Behind Glass Doors

On a ridge in New Canaan stands a house where the light shoots straight through. This past June, the New York Times dedicated a quarter of its “House & Home” section to this Glass House, a Connecticut landmark in which architect Philip Johnson and his partner David Whitney lived for over half a century. The article, entitled “Behind the Glass Wall: Memories of life and death in an architectural masterwork,” consisted largely of personal accounts from guests Johnson had entertained in the house during the years he lived there. They included that of Barbara Jakobson, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, who remembered that “there was a certain ritualistic aspect to visiting the Glass House. The greeting; to the lunch; the walk; the finish, so Philip could take his nap and work. You always felt welcome, and you always knew when it was over.”

They included that of architect Frank Gehry. “It made sense: their activity, their dress, the room and the site, it all had a symbiotic relationship that was uncanny. It was grand and generous and eloquent, and all of a piece.”

Another visitor, another memory. Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture: “Clutter? Don’t be silly. Nothing was ever out of place in the Glass House. Every flower knew its proper position in the vase.”

The Glass House was the last in which Johnson lived, but certainly not the first. He spent his childhood summers in an Ohio country house of the Greek Revival style where his mother projected “lantern” slides of Italian paintings upon the walls to educate her children about art. When Johnson enrolled at Harvard in 1920, he continued to impose art upon walls, hanging reproductions of Simone Martini and Piero della Francesca around his dorm room. He remained an undergraduate longer than most-seven years-due to a nervous breakdown, after which a Boston neurologist advised him to “take six months” and return home to Ohio, where he read two detective stories a day between tears.

Johnson took the six months, returned to school, and completed his degrees in philosophy and Greek only to re-enroll at Harvard in 1940, this time at its Graduate School of Design, where he conceived and constructed a house on Cambridge’s Ash Street for his graduate thesis. It was composed of a wooden rectangle covering half the lot and one glass wall that enclosed the front garden in such a way as to make it appear part of the living room.

As this house was not merely a project but a home in which to live, Johnson erected a nine-foot wall between it and the street for privacy, a move that upset his neighbors and provoked unsuccessful lawsuits requesting its removal. Many people disliked the Ash Street house. Even Johnson admits, “People felt that it didn’t jibe with the street, and they were right-it didn’t.” But the parties he threw there, replete with fine drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and high conversation, were grand enough to triumph over the criticism and the house itself attractive enough to sell for 24,000 dollars, the approximate cost of its construction.

Following design school graduation and the sale of the Ash Street home, Johnson moved to 751 Third Avenue, a small house in Manhattan that he had rented in 1939 and in which his younger sister, Theodate, had lived after his return to Cambridge. (Theodate affectionately dubbed 751 “Hidden House,” because of its location behind a row of apartment buildings fronting the street.)

In the late 1940s, Johnson, desiring a break from city life, searched for property in New Canaan, a Connecticut suburb. The five acres to which a local realtor directed him were part of Ponus Ridge- “a nearly impenetrable tangle of woods, mostly of second and third growth relieved by an occasional stretch of field grass and some older trees,” which sloped gently downward from the road. The land stood on the edge of a tumble of boulders, beyond which lay a vast view of the Rippowam Valley. Within an hour of his first visit to the site, Johnson had walked down from the road, reached the field grass, surveyed the valley, and bought the five acres.

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ohnson’s five acres have since grown to 47. The stretch of field grass now includes a brick guest house, a pool, a lake pavilion, painting and sculpture galleries, a concrete and aluminum entrance gate, and a library which houses Johnson’s collection of architecture books. It includes a number of small pavilions-a “Ghost House” composed completely of chain-link, a tower 35 feet tall inspired by Balanchine choreography and named for Lincoln Kirstein (to climb it, one observer noted, “you have to choreograph your own dance”), a gatehouse composed of red and black “warped” blocks called “Da Monsta” and-the site’s namesake-the Glass House. The property, recently labeled a National Trust Historic Site, opened to the public in June. Over five hundred guests attended the Inaugural Gala Picnic, which included an open house, gourmet lunch, and performance by The Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

