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The Modern Estate
Gift Of A Master
by Michael Allan Torre

New Canaan has become the promised land for lovers of art and architecture: In April, Philip Johnson’s renowned private estate will open to the public

GiftOfaMaster.jpgOne Saturday morning in 1988, driving up Ponus Ridge Road in New Canaan, my wife and I decided to take a gamble. Passing the stone-walled property of the distinguished architect Philip Johnson, we saw that the bar on the gate leading to his famous Glass House was up. For a first-year architecture student like me, the chance to get a look at this celebrated building was worth risking arrest by the New Canaan Police Department for trespassing.

But as I turned my Toyota Tercel into the driveway, a black Mercedes-Benz rose up in front of me. Its driver, the bespectacled Johnson himself, clearly didn’t see me; if I hadn’t instantly reversed and forced the car out onto Ponus Ridge Road, that Mercedes would have crashed head-on into my puny Toyota. Back on the road, I drove quickly away in the direction Johnson was not going.

Happily, starting on April 30, anyone who would like to visit the Glass House and other Johnson-designed buildings on the late architect’s property can visit his estate with no fear of a trespassing arrest. On that date, the estate, the Philip Johnson Glass House Site, which Johnson bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, will open for touring. On public display in the Painting and Sculpture Galleries (also part of the visitors’ tour) will be artwork by Warhol, Stella, Lichtenstein, Johns, Chamberlain, Rauschenberg, and other luminaries of mid-20th-century Postmodernism. These paintings, collages, and sculptures reflect a lifetime of passionate collecting by Johnson and his life partner, David Whitney.

Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker’s architecture critic, calls the Glass House “Johnson’s greatest piece of architecture”—and Philip Johnson is one of the greatest architects America has produced. During his long career he designed some of the most remarkable and well-known structures of the last half-century. He worked with his mentor, Mies van der Rohe, on the design of the Seagram Building, in New York City, and designed the Four Seasons restaurant. He designed the AT&T Headquarters, in New York City (for which he was honored with the Pritzker Architecture Prize); the garden at the Museum of Modern Art; 53rd at Third (the “Lipstick Building”), and the Museum of Television & Radio.

Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a striking and stark structure, is one of the two most well-known private estates in America—possibly the world. The other is “Falling Water,” at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, which Frank Lloyd Wright designed in the mid-1930s for Pittsburgh department-store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann. At the time they were built, no residences in the United States had ever looked and functioned (or dysfunctioned) quite the way these innovative homes did.

Johnson built the Glass House, in 1949, as a residence for himself. (In 1950, the Architectural League of New York awarded him a silver medal for its design.) This see-through building is the most forceful, delightful, and unforgettable of the 14 intriguing structures on Johnson’s 47-acre property. It stands alone, a transparent and reflective, hard-line, rectangular box of glass in a sea of wood-gabled farmhouses framed against a natural canvas of trees and sky. Johnson made no changes to it in the decades between its construction and his death in 2005; it has neither an oversized great room with massive stone fireplace nor a kitchen with commercial-sized ranges and refrigerators; its strength resides in its modesty and rejection of current design fads. Its simplicity reflects the “less is more” design philosophy of Johnson’s mentor, Mies van der Rohe—a philosophy manifest in the glass-and-steel Farnsworth House, in Illinois, which Mies built in 1945-1951. Andrea Oppenheimer Dean’s 1996 article in the National Trust’s magazine, Preservation, captured Johnson’s boundless fascination with his home: “It’s the only house in the world where you can watch the sun set and the moon rise at the same time,” she quoted him as saying. “And the snow. It’s amazing when you’re surrounded at night with the falling snow. It’s lighted, which makes it look as though you’re rising on a celestial elevator.”

The Lay of the Land
The Glass House’s uniqueness is evident at the viewer’s first glance. But there’s much more to enjoy in a visit to the property. Part of Johnson’s genius is reflected in the site plan: You must experience the entire property to fully appreciate each piece of architecture. Nothing came to be on this site by happenstance; each structure was designed and located to suit a Johnson purpose. (The property has been a work in progress since 1949.) So plan to spend time surveying the buildings from many viewing angles and height elevations—starting at the top, at Ponus Ridge Road, and ending far below Glass House at the Pavilion in the Pond.

