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Philip Johnson’s Glass House

National Trust for Historic Preservation, Board of Trustees Meeting at The Glass House, New Canaan
May 24th, 2006

Good afternoon. I am pleased to be here, although this is a bittersweet moment for me, as someone who has visited this extraordinary house on and off for more than thirty-five years, since this is the first time I have been at the Glass House without Philip Johnson being present. I was never lucky enough to walk through Fallingwater with Frank Lloyd Wright or the Farnsworth House with Mies van der Rohe, but I did visit the Glass House many times with Philip Johnson, whose identity is so tied into this place that I wonder if it isn’t more meaningful to compare it not to its glass cousin the Farnsworth House – the acquisition of which, as you all know, represents one of the great recent triumphs of the National Trust – but instead to compare the Glass House to places like Monticello or Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, both of which are structures that, like this one, are quite literally autobiographies written in the form of houses – amazing buildings in which the architect was the client, and the client was the architect, and the goal was to express in built form the preoccupations of a life.

As those remarkable places still have meaning, even without Thomas Jefferson or Sir John Soane still around – although of course Monticello has Dan Jordan, which is pretty close to having Thomas Jefferson – but in any event, so, too, will the Glass House have meaning, even without Philip Johnson in residence. Future generations will add meaning, and new layers of interpretation, as they do at Monticello and the Soane Museum. But it is an adjustment, still, especially since right now we are still so close to the moment in January of 2005, less than a year and a half ago, when Johnson died right here, six months short of his ninety-ninth birthday. Had he lived to this July, he would have been one hundred. As Dick Moe has told you, the National Trust was given the Glass House in 1986, and Philip Johnson, then eighty, was given a life estate. I think it is fair to say that the Trust’s architectural judgment in this case was probably sounder than its actuarial judgment.

I first came to this house as a Yale undergraduate who was sent by my professor, Vincent Scully, to call upon Philip in the hope that he might provide some support for a university publication I worked on. I emerged from his office in the Seagram Building with a check for five hundred dollars – a lot of money in those days – and an invitation to visit at the Glass House. I can still remember Philip’s voice on the phone, at once gracious and impatient, as he tried to give me directions to the Glass House. “Turn at the barn onto Jelliff Mill Road,” he said, referring to the street that leads into Ponus Ridge, and I, not hearing clearly, said “Jealous Mill? Like the emotion?” “No, no, Jelliff,” he said, but I still didn’t get it, and said, “Jealous? You mean like envy?” “Yes, yes,” he sputtered, undoubtedly wondering why he had agreed to welcome a handful of undergraduates to New Canaan on a Saturday afternoon in May.

And so it was that three of us and a graduate fellow drove down the Merritt Parkway from New Haven and a world opened up to us. That is the best way to put it: suddenly, as our car turned from Jelliff Mill onto Ponus Ridge, worlds that had existed only in one realm, as things that were only studied and reflected upon, in one instant became real. They became so gloriously, overpoweringly real that all four of us wanted to dive into the life that they represented, and swim in it forever. It was not just Philip himself, or even the Glass House, powerful as the impact of seeing them was. It was the wholeness of it all, Philip Johnson sitting on The Barcelona chairs, in front of The Poussin, talking for hours about his life, our lives, architecture, and art. We were with Paul Klee in Berlin one moment, with Alfred Barr at MOMA the next, in Andy Warhol’s studio the next. He listened as well as he talked, and if there was anything even more remarkable than hearing Philip Johnson talk about what he was trying to do when he built the Sculpture Gallery, it was having the sense that he actually cared what we thought of it. It was one thing to offer up your opinions about architecture in a Yale exam bluebook; it was quite another to present them to Philip Johnson, and see that he was listening to them. We were completely at ease, because Philip made us so, and yet to us this was no casual conversation at all; we felt that we had left our tiny creek and begun that day to swim in the river of history.

