Philip Johnson once said that “architecture exists in time.” By this he meant that a great piece of architecture should unfold before you in procession, and reveal itself in surprising ways. Architecture can also be a snapshot in time; the permanence of a building captures the aesthetics, materials, and consciousness of when it was created.
The procession to Johnson’s Glass House begins once you set foot in New Canaan, Connecticut. The town’s Wonder Bread-quaintness is almost too perfect, as though you’ve walked onto the set of a 1960s television show. It only heightens your anticipation as you approach the Glass House Estate, a modernist oasis set just outside of town. Johnson chose to locate his home here to be close to the “Harvard Five,” which included himself, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, and Eliot Noyes. All of them attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design between the late 1930’s and 1950’s, and were heavily influenced by the teachings of Walter Gropius. Once these gentleman arrived in town with their modernist mission, it would never be the same.
Johnson began to establish his estate in 1949, beginning with the Glass House. The property became his personal architectural playground, containing numerous structures that demonstrate his evolving tastes and interests. Each one marks a moment in time between the eras of Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry. This was Johnson’s retreat to experiment, socialize, and enjoy the art collection he shared with his partner David Whitney. They hosted infamous salons along the concrete ledge that surrounds the house; A-listers of the time would flock there to converse about the latest developments in creativity and philosophy.
The Glass House itself appears like a small, perfect box under a great canopy of trees, reflecting images of the landscape around it. Once inside, the walls melt away and create a sense of enlightenment. The living areas are divided by structural forms, such as a great cylindrical fireplace, and a sense of placement and space. Only two works of art sit within the house: a painting by Poussin and a sculpture by Elie Nadelman. The decorating is left to the dramatic landscape outside.
Johnson’s design is heavily influenced by the Farnsworth House built near Chicago by Mies van der Rohe, who is probably Johnson’s greatest hero; the two later collaborated on the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel restaurant and the Seagram building in New York City. Johnson pays homage to van der Rohe by furnishing the living room with his Barcelona collection.
While the house is the main focus, several other structures dot the gently rolling natural landscape of the grounds and reflect different stylistic periods. Two key highlights are the painting gallery and the sculpture gallery, as Johnson and Whitney were avid collectors of art. The painting gallery is modeled after a Mycenaean tomb and recesses into the hillside; paralleling the Earthworks movement in the fine art world. It contains revolving panels that allow an ever-changing view of works by Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenberg. In contrast, the sculpture gallery opens to the sky with a glass-paneled ceiling, and features winding stairways similar to those found in ancient Grecian villages. It houses works by Julian Schnabel, Bruce Nauman, and Robert Morris. Several other architectural “follies” dot the landscape, including the Brick House that was used as a studio and guest house, a library and study, and DeMonsta: a small post-modern house built during the rise of Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman.
The procession through the pastoral property of the Glass House Estate reveals much about Johnson as a person, and the time in which he lived. He began his career by introducing the American public to the modernist “International Style” while director of the Department of Architecture at MoMA, creating an impression that changed everything to follow it. One of his final acts before his death in 2005 was to leave the Glass House Estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, of which he was a board member; an astute maneuver that will allow his works and personal story to be preserved while “existing in time.”