An Arcadian vision – Glass visits Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the last work of an eccentric architect

The quintessential architect’s playground, The Glass House estate was built by Philip Johnson in a span of some 50 years, between 1949 and 1995. An ever-accumulating landscape that bridged the Ancient, Classical European and American Modern style, the 49 acre landscape in New Canaan, Connecticut, encompasses 14 structures, the best known being the estate’s original building- the glass house in which Johnson lived and died in 2005.

Glass House exterior_Robin HillGlass House exterior. Photograph: Robin Hill

Johnson inherited shares in America’s aluminium company ALCOA in his youth from his father, stocks that later resulted in great wealth for the architect. With these funds, he acquired a plot of land in New Canaan in 1949 at the age of 43. Inspired by the Romantic landscape of the site, Johnson built a glass structure using – for that period – unusually large glass panels with the intention to create a home that would use its surrounding landscape as “very expensive wallpaper”.

Glass House_interior_Robin HillGlass House interior. Photograph: Robin Hill

Adjacent to the glass house, he built a solid brick house which was used as a guest-house, the two structures viewed by Johnson as one single work. Johnson lived in the glass house for 58 years, and from 1960 to his death, with life-long companion David Whitney. Whitney was an art critic and curator who was largely credited for shaping Johnson’s art collection of several hundred works including influential pieces by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Barnett Newman, the majority of which were donated to MoMA in New York (where Johnson was self-salaried director of the Department of Architecture and Design between 1932-1934 and from 1949-54) upon Johnson’s death.

Johnson’s commitment to his and Whitney’s art collection was such that Johnson designed three buildings on the Glass House estate to house their collection: a painting gallery inspired by Greek tombs and the ancient Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae (1965); a sculpture gallery (1970) viewed by Johnson as the single best room of his oeuvre, and Da Monsta (1995), a building inspired by artist and friend Frank Stella.

The painting gallery was a marriage of vision and practicality, a building whose entrance involved a descent into a monumental stone “tomb” that prepared the visitor for the suspension of reality. Gallery surface area was maximised with three circular rooms of revolving walls, and it was in this building that Jasper Johns’ seminal work, Flag (1954-55) was debuted prior to Johnson’s donation of the work to MoMA in 1968.

Though Johnson desired a landscape “full of events”, he decided that sculpture detracted too greatly from his work and so built a dedicated sculpture gallery to house his collection five years after the erection of the painting gallery in 1970. Taking inspiration in part from Greek islands and their many villages interconnected by stairways, Johnson remarked that in these villages, “every street is a staircase to somewhere”.

Sculpture Gallery_Robin HillSculpture Gallery. Photograph: Robin Hill

Believing that every sculpture deserved its own building or niche to house it, Johnson’s sculpture gallery comprises a series of squares set at 45-degree angles to each other to create a series of independent spaces. Speaking of the many steep steps in the gallery, Johnson introduces the notion of “apparent danger” in his work, a leit motif that is very apparent in accessing Johnson’s Pavilion in the Pond built in 1962 and sited at the edge of a man-made pond located at the bottom of a hill below the Glass House.

Pavilion in the pond_Robin HillPavilion in the pond. Photograph: Robin Hill

Built to an interior height of 5ft 3inches, the pavilion plays with the scale of Johnson’s Arcadian landscape, making the distance between the Glass House and pavilion appear greater than it is in reality. Used as a favourite picnicking spot by the architect, the pavilion was designed to make one reminiscent of “being a child in a tree-house, away from mama, feeling important and big”.

Next to the lake stands a monument to Johnson’s best friend, poet and co-founder of the New York City Ballet, Lincoln Kirstein, built in 1985. Speaking of the monument in 1991, Johnson says, “I got fascinated by blocks one day. Blocks, like a child playing with blocks, right? Do you suppose I’m in my second childhood? Anyhow, I took the concrete blocks and just piled them up in odds ways, which you’re not supposed to be able to do with concrete blocks and cantilevered them. And then I made out of the tower a stairway, a very dangerous stairway.”

Kirstein Tower_Andy RomerKirstein Tower. Photograph: Andy Romer

The tower, which is 30-feet high, was designed to be both viewed and scaled. Described by Johnson as “a staircase to nowhere”, the architect regularly climbed the structure until his eighties.

Glass House Stacy BassGlass House. Photograph: Stacy Bass

The importance of play is apparent throughout Johnson’s estate, not least in the Glass House itself, the first building on the site and the structure with which the estate is most associated. Speaking of the Glass House, Johnson describes living within the structure as akin to “camping, but without the inconveniences” – within the structure one  can “relax in ones’ birthday suit and still enjoy the snow outside”. Living holistically within the landscape, Johnson revelled in observing changing seasons and light. In an excerpt from his video documentary, The Diary of an Eccentric Architect, Johnson vividly describes the Glass House in its element one evening, entirely bathed in a silver moonlight.

by Rowena Chiu

The Glass House’s season runs annually from May – November and is open to the public by tour until November 30.

With special thanks to Christa Carr and Gwen North Reiss