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The Glass House Site Visit

The "Glass House" Site Visit on July 23, 2015

My visit to Philip Johnson’s Glass House last week was nothing short of astonishing. Completed in 1949, this modern architect’s home still has much to teach us and it is beyond inspirational. When anyone mentions a glass house, this is the original. It’s so curated as to be poetically liberating – a liberation from the non-essential, the non-beautiful, and just anything “non” if you know what I mean.

Clear glass is, of course, simultaneously transparent and reflective. But because this entire home is a rectangle composed essentially of floor-to-ceiling glass, it creates a pleasantly disorienting experience on-site in which both the house and its visitors can appear but sometimes vanish, based on angles of light. And the effect is magical.

Johnson’s intentional illusions begin from the start via careful siting and landscaping. As you walk down the windy, tree-lined drive to the house, you can’t help but focus on a large, circular, concrete sculpture by Donald Judd below you (his first). Its bold shape and material steal the show as it contrasts with the green grass & trees waving in the breeze. And then it happens…as you get down closer and your gaze lifts to appreciate the subtly slanted top edge of the artwork, the Glass House suddenly “appears” maybe just 100 feet behind it past a stone wall! No need to play it cool here…I actually gasped with delight. The Glass House’s dark steel framing blended so well into the tree trunks and the furnishings’ exposed color palette mixed so well with the natural setting that an entire building literally snuck up into my view. Now that’s magic.

As you then approach the house, its expansive glass wall reflects the architectural counterpoint that is the red Brick House directly across the lawn. Designed to house guests, this windowless (except round ones on the back) box of bricks is the polar opposite of its partner, both inside and out. But connected by delineated, pebbled pathways through the grass, the two structures were actually intended to be parts of one home. Sadly, it’s currently closed for renovations but I understand the space is stylistically very different with things like arches and Fortuny fabric (ah, the perils of flat roofs).

And beckoning quietly beside the pair of buildings is a serene, circular swimming pool with just a small, plinth-style deck in the corner of the manicured lawn. An eased edge below the waterline on one side provides seating and the scale is intimate without being small.

Before we step inside the house, have a look at the construction drawing below to better understand this minimalist space if its new to you. While many spaces are “loft-like” and “open” these days, this lack of interior walls was totally visionary at that time  (In the photo above, I’m standing just outside the rectangle on the steps at the bottom).

The rectangle is composed entirely of glass walls and the circle represents the sole, floor-to-ceiling, bricked structure that “floats” in the room and appears visually to support the whole place, though it obviously doesn’t. That cylinder houses a fireplace facing the living room area and a bathroom behind it, with the rest of the furnishings in what he called “rooms” around it. Due to the reflections in daytime, one can stand on the grass but appear to be simultaneously “in” and “outside of” the building, as shown below. Fascinating.


As you enter, the seating area greets you straight ahead and the herringbone brick floor space feels surprisingly large given its efficient 55’ x 33’ footprint. The now familiar but brilliant, caramel leather daybed there was designed by Van Der Rohe specifically for Johnson, and it’s joined by a pair of matching Barcelona Chairs, a Stool and glass-topped Table. The plush, white rug grounds the area and provides a box within a box effect nicely. One of the home’s only three lamps stands sculpturally just below the painting that is displayed on an upright frame. Johnson designed that light specially to overcome nighttime reflection issues in the Glass House – it shines bright light upward into the flattened cone top, which then directs the light back down all over the floor rather than up into the room and the glass walls. Looks great and problem solved. I had to resist opening the gorgeous little malachite box on the coffee table but tried to imagine its contents (A lighter, perhaps? Deck of cards?). Lastly, I’m no one to critique a master’s composition, but artwork is very personal and I just didn’t love this sort of morbid one depicting a statesman’s covered body being carried out of Athens; I can however appreciate why he loved “Burial of Phocion” by Nicolas Poussin, with its carefully laid-out landscape setting so similar to his own and perhaps the symbolism of the subjects. And it does look classically wonderful in the room if you don’t look too closely.

The rounded fireplace to the right provides a traditional focal point, but I thought it does so rather quietly; its shape more so encourages you to walk all around it rather than stand still in front as you normally might. There is a sense of freedom of movement and there are no dead ends in his floor plan.

Each of the building’s four sides has a centered door and the living area’s door leads out to a grassy overlook of a man-made pond below. Johnson also built the Lincoln Kerstein Tower in the background and a smaller-than-life scale pavilion on an island where he would entertain guests for picnics. Its size creates the illusion that it is farther away than it really is and many visitors must actually duck to stand inside. I love how he points out that, “…it is an island….if you’re young and lithe, you jump…the jump is an important thing…you have to do something, you have to make an effort.”

Back inside, the dining area consists solely of a beautifully veined, marble slab top table and four, black leather Brno Chairs. I got the sense that both casual dinners and serious business meetings could have been held there, but every person would have a wonderfully distracting view regardless.