That was the beginning of my experience with this house, a day that ended with a tour through the solid brick Guest House, the opaque complement to the Glass House, and the remarkable underground Art Gallery, whose hanging, swinging panels were directly influenced by John Soane, and to the spatially active, energetic Sculpture Gallery, and down to the pavilion in the pond, a remarkable trick of scale. We could see that this house was, as I said, Philip Johnson’s autobiography – all of his interests were visible, and all of his architectural preoccupations, beginning with his connection to Mies van der Rohe, and going on to his decorative classicism phase, which yielded the little pavilion, and his interest in an angular, crisp, more purely sculptural modernism, which brought forth the Sculpture Gallery. Since that day so long ago, there were more phases and more structures – the white library, a kind of primal hut; the Kirstein Tower, a homage to Johnson’s longtime friend Lincoln Kirstein; the Gehry “ghost house,” made of chain link fence; and finally, a much more elaborate homage to later Frank Gehry, the visitors’ pavilion by the gate, which Johnson named “Da Monsta,” giving it an oddly biomorphic twist.

Still, one keeps coming back to the Glass House itself, a building that I consider one of Philip Johnson’s few truly great works of architecture. I think it should be said at this point that Philip Johnson was by no means the greatest architect of his time, but he was surely the greatest architectural figure, and if that sounds inconsistent, let me explain. It is no exaggeration to say that the contemporary architectural culture was in many ways made by Philip. He was not the greatest scholar of architecture, he was probably not the greatest curator, and as I said he was certainly not the greatest architect, the serene beauty of the Glass House notwithstanding. But his curious, energetic, and mercurial mind possessed an almost unquenchable passion for architectural ideas, and when that was combined with Philip’s determination to have an impact on the broader culture, extraordinary things happened. It began, it is fair to say, with his early explorations of modernism in Europe with Henry-Russell Hitchcock in the nineteen-twenties, which yielded the book The International Style and the exhibition of the same name at The Museum of Modern Art in 1932, twin events that made European modernist architecture visible for the first time in a significant way in the United States. Philip was part and parcel of The Museum of Modern Art almost from its founding. He was the museum’s first curator of architecture, and he organized some of its most important exhibitions, including one that gave Mies van der Rohe his first serious attention in the United States, and another, “Machine Art,” that showed how willing Philip was to break through traditional barriers separating industrial design from the realm of high art.

Philip pursued the new as naturally as a moth moves to light, and as the years went on, this quality became more and more intense, as if what he feared most was the loss of the stimulation that fresh ideas gave his mind. His corner table at the Four Seasons, the restaurant he designed in 1958 that remains the standard by which all other modern restaurants are judged, was the site of a de facto architectural seminar that met every day at half past noon. Sometimes Philip’s guest would be a client or another famous architect – he had to keep the former group happy, and he figured he could learn something from his competitors – and sometimes it would be a journalist with whom he wanted to share the latest gossip, but just as often the guest would be a younger architect whose work Philip had heard about and been fascinated by. A summons to lunch with the master seemed like a generous and career-launching act, and in many ways it was, but of course it was also Philip’s way of doing research. He got at least as much as he gave, and if you did not quite have to sing for your supper, you did have to lecture for your lunch.

Philip referred to the younger architects he encouraged as “the kids,” an appellation he never gave up, even as he moved into his nineties and many of the kids, like Robert Stern, Charles Gwathmey, Richard Meier, David Childs, Peter Eisenman and Jaquelin Robertson crossed the line into their sixties and, in the case of Frank Gehry, their seventies. The dialogue between Philip and the kids lasted for more than a generation, and much of it took place here at this house, where Saturday afternoons often functioned like those Four Seasons lunches. It seems, now, like a kind of golden age of architectural discourse.

In any case, I was beginning to say something about the Glass House itself, this 56-foot long box, essentially one room, with only a brick cylinder containing a bathroom rising to the ceiling. Furniture groupings, not partitions, define the use areas. From inside, the carefully manicured landscape visible through the glass functions as an enclosure, and the ironic illusion is superb: the vistas tell the occupant that he is open to the whole world, while in truth there is no world outside at all, just the elegantly arranged landscape that is as much a part of the house as the furniture. The line between inside and outside becomes both visually and conceptually ambiguous. Modernism opens you to the world – sort of.

