one of the follies he built on the property, a 9m high tower made of painted concrete blocks.
In contrast to their whirlwind weekday world in Manhattan, Johnson and Whitney saw life in New Canaan as perpetual camping, albeit of a luxurious, minimalist sort. Neither Grainger nor the 35 square meters Library has a bathroom, though both are air-conditioned, unlike the Glass House, which relies on cross ventilation. It originally had heating pipes in the ceiling and the floor, but the ceiling pipes reportedly froze early on and were never adequately repaired. To compensate, on particularly cold winter days the temperature of the water flowing through the radiant heated floors was turned up to nearly 200 degrees. “You couldn’t go in there with bare feet,” Port Draper, the contractor who maintained the house for many years, recalled in The Times in 2007. Johnson was unbothered by the house’s leaks, a problem endemic to a flat roof. Frank Lloyd Wright once referred to one of his houses as a “two-bucket house”, according to Robert A. M. Stern, to which Johnson gaily replied, “Oh, that’s nothing, Frank. Mine’s a four-bucket house. One in each corner.”
While the Glass House was designed with areas for dining, living and sleeping, loosely divided by low cabinetry and a brick cylinder holding the chimney and bathroom, it functioned more as a living space, an occasional office for Johnson and a place to throw parties (lots of them, attended in the early years by a coterie of young Yale architecture students, and later by the likes of Richard Meier, Frank Gehry, Fran Lebowitz and Agnes Gund). The house was astonishingly ornament-free. “I don’t think clutter was allowed,” the painter Jasper Johns, a friend of both men, once said. “One was always aware of their ruthless elegance.”
The sparseness of the Glass House makes it hard to think about messy things like eating, but even the wiry Johnson needed sustenance: Whitney, an accomplished amateur chef, cooked for them at times in the tiny Glass House kitchen.
The Brick House was originally divided into three rooms— with real walls — each with a porthole window. It was intended for guests, but Johnson soon realized the problem with a guest house is you wind up with overnight guests! And the sun blasted into the Glass House at sunrise. So in 1953, he remodeled the Brick House, making his first break with modernism by creating a luxurious, cocoonlike master bedroom, with a vaulted ceiling and Fortuny-covered walls and plush carpet, as well as a reading room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The bedroom’s slender columns, and the Pavilion he designed for the pond in 1962, both read as trial runs for the thin, white, shapely architecture of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center.
For Johnson, the landscape — both viewed from inside the Glass House and as he walked briskly from one building to another — was as important as the structures. There are only two pieces of art from Johnson’s collection in the Glass House: an Elie Nadelman sculpture and a landscape from the school of the 17thcentury artist Nicolas Poussin, on a stand in the middle of the space.
The painting was a great inspiration to Johnson — he removed and trimmed trees on the area around the house to create more orderly views, allowed some grasses to grow tall while others were close-cropped. Richard Kelly, who did the moody lighting for Johnson and Mies van der Rohe’s Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building, collaborated with Johnson on lighting the area around the house, ensuring that at night, the outside would come alive.
Despite the extraordinary portfolio of buildings he left behind Philip Johnson never thought of himself as a master architect. A fair number of critics agree, citing the excesses of the AT&T Building and reminding us that the Glass House itself was derivative of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, which Johnson openly acknowledged as an inspiration.
By 1942 Johnson was infatuated with Mies van der Rohe, the most aesthetic of the German exiles, whom he had first met in Europe. The first of his Miesian homages was a little town house near Harvard. After the war there followed Johnson’s masterpiece, the Glass House, completed in 1949. Inspired by Mies’s Farnsworth House but finished first (Mies was none too pleased about this), it became the first of the bold, cold, minimal glass boxes in landscapes which remained in high-class architectural fashion for the next 20 years.
Hugh Howard’s entertaining double biography of Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson, “Architecture’s Odd Couple”, traces the career of these two extraordinarily long-lived designers from before the beginning of the 20th century until almost the end of it. Johnson is presented as an opportunist, a dilettante and a showman, better at finessing the social, bureaucratic and economic obstacles to building than at actual design. Wright had ideas and made them manifest; Johnson played with ideas and made them sexy.
“He built one great house — his own, of glass — and contributed to one great urban building, a monument to whiskey,” Howard writes of Johnson’s best work, the Glass House, and the Seagram’s Building in New York, which he worked on in partnership with Mies van der Rohe. Johnson was “an aesthete, not an artist.” By contrast, “Wright’s work transcended style and even time.” And, “Wright’s genius was, quite simply, of a greater magnitude than Johnson’s.”
Johnson was a unique phenomenon. Among architects, his egotism and courage put him closest to Frank Lloyd Wright, who teased and bullied him for 25 years and helped liberate his architectural thinking. But as designers, they were never in the same class.
He was one of the greatest curators of the 20th century, bringing together artists, builders, architects and the people with the money, taste and guts to commission works of art made of I-beams, concrete, glass, marble and the occasional leaky roof. “I guess I can’t be a great architect,” Johnson once said. “Great architects have a recognizable style. But if every building I did were the same, it would be pretty boring.” That’s a put down, if I ever heard one.
The Glass House — always wise in the ways of branding, Johnson preferred that the entire compound be referred to as such — may be his supreme achievement in the art of not being boring. A living museum of American style, it’s a monument to his endlessly inquisitive and acquisitive nature.
He was for half a century the doyen of architectural opportunists. When modernist austerity was an aesthetic cause, he was in the vanguard. When the business of American architecture seemed to be business, he was its slickest salesman. Postmodernism was partly of his making. Then, when deconstruction hit New York, there was Johnson in his 80s in the thick of the theorists, networking, promoting favourites and talking, always talking. Johnson, in a letter to his mentor, Alfred Barr, MoMA’s first director, said: “What I most want to do is to be influential.” Johnson’s measure of success was the amount of publicity he received.
If Johnson was always ahead of the architectural game, he never actually invented it. It has been said that he was the second to do everything. A second-class creative figure with a first-class brain and boundless wealth, charm and wit. Johnson came from a rich Wasp family from Cleveland, where his father was an attorney. Further money came from his mother’s side. One of four children, Philip shone at school and, in 1923, was admitted to Harvard without an exam. The next year his father handed down a high proportion of his fortune. The girls got cash, while Johnson acquired Alcoa stock, the source of a lifelong self-indulgence.
In personality, he was half monster, half paragon of urbanity. An engagement with fascism in the 1930s never impeded his career. Antisemitic, anti-black, no respecter of women or children, he had many Jewish colleagues and clients, at least one black lover, and numerous women friends who received presents when their children or grandchildren were born. Flamboyantly gay, he admitted to four “Mrs Johnsons”, of whom the last, David Whitney, was his companion for over 40 years.
Johnson has had a baleful influence on postmodern business architecture all over the world. In London, for instance, the insincere granite cladding of Canary Wharf owes much to his example. The professional style of Johnson’s career may prove to have made a more lasting impact than his buildings. It offers a reminder that the basest superficiality and the highest purposes of art coexist strangely in architecture.
As always, art appreciation made little bears hungry 🙂
Back to Manhattan on the train.