15. Philip Johnson's Glass House

2.16.2010

By Fred Bernstein


Most architects struggle to satisfy clients; Philip Johnson, wealthy and self-assured, lavished his best work on himself.'With his Glass House (1949) in New Canaan, Conn., Johnson gave himself not only a spectacular place to live but a secure place in architectural history. Especially in Connecticut, where houses hadn't changed much since the Revolutionary War, the Glass House was a radical departure, and it made Johnson -- just a few years out of architecture school -- a star.

True, the design wasn't entirely original. It was based on the work of the great German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who exhibited plans for a similar house in 1947. But Johnson, who didn't have to wait for a client's (or a bank's) approval, unveiled his version in 1949; Mies's, outside Chicago, wasn't finished until 1951. Once his house was done, Johnson went into self-promotion mode, turning the house into a r'sum' that everyone wanted to see. (Entering the indoor-outdoor building, Frank Lloyd Wright famously quipped, 'I don't know whether to take my hat off or leave it on.') Not all the visitors were famous.'David Whitney was a 20-year-old architecture student when Johnson (then in his 50s) suggested he stop by; seduced by Johnson -- and the house -- he stayed 45 years.

As a gay man, Johnson rejected conventional domesticity, which no doubt helped him overthrow the conventions of domestic architecture. (It's hard to imagine a traditional nuclear family living in the see-through building.) But wealth provided a bit of a hedge:'Johnson's possessions overflowed into a dozen other buildings on the 47-acre estate.'In that sense, the Glass House was something of a cheat. But that didn't stop it from being one of the most influential buildings of the 20th century, or one of the most gorgeous.
Johnson, who died in 2005, left the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.'Take a tour, and let Johnson to seduce you.

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