The Perfect Fall Road Trip
We’re thinking about modern architecture and Philip Johnson these days as we mark 50 years since the MWPAI Museum of Art building, designed by Johnson, opened to the public. So the Museum Education Department took two bus groups to New Canaan, CT to tour Philip Johnson’s famous home.
The only way to fully appreciate The Glass House is from inside, only then do you “get” Philip Johnson’s love for the place. “Just shut up and look around,” he would tell guests to the house, and that’s exactly what we did. Johnson willed the carefully designed and manicured 47-acre estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1986, ensuring his legacy, and when he died in 2005 at the age of 98, plans began to open the site to the public. Inspired by the Farnsworth house in Plano Illinois designed by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Glass House and Philip Johnson have been famous since its completion in 1949. Many, especially those in the architecture and design worlds, have been waiting a lifetime for the opportunity to see it firsthand. With 14 structures, the site is virtually a study of Johnson’s development as an architect over the more than 50 years he lived there. Visitors are shuttled from the Visitor Center located in town, and tours are limited to a maximum of 13 people, preserving the quiet neighborhood and avoiding a zoo-like atmosphere. Our two-hour guided tour included entry into The Glass House, the Painting Gallery, the Sculpture Gallery and Da Monsta (originally intended by Johnson to be the on-site Visitor Center). The Brick House (guest house) was closed for restoration. Passing through the gate (made from a sailboat boom) to the site of the infamous Glass House, only Da Monsta is visible from the road.
Glass House, 1949: “Less is more,” stripped of any clutter, rich materials warm the place. Johnson said the landscape was his “wallpaper.
This is Johnson’s desk, where he confessed he never did any work because the view was too distracting.
Real-life landscape and light, shadow, and color intermingle with the painting of The Burial of Phocion, (1648) by Nicolas Poussin.
Brick House, 1949: The Brick House is the counterpoint to the Glass House, and was built at the same time. There is an outdoor path from the Glass House to the Brick House and a secret underground passage as well, accessible from the bathroom grate
Pavillion, 1955: Intentionally small in scale, the pavilion is a playful retreat where adults are made to feel like children and children more like adults. In the DVD we saw en-route, Johnson points out that he and long-time companion David Whitney liked to picnic there and skim their fingers along the water for the goldfish to nibble.
Painting Gallery, 1965:
David Whitney was a well-known art critic and curator. Both were avid collectors who knew many artists (Andy Warhol was a frequent visitor) and amassed an extensive art collection (donating more than 2,000 works to the Museum of Modern Art) for which the Painting and Sculpture Galleries were built. The Painting Gallery, inspired by Agamemnon’s tomb, is underground. The collection is displayed on three circular rotating racks that allow the viewer to go from one to the next, changing the display. Paintings by Frank Stella were on view, and Andy Warhol’s painting of Johnson.
Sculpture Gallery, 1970: Holds several large pieces; a stunning work by Frank Stella is featured (left). The greenhouse-like ceiling bathes the sculpture in light and shadow.
Library/Study, 1980 We would have loved to have seen the skylight in the dome, which is the source for most of the light in the building, but tours that include the Library are rare. Our guide told us that Johnson liked to sit and read in the interior niche, facing a small window that looks out at the nearby Ghost House. He intended the space to be a comforting “monk’s cell.”
Ghost House, 1984The Ghost House is skeleton-like and takes the shape of a traditional house. Johnson invokes Frank Gehry in the use of materials: chain-link fencing on a galvanized steel frame.
Julian Schnabel’s cast bronze sculpture, Ozymandias, 1986-1989, was originally exhibited on the plaza of the Seagram Building in the summer of 1990. Ozymandias, refers to the famous Shelley poem about the vanity of power. Johnson loved it, purchased it, and took it home where it resides outside the Sculpture Gallery.
Da Monsta, 1995: Johnson’s last building was inspired by a sculptural model by Frank Stella. Johnson called it “Da Monsta,” a hip-hop reference, and he was known to pat it daily on the right side of the door. The colors black and red were chosen to evoke the feeling of an old barn.
New Canaan: A lovely, historic town. At the Glass House visitor center we picked up Walking Tour maps. Great old churches are just a couple blocks away.
New Canaan’s oldest standing church is St. Michael’s Lutheran Chruch (1833) (right) Congregational Church (1843) The walking tour brochure states “This meeting house is considered one of New England’s loveliest churches.”
A more contemporary “sacred” place
The Glass House has initiated the Modern Home Survey in an attempt to highlight and preserve from the developer’s wrecking ball, the over 90 historically significant mid-century Modern homes still standing in New Canaan. To learn more, log onto the Glass House website, www.philipjohnsonglasshouse.org
Barb Kane and April Oswald