Glass House, 1949 (all photos by John Hill/World-Architects.com, unless noted otherwise)
From 1949’s Glass House to 1995’s “Da Monsta,” Philip Cortelyou Johnson designed and constructed 10 structures on his 47-acre New Canaan, Connecticut, estate before his death in 2005. Even before realizing the last piece of what he called the “diary of an eccentric architect,” Johnson donated his estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation (in 1986). The NTHP started welcoming the public to the the property and its buildings—now cumulatively called “The Philip Johnson Glass House
,” or “The Glass House” for short—in 2007, two years after both Johnson and his longtime partner David Whitney died. Since then, the organization has been conducting tours, holding events, and maintaining the buildings and grounds. Earlier this year they appointed Henry Urbach as director of The Glass House in an effort to simultaneously look forward as they respect the past. World-Architects.com visited The Glass House recently, walking the grounds, peeking inside some of the buildings, and chatting with Urbach about plans for his new post.
Da Monsta, 1995
When Johnson built Da Monsta, inspired by an unrealized design by artist Frank Stella for the Kunsthalle in Dresden, Germany (1991-93), he intended for the two-room building to serve as the visitor center for future guests. But residents of wealthy New Canaan managed to derail this intention, citing traffic concerns, which resulted in a visitor center located in the center of town. So architects and other fans making a pilgrimage to see The Glass House either park in town or hop off the Metro North commuter train from New York City, cross the street, and enter a below-grade space (an old truck dock, actually) serving as ticket booth, orientation center, and gift shop; interiors were designed by James Biber
with graphics and branding by Michael Beirut. On one wall is a large graphic of Johnson’s signature black spectacles (in orange), and a random grid of video screens occupies another wall in front of a scattered field of red stools. Visitors can watch scenes from Johnson’s childhood, slideshows of completed buildings, clips of inspiration, and even a tour through his Rolodex, giving background on the man behind the myth.
The Visitor Center, Pentagram, 2007
It is here, before boarding a shuttle for the site, where I spoke with Henry Urbach, almost five months to the day after his appointment as The Glass House director. One of his first initiatives is a small one that is nevertheless significant: Flowers. Working with floral designer Dana Worlock, flower arrangements are displayed within the Glass House building for the first time since 2005. David Whitney—an art curator whose most important work may have been helping Johnson “curate” the architect’s artistic assemblage of architecture, landscape, and art—would cultivate and pick flowers from the property and make them a constant presence within the sparse, glass-walled interior. On my visit a bouquet of purple flowers was perched upon a table in one corner of the house, barely receiving the attention of fellow visitors, yet adding a dash of color distinct from the greens and autumnal hues that were just starting to appear on the trees outside.
Inside the Glass House
Harder to miss was the colorful sculpture by the late Ken Price, Doola, sitting atop a Mies van der Rohe glass table in the middle of the “transparent temple,” as it’s sometimes called, and the spot once reserved for Alberto Giacometti’s 1947 sculpture Night. In the 1960s Johnson sent the plaster sculpture to the artist’s studio for repairs, but Giacommeti died before he could fix it, and the sculpture was never returned. Price’s strange, curling object is the first piece in the sculpture-in-residence program, guest curated by Jordan Stein with Urbach, which will feature pieces occupying Night's position for three to six months over a three-year period. The sculpture by Price, an artist who Whitney supported in numerous ways during his career, is the antithesis of Giacometti’s familiar figure: heavy, not light; colorful, not monochrome; smooth, not rough; thick, not thin. Yet Price’s ceramic sculpture shares one trait with Giacometti’s walking figure that was perched upon a large, blocky base: They both appear heavy on the glass table, bringing to mind the fragility of the material, the building, and of life itself.