When this house was new, it seemed startlingly radical – nothing like it had ever been seen before. The Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe’s masterwork in Illinois, and now, of course, one of the prized properties of the National Trust, had already been designed – Philip Johnson knew of the designs – but it had not yet been built. Because this house was so different, people often did not know what to make of it. There is a wonderful story of a woman coming to visit the house, looking about, and saying rather snottily, “Well, it may be very beautiful, but I certainly couldn’t live here.”

“I haven’t asked you to, Madam,” Philip Johnson is said to have responded.

It is hard not to compare the Glass House to the Farnsworth House, not only because they are both now properties of the National Trust – and I should digress for a moment to say that those of you who have been there know that it is a sublime experience; if you have not been to that funny little farm town sixty miles outside of Chicago you must go, since it is one of the architectural pilgrimages of a lifetime. In any case while there are obvious similarities between the Glass House and the Farnsworth House – neither of these places is exactly what you would call a cozy Cape Cod cottage – the two are hardly the same, and not only because the Farnsworth House is a single building and the Glass House is an estate created over fifty years, one place representing the ultimate expression of architectural genius at a moment in time, the other showing us the evolution of a fertile, active and passionate intelligence over half a century.

But even if we talk only of the Glass House itself and compare that single building to the Farnsworth House, there are still essential differences, and they are worth noting for a moment. The Farnsworth House is white, and it appears to float above the ground; space moves beneath it. The Glass House is black, and it sits foursquare on the ground, almost like a classical temple. And also like a classical building, it is symmetrical – the doors are in the middle. The Farnsworth House is asymmetrical. What you can see in the Farnsworth House is Mies van der Rohe expressing the desire of modernism to break free, to break free of the rules of gravity and the rules of architecture, and to rewrite it all: to find a new, higher form of serenity, we might say, to make a composition of subtle purism.

But here in the Glass House, Philip Johnson was saying something else. He wanted to come back to earth, so to speak, to re-connect to the history of architecture, to show that the most pristine and elegant and modern of buildings did not have to rewrite all the rules. The Glass House is at once Miesian and anti-Miesian; it both celebrates Mies van der Rohe and moves away from him. Mies himself, by the way, hated it; he was driven crazy by the way in which his most devoted acolyte had simultaneously paid tribute to him and undermined him in this remarkable design. Once, when Mies came to visit, he was so disturbed by the house that he could not remain within it, and Johnson had to call a neighbor and see if he could put the architect up for the night, since Mies said he could not stay.

The sheer beauty and elegance of this place alone would make the Glass House is as important a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation as any. I expect that the opening of this house to the public next year will be one of the most significant events in the Trust’s history, for it will join the Trust’s mission to great twentieth century architecture in a more visible way than ever before. I say that not only because New Canaan, Connecticut, is a more accessible place than Plano, Illinois, home of the Farnsworth House – it is because there is something unusual about this house, something that ties it in a special way to the mission of the National Trust. Here, more than anywhere, more even than at the utterly sublime Farnsworth House, can we see modernism reaching out to make connections to the rest of architecture – we can see the revolution that modernism represented pulling itself back in from the rejection of history that characterized its beginnings, and saying that maybe we don’t gain so much by ignoring history after all. “You cannot not know history,” Philip Johnson once said, and this house proves the point better than anything else in the modernist canon.

Here in New Canaan, then, is not only a great monument of modernism – here is a statement about architectural history, as full and rich and important as we will see it anywhere. The Glass House has something to say not only about the dreams of postwar American architecture – by connecting us to history, it also tells us something about Lyndhurst and Drayton Hall and Shadows-on-the-Teche and Woodlawn. Here, we see modernism reaching out and joining the great stream of American architecture, and acknowledging that architecture, even the most radical architecture, doesn’t begin with a clean slate, but owes much to what has come before. In this way, the Glass House offers one of the greatest of all architectural lessons – that we do not honor history best by making copies of it, but by learning from it to make something of our own. We might even say that this is the lesson upon which the National Trust was built – that we keep the past alive not to move back into it, but to inspire us to a more creative present.

Thank you.

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