My birthday was June 1st and in honor of the occasion I made a plan. It is not my usual form to put a lot of thought into things that are very specific to me, usually leaving it up to what the day brings and to whatever anyone else might have arranged, but this one was different.
This was supposedly one of those “milestone” birthdays and I thought the only way I would be satisfied with the outcome was to plan it myself. A milestone usually has a Marker of some kind and I wanted my Marker to say two things: Philip Johnson and The Glass House!
At this point you either know what I am talking about or you don’t. If the former you are going to take the tour with me and maybe see something new or perhaps a building from a different perspective (mine!), and if the latter, you are about to discover an architect, who in the 1940’s, built a house that was unlike any other in concept or design that would forever stand as one of the major examples of modern architecture.
Before I talk about where I went, I have to say something about why I choose The Glass House as the place I wanted to remember when I thought about this particular birthday.
The first thing I thought about when I began thinking about what I would like to do is who or if anybody would accompany me at whatever I choose to do. After all, sometimes it is only on the occasion of one’s birthday that you can say (and be forgiven), “I want to spend the day completely and utterly alone!” I did think about it but it didn’t feel right this time.
I wanted to share this with my immediate family. I wanted to go some place that I have always wanted to see and I wanted it to be a treat for everybody. I didn’t want to drive too far and I wanted to feel for sure that the whole family would enjoy the experience as much as me. Taking all of this into account, it was very difficult to decide.
I decided it had to be art of some kind or another. We live as artists, and so, for better or for worse, this has rubbed off on our two children. By the way, when I say “for better or for worse” I am definitely being sarcastic! There is no one in this world that could convince me that art does not hold the secret to happiness and general contentment. I believe this most strongly indeed!
Art it was, and now, where to go within a reasonable distance that none of us had been to already? It was right around that perplexing moment I saw the book Philip Johnson THE GLASS HOUSE sitting on a table. I was pretty sure Dave had been reading it lately and then of course it was obvious. Our trip would be to the most widely publicized work of modern architecture in the world: The Glass House by architect Philip Johnson.
Philip Johnson bought a few acres in New Canaan, Connecticut and set about making it special, and by this I mean, he created a place that would serve as the finest example of modern architecture which not only took into account buildings, but sculptural art, paintings and the actual landscape. All would serve his polemic vision that a modern building does not stand alone. He took 49 acres and created a place where the land itself would be the most important part of the architecture.
The Glass House was in itself a place from which to view this landscape on a daily basis. It was a magnificent idea and Philip Johnson completed the house in 1949 and even today it is considered a building beyond its time.
I could go on about all the things that excite me about this building and the other buildings that I visited on the estate, but it would really all come down to me talking about the architect himself, about what made him “tick” as he put it himself. I will not for a couple of reasons: I would be inadequate in my explanations of his vision, and two, I don’t want to rule out anybody because of my boring analysis. This Building is for everybody and after standing inside it, I know that Mr. Johnson was not being high-minded when he designed it. Because… it felt like Home (yes, with a capital “H”!)
Luckily I had made sure to check out the Glass House website early (click HERE) to find out about tours and tickets as all the slots were practically sold out for June 1st, two months in advance! It is an expensive tour which can only be conducted in groups of twelve and is guided.
I gulped when I forked out the $48 per ticket but now I realize there should have been no regrets whatsoever. We arrived safe and sound for our tour at 9.45am after a lovely coffee and pastry for breakfast down the street. It was a gloriously sunny day and we were all shaky with anticipation.
Our little tour bus filled up and off we went under the wing of our very enthusiastic tour guide, Pat McCaughey. He was the perfect man for the job as he was a wealth of information about Philip Johnson, The Glass House estate, and the contemporaries of the day. He spoke with great ease referring to Mr. Johnson simply as “Philip”, like they had been friends for years!
He did know Philip Johnson who had only died in 2005 but only from the standpoint of another resident. He said he was far too shy to walk up to him and say “hi, I love your work!”
In retrospect, it seems he could have easily done that as he told story after story of how complete strangers, who were either architect students, devout lovers of his work or simply curious nosy parkers who would cold-call the estate and Philip Johnson would give them the grand tour himself, or as in one case, simply say he was on his way out but that the door was open and to by all means take a look!
He only learned of his wonderful generosity and friendly demeanor after he took the job as tour guide in 2007 when the house was open to the public for the first time since it’s completion in 1949.
He said he applied for the job right from a newspaper advertisement. When he read the ad he said, “I could do that!’ and so he trained as a guide, learning all there was to know about the man and gave us a splendid 2 1/2 hour tour with lots of facts flavored with just as many delightful tidbits of personal information.