Photo: Andrew Romer Photography, 2012, courtesy of the Philip Johnson Glass House, National Trust for Historic Preservation. Art: Ken Price, Doola (2012), © 2012 Estate of Ken Price
The tour officially began at Da Monsta, chronologically the last building Johnson realized, but the one closest to the road and entry gate. Urbach described the approach in his new post as a “curatorial project” similar to his previous position as head of the architecture department at SFMOMA, and with his own architecture gallery in New York City before that. The newest “place for displaying art and architecture in significant ways,” as he said it to me, is within Da Monsta itself. Johnson modeled the Deconstructivist form quite literally on architectural models by Frank Stella, as mentioned, explained in a short film seen within the small building at the start of the tour. Stella’s latest series, Scarlatti Kirkpatrick, occupies the adjacent room, a space that includes only two exterior openings in the canted walls: the entrance door and a window framing Johnson’s study down the hill. It’s interesting to see how Stella has moved beyond the forms that inspired Johnson. Utilizing computer modeling and fabrication, the sculptures make Da Monsta look tame in comparison, as if Johnson—always the copycat and a proponent of formal styles—was not able to fully capture the potential in Deconstructivism’s explosion of form and space in the 1990s.
Photo: Andrew Romer Photography, 2012, Courtesy of the Philip Johnson Glass House, National Trust for Historic Preservation. Art: © 2012 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Urbach’s decision to present one of Johnson’s favorite artists within Da Monsta triumphs over the the loss of the building as a visitor center, and hints at the potential of The Glass House as a curatorial project. Urbach said he is “planning environmental art for the site,” though any sculptures occupying the landscape between the various buildings would be temporary, unlike the circular Donald Judd piece that confronts visitors on their walk from Da Monsta to the Glass House itself. A penchant for environmental art is probably aided by living at Calunna, an old farm building located just south of Da Monsta that Johnson and Whitney remodeled around 1980. From here, Urbach told me, he has views of the Study and Ghost House but also a great vantage for watching “the natural rhythms of the site,” be it the changing color on the trees or the wildlife traversing the property.
Site plan courtesy of Pentagram
Walking around the site—be it along the driveway, or the curator’s favorite “stroll from the promontory to the pond,” or some other path—it was the perceived potential that made the visit rewarding yet troubling. The tour guide’s stories of parties, performances, and conversations made it clear that Johnson and Whitney used the site to entertain but also to wield influence. Its current state as a site of modernist preservation—a museum, really—means that the power of the place vanished with the couple. Such is the struggle that Urbach faces. Thankfully, what architectural historian Vincent Scully called “the most sustained cultural salon that the United States has ever seen” continues in a slightly different form in the “Conversations in Context
” series hosted at the Glass House, which started in 2011, had a sold-out season in 2012, and will continue next year. The series hosts notable speakers (past ones include Barry Bergdoll, Paul Goldberger, Kenneth Frampton, Robert A.M. Stern, and Tod Williams & Billie Tsien) for intimate evenings of tours, talks, and dinners.
Study, 1980, and Ghost House, 1984
The decision to appoint Urbach as director of The Glass House (he is the second, following Christy MacLear, who is now director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation) speaks to the NTHP’s embrace of the place’s future potential. A forward-thinking view is rooted in the site’s architecture, its proximity (a one-hour train ride) and its remove (psychologically as well as urbanistically) from New York City and the complication of preserving modern architecture as opposed to buildings that predate the 20th-century movement. Inherently, modernism looked forward in its departure from past models (originally in response to particular conditions of industrialization) and embrace of innovation in technology, form, and materials. So a true preservation of modern monuments must accept these defining characteristics, just as it strives to maintain buildings and landscapes in states close to their origins. As Urbach put it a couple months after his appointment: “Juxtaposition, experimentation, interdisciplinary pursuits: these are built into the DNA of the Glass House and cannot be overlooked in favor of static models of preservation.”
Lake Pavilion, 1962, and Lincoln Kirstein Monument, 1985, seen from the Glass House
Urbach’s desire to “augment The Glass House through new initiatives,” as he calls it, has started with modest exhibitions and interventions, but they are significant relative to the typical efforts of preservation that stop time to tell a story of a particular era, place, and people. Philip Johnson’s fifty-year diary, which moved from high modernism to Deconstructivism via just about every stylistic bent in between, always had a forward trajectory that nevertheless built upon what came before. It is then fitting that the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Henry Urbach are balancing traditional preservation efforts with ways of considering The Glass House as a place that still has an impact on architectural thinking and production.