The kitchen is just a T-shaped island, with sink, oven, refrigerator and storage all very neatly enclosed in a walnut jacket on the outside, with charcoal grey door/drawer fronts on the inside. Theatergoers may recognize this tall, paper mache sculpture of two circus ladies by Elie Nadelman - a larger, white marble version presides over the atrium of Johnson’s elegant New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center). This is just one example of the countless treasures he collected over decades with his partner, David Whitney. It was apparently placed there because it made it seem as if someone was always home and I’ll admit I fell for that trick on the way up the walk as well. Note the monolithic Brick House in the background below.


I loved his idea that the sink & cooktop can be concealed entirely in the cabinetry by folding over two hinged countertop pieces shown below. Johnson and Whitney entertained countless art & cultural world luminaries there, including Andy Warhol, so I imagine that feature was convenient to create an uninterrupted surface area.

I gathered that more storage was needed at some point since the second set of cabinets, shown at right below, are not shown on the original plans. They are darker grey fronts with a bluestone countertop instead, but still feel like part of the whole there and actually add visual interest. In fact, many kitchens today are designed to mix materials just like this from the beginning. Note that was our awesome guide in the coral dress.

The bedroom area is defined behind an above-head-high row of walnut closets, which acts as both a loose boundary for the living area and also a headboard/wall on the opposite side, with a lot of storage. Now, I’ll admit I’m yearning for some pillows and such here, but you have to sort of admire the monk-like focus he desired and built for himself, no? And keep in mind the reality that a nosey passerby could see right into the space if he managed to peek over the stonewall at street level. Much to Johnson’s chagrin, many people did and he had to finally post a sign that the house’s occupant would appreciate his privacy!

And while the bed area does include a simple desk facing the pool, he later built a small, freestanding Study/Library with a single window & skylights where he worked just across his property. FYI There is also a wonderful Painting Gallery, a Sculpture Gallery, and several other structures like Da Monsta on-site that were each very interesting in their own way. Note Johnson & Whitney had an extensive art collection, including works from Stella and Rauschenberg, but the Sculpture Gallery is currently closed for renovation so I’ve another excuse to go back (again, the roof!).

Last but not least is the European-style bathroom that is enclosed in the bricked cylinder at the back of the last photo. The shower is basically open to the room, with another wooden floor drain nearby and a circular curtain. Two slim, mirrored wall cabinets provide storage and the sink’s pipes are left unceremoniously exposed. Both the brighter green-tiled walls & floor and the leather-tiled ceiling initially surprised me, but they seem to actually make sense now.

As an interior decorator, I found it fascinating to learn that Johnson not only mapped out every detail of the building itself & grounds as any architect would, but also every piece of furniture, artwork, and lighting that you just saw, which were all installed and remained precisely in place as drawn for the 55 years he lived there and still today since it has been preserved! His is therefore a rather permanent study in a conceptually fixed way of life and an appreciation of the beauty of very few, carefully placed furnishings. But located in New Canaan, CT, (where I grew up not far off and fondly recall four very distinct seasons) the home’s 50-acre landscape beyond the walls is an ever-changing parade of color & weather. From verdant summer greens shown below to an array of autumn oranges, to blankets of white winter snow and withered browns in early spring, I can imagine how the view there is constantly evolving. So there’s a very centering quality to this home’s controlled interior and Johnson comically liked to say he simply had “expensive wallpaper”.

The estate is at once familiar yet totally fresh. I was struck by the crossover of attractive elements he created and I’ve enjoyed elsewhere, or those where he took inspiration from other designers or places I’ve had the pleasure to visit. I found myself thinking of Serra, Palm Springs, Goldsworthy, Gehry, Japan, the MoMA, Storm King, Mondrian, and of course, Van Der Rohe. Also writer Milan Kundera and his wonderful book “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” come to mind….I wonder if those two geniuses ever met.

In fairness, I should note Johnson himself recognized his design to be shall we say inspired by discussions with and contemporary designs by one of my other favorite architects, Mies Van Der Rohe, who was a mentor of sorts for him. Van Der Rohe’s similar, on-going Farnsworth House commission in IL (constructed 1945-1951) probably caused him to famously storm out of the Glass House upon seeing it completed in 1949. But the houses have many significant differences also and I hope to find a chance to tour the floating Mies building if I can I get out near Chicagoland again.

Since it’s a short subway ride away, Johnson’s Four Seasons Restaurant (within Van Der Rohe’s Seagram Building) will be the next stop this week as Vanity Fair announced today that the new tenants will take over in August. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking what a shame it’ll be to lose such an iconic restaurant, or any detail therein frankly. Unlike the Glass House, which is a protected, National Trust Historic Site, the Four Seasons in NYC will be renamed and “respected” but “improved upon” by Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick. Their landlord & partner, Aby Rosen, is not exactly a preservationist and Picasso’s painting may already have been removed but I just reserved a table for lunch on Tuesday so stay tuned for my next follow up post.

In summation, talented architect Steven Holl commented below about a building he designed in Finland, but I respectfully think the same is true of the well-loved Glass House….

“You can’t photograph that building. Only people who have been there can experience it.”

I encourage you to plan your own visit to see it for yourself via the website & link below.


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    Amazing. Nature is the most precious thing a man can have in his life. Watching the scenery out of the glass window looks refreshing, and astonishing. The view can ease the soul, all the tiredness nearly vanishes. It’s just amazing to see such a house. Really loved it.
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