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Philip Johnson: Man in a Glass House

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By Steve Bergsman

In 1967 a large crowd of people gathered on the lawn of architect Philip Johnson's iconic residence, The Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut, for a fundraising event. Many of the attendee names are lost to history, but at the time they were heroes of American culture: choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, artist Andy Warhol and collector David Whitney, among others. In the iconography of LGBTQ culture this event is noteworthy as so many of all these important people who helped define 20th-century culture, including the architect himself, were gay.

For the event, Cunningham's dance troupe performed to music by John Cage. Later the Velvet Underground took over the makeshift stage.

The visitors center in the town of New Canaan houses a wall of videos about the residence, one of which focuses on what Vogue magazine at the time called a "country happening." On the 50th anniversary of the event, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company returned to the house to perform the same dances at a gala.

The Glass House, one of the architectural hallmarks of modernism, was completed in 1949 as a second residence for Johnson, who designed the home with two clear themes, minimalism and transparency. The name derives from the exterior walls of the home, which are more or less totally glass. I use the term "more or less" because the walls aren't one sheet of glass floor-to-ceiling but rather two pieces of glass with a horizontal split at about knee level. This horizontal line is important because The Glass House was a forward leap from another modernist residence called the Farnsworth House by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which used one sheet of glass for the walls.

The house sits on a beautiful sloping hill with a pond with some very interesting sculptures at its shore. It's all greenery and beauty, which is why Johnson wanted to design the home the way he did, so one could, in a sense, be a part of the surroundings. Indeed, when you are in the house it feels as if you are on an observation platform in the middle of a forest, a feeling heightened by the minimalism of the home. Not much intrudes on the senses. Just off-center is the largest feature, a circular structure (the only part of the interior that is floor-to-ceiling). The front is the fireplace, but hollowed out of the reverse is the bathroom. Just past it is a long rectangle like a dividing wall. It is actually the storage and closets and it does divide because on the far side is the one bed. My wife, an ex-New Yorker, called the place "just one big studio apartment."

Except for the bathroom, there are no separate rooms. The home is all one platform enclosed by glass. The area that is the kitchen is just a waist-high rectangular division, with the sink and countertops on the "other" side. The living area is defined only by the furniture, as is the dining area, which contains just a long table with chairs.

The two most notable artistic features are a fiberglass cast of an Elie Nadelman sculpture, "Two Circus Women" and a Nicolas Poussin school painting from around 1645, called "The Burial of Phocion". More iconic are the pieces of furniture. In the living area the daybed and chairs were designed by Mies van der Rohe and the lamp is by Richard Healy. At the dining area, the Brno chairs flank a table designed by Johnson.

 

Near to the bed sits an isolated desk and chair, but this was not Johnson's workspace. The transparency of The Glass House was so distracting he couldn't work there, so he built another building on the 49-acre property to be his office. As The Glass House is so simple and stark, other structures were built on the property to accommodate collections and guests. One was The Brick House, which was where guests stayed when visiting. Not far away is a circular sculpture by Donald Judd. All the mechanics that keep a house functioning are underground. There is a pool as well as art and sculpture galleries, all within walking distance from the abode. David Whitney, Johnson's partner, curated an important collection of mid-century abstract-expressionist art. In the galleries are works by Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella, among many others.

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WHEN YOU GO

Go first to the visitors center in the pleasant town of New Canaan, Connecticut. From there a jitney will take you on a 10-minute ride to The Glass House. The one-hour tour centers on the house, and longer tours include visits to the art and sculpture galleries and the pond area as well as more in-depth lectures. Just before the house look left to find another Johnson-designed residence. He designed six in the New Canaan area.

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Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate, Inc.
 

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