You will be welcomed at the Philip Johnson Visitor Center, opposite the train station in New Canaan, Connecticut. Shuttled to the site, you’ll arrive at the Ponus Ridge location to realize a vast landscape of unspoiled character. Properties this large are rare in Connecticut these days: Most have been subdivided to allow the building of McMansions. Fortunately for the art and architecture lover in all of us, Philip Johnson managed to maintain the integrity of his land.

As you descend into the site, you may think you are observing a hodgepodge of unrelated buildings. This is not the case. Buildings—even experiments in architecture by geniuses like Philip Johnson—are expensive to construct and very difficult to change, once erected. Architects, like the rest of us, are loath to make mistakes and are exceedingly careful about each step taken in the design process. If you see a building of a certain type, style, and placement, you can be assured that Johnson took great pains to build it the way he built it, exploring as many alternative designs as possible before settling on the one that appears before you as a real structure. Therefore, each building’s design and location are meant to relate to the others in a subtle (to us, mysterious) manner.

For a moment let’s return to the top of the property, where Popestead and Calluna Farms are located. Both of these houses are in the Shingle Style, so called by Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully because of their rustic, cedar-shingle exteriors. This style, common long ago, from the mid-1870s to about 1910, has regained popularity in the United States through the efforts of Robert A.M. Stern, who is currently dean of the Yale School of Architecture. He rescued this type of architectural expression by designing spectacularly beautiful summer homes in shingle for his clients in the Hamptons.

These houses stood on the property long before Johnson bought it: Popestead was built as a barn in the late 19th century, then remodeled into a house in 1920; Calluna Farms dates back to 1890. Johnson remodeled them to shelter his friends while they were visiting. No doubt he retained them because of their “contextuality”—they matched the style and construction type of homes in the immediate neighborhood. In form, function, and scale they were friendly and non-threatening with respect to the houses in close proximity to them. On the other hand, Glass House and the other structures on the property—especially Da Monsta, visible from Ponus Ridge Road—remain deliberately noncontextual.

The Shingle Style houses granted their inhabitants a normal degree of privacy. So did the high stone walls erected on Ponus Ridge Road, and the monolithic gate and bar that kept out the four-wheeled curious. The completely transparent Glass House allowed Johnson to see out to nature on all four sides, but it also allowed anyone in the vicinity to see right in.

Unnervingly Clear
Why would anyone want to live in a glass house? Johnson lived there for nearly six decades. When he built the Glass House, in 1949, New Canaan was still a rural community; most of the area was wide-open farmland. Few curious visitors would have bothered to invade his privacy. The high stone walls and monolithic driveway gate, with its remote-controlled rising and falling motorized bar—erected many years after 1949—tell the story of precious privacy lost over time. The floor-to-ceiling movable curtains would never grant enough privacy.

Glass House living certainly lacks the usual comforts of home. Consider the practical heating and cooling problems inherent in a house with glass walls. You get to live with nature, true—but nature, with its changing weather, also gets to live with you. A cold morning inside Glass House would feel much colder than would the same morning in a modern Neo-Colonial with six-inch-thick, insulated exterior walls. And imagine the heat gain this home will experience during a hot August day, or the ashen look upon the face of an insurance agent as he tries to figure out whether or not he will insure all that glass. Even though Johnson could afford the risk of self-insuring, this architectural experiment entailed an enormous financial and practical risk. Still, Johnson took those risks: As Paul Goldberger noted in a New Yorker Postscript after Johnson’s death, the architect’s buildings “were merely responses to the ideas that excited him most.”

Appealingly Bizarre
If you stand behind the Glass House and face away from it, you will see a stark and primitive landscape falling away beneath you. It is altered only by the old stone walls separating fields and Philip Johnson’s mysterious edifices. The scale of the landscape seems bizarre—far away and precariously below your current point of view. Johnson’s additions to this area, Pavilion in the Pond (a collection of low arches) and the climbable Lincoln Kirstein Tower, seem deliberately designed to match the bizarre nature of their location (contextuality again). The low ceiling of the Pavilion in the Pond serves to reinforce the fact that the visitor is far below Glass House on its plateau above.