All 47 acres are now collectively called the Philip Johnson Glass House, but the transparent structure remains a single room built by Johnson in 1949. It is 56 feet long and 32 feet wide, the space defined by a floor, a flat roof, and four walls made entirely of glass. Steel columns at each corner and at the center of the house’s long sides allow for a pristine interior. Excluding these piers, the only element that obstructs one’s latitudinal view is a cylindrical brick structure, which occupies a prominent spot in the northeast corner and protrudes slightly above the roof. One half of it contains a bathroom, the other a fireplace. The cylinder divides the “living room” and “kitchen”-a head-high cabinet and table-high counter-from the “bedroom,” also located at the house’s northern end. The Glass House contains only two works of art: a sculpture of two women by Elie Nadelman displayed near the kitchen and “The Death of Phocion,” a painting by Nicolas Poussin on an easel by the fireplace. It was, from 1949 until his death in 2005, Johnson’s weekend and then primary residence and has been hailed by many since its construction as one of the greatest architectural achievements of the twentieth century.

Throughout the complex, one senses the strict routine by which Johnson and Whitney lived. Nothing was ever out of place in the Glass House. It was all of a piece. According to biographer Franz Schulze, Johnson only permitted slight changes to the placement of items and furniture inside the house once he had set them down. The dining room table remains where it stood when he first entertained at it; the writing desk where it stood when he first wrote at it; and the bed where it stood when he first slept in it. Even when reading, Johnson would not move “as much as a pillow to prop up his head.”

Anecdotes such as this surround the Glass House, reiterating the constancy of the place. There is the story of the guest who, without thought, dropped her handbag on the table-high counter and was promptly scolded: “You can’t put that there!” There is the tale, told by biographer Hilary Lewis, of the photographer who moved some objects-an ashtray, a malachite box-around Johnson’s Barcelona Table during a photo shoot to achieve a better shot. The story goes that Whitney walked quietly over to the table and moved the ashtray and the box back to their original positions. “Johnson nodded to the photographer and said, ‘I think it’s better.'”

These stories paint Johnson as stiff, an obsessive who would not tolerate any way but his own. Yet his house was anything but lifeless and severe. Other narratives, those of friends closest to him, portray Johnson as full of humor and possessed of distinct taste. To his neighbor and writer Fran Lebowitz, he was “a big lover of gossip and wit and other people’s problems.” To artist Frank Stella, he was “ferociously entertaining,” and to Port Draper, the engineer responsible for maintaining his property, “the most fun person I ever worked for.” They knew the Johnson who threw a good party. The Johnson who hosted weekend lunches for up to 14 and whose frequent visitors included Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. The Johnson who invited the Velvet Underground over to jam, and who pissed off the neighbors when the music grew too loud. The Johnson who, on the stormy New Canaan night that a branch crashed through his wall, shattering glass and allowing rain to pour in over his head, sat stunned and blinking in his chair, then laughed.

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onsider one of Johnson’s own stories: At the age of 13, he accompanied his mother to France and saw Chartres Cathedral-one of his “great architectural experiences” along with the Parthenon and Kyoto’s Ryoanji Temple. “There was a funeral going on,” he told Calvin Tomkins of The New Yorker. “I was so moved I don’t know why I wasn’t dead.” This was, however, only the first of many occasions on which Johnson was moved by architecture. Throughout his career, he sought to recapture that pathos with every design and structure he devised. “To be in the presence of a great work of architecture is such a satisfaction that you can go hungry for days,” Johnson said. “To create a feeling such as mine in Chartres Cathedral when I was thirteen is the aim of architecture.”

There was a degree to which Johnson always infused architecture with ontology, a reasonable approach for a scholar of philosophy and classics who committed himself to the arts late in the game. And yet for all his philosophical influences, Johnson broke into the profession with a focus on functionalism, a movement characterized by a break from ornamental historicism, the use of new technologies and building materials like glass and reinforced concrete, the insistence of “structural integrity,” and the notion that a building’s form must follow its function. Johnson delineated these rules himself, first in a 1932 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art titled “Modern Architecture,” and then in The International Style: Architecture Since 1922, a book he authored that same year with architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock, which gave the subsequent movement its name.

