Dallas Architect Steve Chambers Visits Philip Johnson’s Glass House

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Many books have been written about Johnson’s Glass House, the modern “box in a box in a box” called home by an eccentric architect who considered himself to be merely “good” among great architects of the 20th century. Johnson felt that words and photos could not describe architecture. “One must walk into a building, let it wrap its arms around you, allow yourself to feel it.” Our intention with this blog is to give a bit of background on the man who designed and lived in the Glass House and provide a brief history of the 40 acres on which it is sited. More than anything, this is a first-person account by Texas architect, Steve Chambers, about what it was like to walk in the 1949 ‘box in a box’ and allow himself to feel our country’s first starchitect’s ideal of modern living.

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Johnson described his Glass House as a Chinese Box that “starts with the first unit, a coffee table…the living room as the next unit, which sits in a bigger box, outlined by The Poussin.” (The Poussin refers to a circa 1648 painting, The Funeral of Phocion, which hangs in a frame, in middle of the living room, as though floating in air.) The views and landscaping surrounding the Glass House and other structures on the property were designed to mimic the entirety of the pastoral scene in the Poussin painting.

An opaque brick-clad monolith, the Guest House, has but three circular windows and is sited as a companion directly across from the the Glass House. This split-house design serves as his break from ‘modern’ and a counterpoint of opacity to the transparent Glass House.

Johnson lived on the New Canaan property with his longtime companion, David Whitney an art critic and curator, who helped design the landscaping and largely collected the art displayed in the below-ground Painting Gallery. David occupied a separate wood shingle-clad home built on the preserve, and is  different in style from The Glass House.

Other buildings were gradually added to shapeJohnson’s personal environment: the Pavilion, a “folly” in classicism floating in the pond below the Glass House; a berm-covered underground bunker called Painting Gallery; next, the Sculpture Gallery came provided interlocking volumes–a central court with four bays; the ‘monk cell’ studio, vaguely Islamic in appearance due to its dome-like truncated cone and minaret chimney; a chain link homage to Frank Gehry called the Ghost House; a staircase tower without handrails near the pond that is dedicated to Lincoln Kirstein; and the structure of which Johnson was most proud, “Da Monsta” a sculptural red and black Gate House at the entry and Johnson’s personal favorite piece of architecture (pictured below).

The book about Philip Johnson, The Architect in His Own Words, begins with a quote from Nietsche, “Is life not a hundred times too short to bore ourselves?” This could be the Johnson manifesto, that one has to lose himself in doing something that excites, that he loves, or life means nothing. Wealthy by inheritance, gifted with a witty restless intellect, he felt he wasted the early part of his life. He enrolled in architecture school at the age of 35, and later remarked at age 90 that “I finally got a sense of what to do with my time and life–architecture, which may or may not be good. But, I got to do it; it sure is great fun. It’s stupid not to have fun.” In an often-quoted remark, Johnson said, “I would rather sleep in Chartres Cathedral with the nearest toilet two blocks away than in a Harvard house with back-to-back bathrooms.”

Mr. Johnson’s architecture received mixed reviews and often startled the public and his fellow architects. Because of frequent changes of style, he was often accused of pandering to fashion and of designing buildings that were easy and shallow. Yet he created several designs, including the Glass House, the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, and the pre-Columbian gallery at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, widely considered among the architectural masterworks of the 20th century. Our firm’s philosophy is that good design can be found in every period and style of architecture, and we’d like to believe that this is why Johnson tried his hand at many styles. For his entire career, Johnson’s engagement with architectural theory and ideas was as deep as that of any scholar. He liked to refer to himself, with only a little irony, as “a whore.” Many self-reflective architects who revere the work of their peers feel this way. We leave it to history and architecture critics to make this determination.

Steve Chambers’ first-person account of the Glass House…

We drove near New Canaan by accident and were encouraged to get tickets to The Glass House by my Connecticut host’s comment during our visit, “you have to see it.” I’d studied this minimalist structure in the late 60s in architecture school, but it resided undisturbed within my subconscious. I hadn’t thought about it much in my work as an architect. I admit to being overwhelmed, when we entered the gate and walked along the path in front of the Da Monsta. Roaming around the grounds, it appeared in the woods as a glass and steel sculpture, and then I really saw it as a residence, as though for the first time.

I did not feel that the glass house was “a box within a box within a box,” as described by Johnson. His elegant design employed the minimum amount of material to afford only as much shelter and control of the elements as necessary to protect its inhabitants. Its intention feels as though the occupants of the home are camping in nature. Its minimalist transparency allows the inhabitants to experience the change in seasons, weather, encounters with animals, and observe the other structures on the property. Johnson worked with the existing environment, including the old stone walls, circa 17th and 18th centuries. He respected the history of the site, and used what existed as elements for his new design. When he first walked over his property in New Canaan in 1946, he sited this house in the first five minutes. For over 40 years he fashioned a landscape and punctuated it with small buildings grouped casually in rolling mown fields among ancient farmers’ stone walls, decorated by grouped trees, and watered by a brook and a pond.

The transparent rectangular house is less than 1800 sq. ft. Like all of Mr. Johnson’s early work, it was inspired by Mies van der Rohe, but its simplicity and closeness to nature make it a personal statement of serenity and order. In school I’d loved looking at photographs and drawings of the house’s severity, rigidity, and spareness in detail. But it wasn’t until I walked into it, that I ‘got it’ and what the house meant to me. It’s a room with a view, and nothing but a view—the most minimal of definitions of homeness, where structure disappears and nature informs sensibility.

For Philip Johnson, the purpose of architecture was to feel good, elevate the spirit, and provide an emotional connection. Johnson said that “architecture must make you feel good, down in your tummy…what more can you ask of it?” This is a philosophy that I share with him. Words that critics write about architecture can flatter or insult the architect. At its essence, architecture is non-verbal communication with a three-dimensional vocabulary, and words cannot completely describe what it’s like for each individual to be in a structure. And, though he wrote and gave many speeches about architecture, the buildings Johnson designed are his real “diary.” Looking out at the view near his small cotton-covered bed on the floor, I finally felt it ‘wrapping its arms’ around me.

Philip Johnson died in that bed, alone with his view. His diary complete.

Artist Frank Stella Visits the Glass House and Painting Gallery, where Many of His Shaped Canvases are Displayed

Architecture Writer, Mark Lamster, Discusses Johnson's Mixed Legacy in his book, "The Man in the Glass House"

The book, “The Man in the Glass House” is sold on Amazon. In the gallery, below, structures and details of buildings located on the property where the Philip Johnson Glass House is sited. All photos: Stephanie Chambers

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