Stand in front of the Glass House and face Ponus Ridge Road above. Look slowly from left to right. Look again, to install each structure you see in your mind’s eye. (Revisit the site legend on the map you’ll get at the visitors’ center for names and descriptions.) Directly in front of you is Brick House—built at the same time as the Glass House and related to it by its rectangular shape, but in opposition because of its solid material. Its back side carries three round windows that may (or may not) intentionally recall the round bath and fireplace tower inside Glass House. Even though both structures are related, they look and feel different from each other. Glass House and Brick House, therefore, display the “unity of opposites” often found in playwriting—two fundamentally different entities in close proximity to each other, creating a conflict driven to a resolution. (Think Oscar Madison and Felix Unger.) These two structures are, for all intents and purposes, married. If one were to be removed, the other would seem out of place by itself, as if it had lost its “better half.” They are resolved to inhabit the space together.

Panning the site left and right, up and down, you are viewing each of Philip Johnson’s creations as if you were in a 58-year time capsule. There are subtle and not-so-subtle differences between one structure and another. Some structures have an obvious purpose and some are just experiments in architectural expression—evident in Johnson’s highly weird 1995 creation, Da Monsta. To your left are the sculpture and painting galleries. Both are embedded into the hillside; the Painting Gallery is completely buried. These are defensive installations; each is designed as an artwork to protect the artwork contained within.

The Painting Gallery functions as a masterly and practical solution for the display and protection of Johnson’s priceless art collection. Completely belowground, it has no exposed structure that would be subject to destruction from high wind, hurricane, or fire. It has one trapezoid-shaped entrance that is invisible from the street and easily alarmed and guarded. It reminded me of the spacecraft in the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. Indeed, I felt that I should not enter uninvited. Philip Johnson’s practical genius at work.

As you exit the Painting Gallery, look south toward Calluna Farms and concentrate on the buildings to your right. The first thing you’ll notice, on a hill to the left and above you, is Da Monsta, a building of no recognizable shape or proportion, constructed of opaque concrete sprayed over wire mesh and painted a nail-polish red. My first impression, on looking up at it, was of a wayward ship making landfall on the Johnson estate, its passengers—perhaps the Beatles when they wanted a change from the Yellow Submarine—disembarking from the window in the hull. It is a playful, expansive, downright crazy-looking structure that is perfectly at peace in its site. As you stand outside the Painting Gallery again, look farther to your right, past the Glass House, south to the opaque, amorphous-shaped and unwelcoming Studio, and, behind it, the gable-shaped, transparent Ghost House. Studio might well have been designed to protect Johnson’s privacy, while he no doubt expected Ghost House to invite visitors to investigate its mystery.

I hope this quick mental tour through Philip Johnson’s 58-year architectural experiment has whetted your appetite for a journey to New Canaan for a real tour. Johnson’s gift to the public is the opportunity to see the work of an architectural giant—ingenious structures that are opaque or transparent, created from simple materials, sitting on or in the ground. The site and its buildings are in agreement and in conflict at the same time; the scale of things is sometimes normal, sometimes bizarre. And then, after touring this odd and intriguing estate, you can return to the most important residence in the world—your home.

As of April 30, when the Philip John Glass House opens to the public, small-group guided tours of the property (including entrance to the Glass House, Brick House, the Painting Gallery, the Sculpture Gallery, and Da Monsta) will be offered. The site is closed to the public on Tuesdays and from November 1 through March 31. Tickets will be available online, at www.philipjohnson glasshouse.org, or make a reservation by calling 866.811.4111. A Gala Picnic ($500 per person), featuring a performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, will be held on Saturday, June 23. And starting this fall, there will also be three- to five-day Glass House seminars, “providing in-depth explorations on architecture, landscape, art, and design. To learn more about the work of Philip Johnson and the four other distinguished architects (“The Harvard Five”) who designed notable houses in the New Canaan area, see The Harvard Five in New Canaan: Midcentury Modern Houses by Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes, and Others, by William D. Earls (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006). The book is a treasury of new and vintage photography, accompanied by floor plans and commentary by the architects, their critics, and their admirers. Many of the houses have been demolished; this book may be the best record of what has been lost. TME


A year before he risked a trespass charge to view the Glass House, residential designer Michael Allan Torre (then a sign painter) decided impulsively, on a drive through New Haven, to knock on the Yale admissions office’s door. They let him in—in the door, and into Yale, where he studied architecture. His career has included designing restaurant and kitchen interiors and design work for architects; he is now designing a new home on the former Richard Nixon estate in Saddle River, New Jersey. 203.434.8157; mmmaaattt@earthlink.net
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