For the next few weeks, I will be checking out a variety of house museums as part of my work at the Heurich House Museum in Dupont Circle. Today, I had a magical experience at The Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, CT. Johnson was a brilliant architect, art collector, and intellectual. He “was also a singular tastemaker, influencing architecture, art, and design during the second-half of the twentieth century. He referred to the Glass House site as his ‘fifty-year diary.’” He was the founding director of the Department of Architecture at MOMA and introduced America to modern architecture with his landmark 1932 exhibition, The International Style.
I am just starting to appreciate modernism, but The Glass House is one of the most amazing buildings I’ve ever been in, and I had to share it. Although small, minimalist, and practical, this is a fairy tale home. Johnson curated the vast expanse of land below the building so that it rolls out as a painting. And there is the barest division between what is inside and what is out. A life inside the Glass House is a life in nature.
Donald Judd’s concrete work, “Untitled”, 1971 on the approach to the Glass House and the Brick House. Construction of the sculpture required two loads of concrete. The load from the first truck was poured, but the second truck got lost en route. By the time it arrived the next day, the first pour had begun to cure and the two never fully bonded together. In 2010, work was done to restore the resulting cracks and clean the entire piece.
The buildings sit on 47 acres of land. Much of the property had once been a dairy farm, and many of the original old New England stone walls remain. Johnson carefully edited and built up the wall leading to the Glass House and Brick House, and specifically widened the area surrounding an original tree whose roots wrap around one of the old stones.
The Glass House sits on a natural promontory and overlooks a magical swath of vast land. The transparent walls blend with the surrounding landscape. Johnson’s bed is the only piece of furniture in the wide space behind a storage unit. Here, he would be alone with the outside world.
Johnson dammed the river below the Glass House, and created a small pond. The Pavilion was the site of many of his parties. He liked to climb the 30 foot high Lincoln Kirstein sculpture, calling it “a staircase to nowhere.”
The man-made lighting inside the Glass House is dim. Lights around the edge of the roof brighten the trees surrounding the building at night, turning the inside out.
In Johnson’s original sketches of the Glass House and the Brick House, they were attached. Although the final buildings do not physically touch, he still considered them, and the grass paths between, part of the same structure.
Johnson and his companion, David Whitney, were avid art collectors. He created his Art Gallery in a bunker under a mound of land. This Sculpture Gallery was designed to mimic the stairway-lined villages of the Greek islands. “Raft of the Medusa, Part I” by Frank Stella contains the metallized innards of Stella’s torn-apart studio.
The chain link Ghost House is a playful folly that lays beyond Johnson’s Study. The Study remains exactly as it did when Johnson died in 2005.
Da Monsta is the last building Johnson designed for the property, and was originally intended to be the Visitor Center for the museum he knew it would become. As a good friend of Frank Gehry, Johnson was on-site in Bilbao during his Guggenheim project. The form of Da Monsta seems to reflect the influence of this relationship.
Visitors to Da Monsta cannot be sure whether they are looking at sculpture or are standing inside one.