Later, when he stopped preaching the art and started to practice it, he sang a decidedly different tune. Johnson determined that architecture should be created not to serve a functional purpose but to evoke a feeling. In 1977, he told Tomkins that he was “beginning to think that maybe the terms ‘form’ and ‘function’ were always meaningless.” “What is function in Chartres?” he asked. “When the people come in and see the high altar, with the ceiling over a hundred feet up, and experience all that religious emotion, is that aesthetics or is it function?”

He told Charlie Rose, in a special interview to mark his ninetieth birthday, that architecture at its best should exhilarate people as a symphony does. When you listen to a great symphony, he explained, you feel “you could float, but you can’t analyze why.” The test of architecture was equally intuitive: “build a building, go inside and let it wrap itself around you.” A visceral connection should transpire between an individual and the place he inhabits. “What more could you ask of architecture,” Johnson concluded, but to “feel very good in the tummy.”

In an essay, “Living in Glass Houses: Domesticity, Interior Decoration, and Environmental Aesthetics,” Kevin Melchionne of the National Museum of American Art wrote the following about Johnson’s famous home: “The successful occupant of the Glass House or any other pristine, severe, and hyperorganized environment lives in the house in perfect harmony with its formal configuration and artistic meaning.” I think it’s better, Johnson said, when the ashtray and box were moved back to their original positions on the table: words spoken by an occupant in perfect harmony with the formal configuration and artistic meaning of his home.

There’s no evidence of tchotchkes [in the Glass House]. Visitors are always astounded at the discipline it must have taken to be so spare.”

-Christy MacLear, executive director of the Philip Johnson Glass House

When I read that quotation in the Times this past June, I recalled a slow summer afternoon I spent talking with my grandmother in which she asked how, if I followed through with my intention to clean my closet of all my old dresses, would I remember where I had come from. This seemed an odd question at the time, but I see now it was not. She had sewn my past into fabric, considered these clothes material artifacts, physical reminders of who I once was. She wanted to ensure that the person I had become did not lose touch with the person I had been.

Life insists upon accumulation, a gradual assemblage of things that collectively declare: this is who I am. An individual who has purposefully removed clutter from his or her life has arrived at a unique point, one in which the necessity to retain ties to the past becomes undesirable or irrelevant and the decision to let it all go seems a wiser, cathartic alternative. The Glass House was and remains devoid of clutter. The way in which Johnson chose to live there-spare, no tchotchkes-divorced him from his own narrative. He relinquished the “lantern” slides and reproductions of Simone Martini and opted instead for “wallpaper”-by which he meant a view of the outdoors-forever subject to change.

Photographs accompanying articles devoted to the Glass House often depict Johnson standing before one of his walls, gazing out at his 47 acres. From this familiar place, he could see Ponus Ridge with its stretches of field grass and trees. He could see the stout stone fence he constructed to line the edge of the tumble of boulders and he could see the Rippowam Valley. And, imposed on it all, he could see his reflection, a portrait etched in the glass of the walls of his house, a representation of himself as he was in the precise moment he stood facing the landscape.

As I looked at these photographs, I was reminded of a song I heard once on the radio composed of only three lines, two of which were Bring a mirror to my face/Let all my memories be gone-as fitting an anthem for a glass house as I have ever heard.

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n a review of the Glass House published two weeks after its public opening, Nicolai Ouroussoff of the Times said that, “What mattered most about Johnson might have less to do with his gifts as an architect than with his intellectual openness�a willingness to test new ideas, to push limits to their extremes, to stay firmly rooted in the present.” In the end, the Glass House exists mostly as a testament to someone who, for all his weaknesses, could always make architecture feel wonderfully alive.

This conclusion is apt. The Glass House rooted Johnson in the present, allowed him to experience life as it evolved within his 47 acres, filled him with a satisfaction that could last for days. The test of architecture was to build a building, go inside, and let it wrap itself around you. “When people come into my house,” Johnson said, “I say, ‘Just shut up and look around.'”

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