Like what he said when asked why there were no windows in the front of the guest house (known as The Brick House – see it a few pictures above) he built at the same time that lies at an angle facing the front of The Glass House. He said that he designed it with no windows because he did not want to know what was going on in the house just the same as he did not want his guests to know what was going on in his. This is why all of the windows on the Brick House face the back and are on the roof!
Philip Johnson built this house on a site where he could appreciate the view of the outside from any side. He built it for his most important client, for himself, and, he either lived there full-time or on the weekends until his death in 2005. He died in The Glass House with his glass walls reflecting the familiar trees, rocks and meadows on the other side.
And the trees were also not completely left to nature. He was an obsessive landscape architect also. He said that “all landscape architecture is hopeful architecture” and he worked compulsively on improving his view.
He cleared parts of the woods to allow for meadow space and ferns to grow. He wanted “dappled-shade” and I’m guessing that this was probably the most beautiful light in the world to him, light which reflected, danced and shimmered.
He had trees pruned so your eye could make paths through them as you looked from certain points, and he only kept grass tightly mown in specific spots. He let the grass grow high saying that if a building is interesting enough the grass shouldn’t stop one from getting to it; you’ve got to love that kind of stubbornness!
I haven’t even mentioned being in the Glass House yet and I cannot do that until I tell you that getting to the front door was not just a simple matter of walking directly up a path and there it was right in front of you.
Philip Johnson believed that you should never approach a building from a direct line, but rather from an angle. And so to get to the door you had to navigate the circular concrete sculpture by Donald Judd (a few pictures above) and then the path went off to an angle before joining a path that let to the front door.
I had to stop myself from running across the grass and meander the path I was meant to take. It certainly did serve to build up my anticipation and excitement.
No amount of looking at pictures of The Glass House can prepare you for what it is actually like being inside The Glass House. It was one of those moments where you are waiting to see how you feel and if it lives up to your expectations of whatever picture you have painted in your mind. It was so different from what I thought it would feel like.
It immediately felt like home, like when you are away from your house on holidays somewhere and when you open the back door, you can finally breath and you cannot wait to sleep in your own bed. I thought it would have this aura of austerity, something unapproachable, cold even. It was quite the opposite emotion.
I could see myself happily unloading the groceries for dinner or lounging with some friends on the sofa or rug. It felt happy and warm, and the idea of being out in the open in a vulnerable way disappeared. The acres of green color outside felt more like a curtain bellowing around the walls.
We all got a chance to explore the house in great detail and at a leisurely pace. My kids were truly in awe and Dave looked like he had died and gone to heaven. I would safely say after seeing how we all felt that this tour was a very good idea.
Upon leaving the house we walked to some of the other buildings that Johnson has been continually building since moving in. He built an amazing Painting Gallery to house his ever-changing hanging art collection.
The Painting Gallery was built in 1965 and is a masonry and earth bern with 3,778 square feet shaped in three circular rooms where art could be viewed. He liked to view 6 paintings at once and the walls rotated like giant poster racks with two paintings on each wall. The little stools from which to view the work, and to sit around on were also round, reinforcing the circular theme.
One of my favorite other buildings was the Sculpture Gallery. It was built in 1970 and this brick cavity wall construction is a massive 3,650 square feet. The glass ceiling made of tubular steel was the most amazing roof I had ever seen. It changed the entire room into this magical place filled with hundreds of lined shadows which plastered the walls and floor in every direction.
Philip Johnson loved it so much himself that he even contemplated moving house, until he thought, “where will all the sculpture go!” I would have been sorely tempted myself but I have to say that the special warmth of The Glass House would have kept me there.
We were all very sad when our visit ended but I anticipate I will be back again to learn and see more. I’m sure there is so much I missed (like when you watch a movie over and over and discover so many little details that tie everything together).
Our next stop was a quick drive to Manhattan for lunch and to pick up my friend Bird and bring her back to our little house for the remainder of my birthday. I also wanted to get home and be in a place where I felt comfortable and happy. Also, I had a birthday cake waiting, (which of course I made the day before).
We tried to tell Bird about where we had been and what it was like but it was truly impossible to emphasize how fantastic the whole place was and that the Glass House did not feel small and weird, but airy and alive. She will just have to see for herself.
It was a lovely mild evening and we sat outside while I barbecued chicken and we indulged in cold beers with lemons; just perfect.
The quick cold tart I whipped up the day before was absolutely the best birthday cake a girl could ask for and the whole day will be remembered as one of my most worthwhile moments.
“Maybe what makes me tick is unique. I don’t mind, but it may be of interest to know how different my tick is from yours and yours”
From a lecture given by Johnson at Columbia University in 1975.