Last week, I went to New Canaan, Connecticut to visit the most iconic modernist residential building in America–Phillip Johnson’s Glass House. Since I first saw an image of it in a survey of American architecture, I’ve wanted to see it firsthand.
What surprised me was how much more was there than just the house. Johnson experimented with buildings, follies, and land forms on 47 acres from 1945 until his death in 2005. Some, like the Glass House (1945) transcend time and space; others like the Library/Study (1980) and the Lake Pavilion (1962) appear rooted in their time; while still another, the Painting Gallery (1965) foretells the future and conjures up the past. He borrowed ideas from his travels, history, art and other architects and played with them on his own property.
That is not to say that this is not serious architecture, it is, but without anyone but himself to please, these structures are less ponderous and weighty than much of Johnson’s other work. Sometimes, as in the case of the Lake Pavilion (top image below) whose arches echo those on the Beck House (1964) (bottom image below) which I visited with APLD in Dallas, they are life size scale models of ideas in action.
It was thrilling to see the juxtaposition of these experiments with existing farm walls, art and pathways. It gave me insight into Johnson’s creative patterns and ideas. Close to the original structure, proportions and geometric shapes repeat and reflect themselves, further away they are less relational but no less geometric.
Throughout his life, Johnson collected art and two buildings are galleries for his sculpture and painting collections. Each offer a distinct experience. The Painting Gallery is a bunker like structure housed under a grass covered mound. Inside the gallery itself has a series of circular rotating tracks that allow the six pieces of his 42 piece collection to be viewed at a time.
The Sculpture Gallery (1970) is a tour de force of light and shadow that eclipses the art inside. I was mesmerized by it and the way the patterns shifted and changed as the clouds overhead filtered the available light or not. It gave the building a living, breathing feeling.
The property when viewed as a whole life statement is a masterful celebration of textural interplay, light and shadow, and mass and void that I’ve seen few other places.
Phillip Johnson had a profound respect for the land he built on and few of the buildings/follies feel forced. The land he built on is honored as are the existing field walls that came before him. Nowhere was this more evident than at the view from a site specific Donald Judd sculpture over a farm wall to the glass house.
His lifelong experiments sit easily on the land even though they are the antithesis of natural. More than half a century later they still belong.