December 25 2013

Events, Follies, Brick and Glass: A Visit to Philip Johnson’s Glass House

When your home is a glass house, how can you have privacy? In her 1998 book “Women and the Making of the Modern House,” Alice Friedman offered the following perspective on the way this particular glass house was used.

Rather than actually enabling outsiders to satisfy their curiosity about what went on inside (…) the Glass House screened, distorted, and overtly denied visual access through the landscaping of the hilly site and by a series of architectural devices (…) This handling contributed to the irony of transparency and to a more acute representation of the double-sided nature of domestic life, particularly for gay men who were compelled to hide their private lives from outsiders (Friedman, 1998: 152).

Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, CT

View from the Glass House's living room showing the surrounding landscape

How do you actually get any privacy in a glass house? By owning a large tract of land around the house, locating it in a suburban neighborhood, carefully landscaping and curating the land, filling it with numerous quirky buildings over the years. Finally, a guest house made of brick becomes a sanctuary for privacy, thereby keeping the actual glass house as a setting for public life and social gatherings.

The Glass House's living room, featuring Mies van der Rohe's trademark Barcelona chairs

Far from being just an individual structure, architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House, located in New Canaan, Connecticut, is actually a sprawling forty-seven acre complex that contains the Glass House/Guest brick House (1949), a Sculpture Gallery (1970), a Painting Gallery (1965), a Lake Pavilion (1962), among many other structures. The Glass House itself was inspired by the design of architect Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951), a glass house located in Plano, Illinois, and was conceived as a weekend country retreat for Johnson and his guests. Johnson used the house up until his death in 2005, and in 2007 the Glass House complex, now a National Trust Historic Site, opened to the public.

Inspired by Italian garden design, many of the structures in the complex, which Johnson called “events,” are actually follies: decorative buildings with an unusual shape, size and scale, designed to play with the viewer’s sense of perspective and make them seem farther away than they actually were. The scaled-down Lake Pavilion, where Johnson entertained friends for lunch, is an example of a folly with a practical purpose.

However, as is the case with many Modernist buildings, some of the Glass House structures present significant challenges for conservation and maintenance. The Glass House itself has already had its roof and the glass in the walls replaced. The Brick House has been closed to the public since 2008 due to high levels of moisture, which was affecting both the structure and its furnishings. The highly innovative and experimental nature of most Modernist buildings has also meant that many have not aged well, and often present significant flaws that have to do with their original design, the materials used, and their programming. The Farnsworth house, for instance, not only has problems with humidity and leaking, but due to its location in a floodplain and changes in the landscape it has been flooded several times, causing significant damage.

Philip Johnson's Glass House and Brick House, in front. The Brick House is currently undergoing restoration.

What are the challenges involved in the conservation of Modernist architecture, and what can we learn from them? Is it more important to preserve the original fabric and materials, or the design and layout?

Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources. The visit to the Glass House was made possible by GSD Travel.

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderón

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon hails from Lima, Peru, a vibrant and noisy city with a rich history, ancient archaeological sites, Colonial churches, old art-deco cinemas, sprawling shanty towns (often decorated with posters in neon colours advertising a chicha or cumbia concert), glass skyscrapers, and a colorful public transportation systems that requires a sense of adventure, an instinct for navigation, and very short limbs to use successfully. She is a professional archaeologist who spent several years working in prehispanic and historical sites both in Lima and in northern Peru before coming to the United States, where she obtained a Master in Design Studies degree, with a focus on Critical Conservation, from Harvard University´s Graduate School of Design. She is currently based in the Boston area, where she combines her background and interest in archaeology with the study of how cities are formed and transformed, the nature and use of public spaces, adaptive and transformative reuse, and how can a city´s historical footprint, buildings and open spaces contribute to creating a sense of place and to inspire new urban design. Rosabella also enjoys exploring Boston and nearby towns on her beautiful 1975 blue folding bike and thinks of herself as “an archaeologist of the modern city”

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 25th, 2013 at 9:46 am and is filed under Architecture, History/Preservation, Housing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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