Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Philip Johnson & His Glass House [1949, with later additions]


My romance with architecture began relatively late in my adulthood--when I was almost 30--and faded by the time I was in my mid-40's. In between, I returned to school and took a graduate degree in Landscape Architecture, a qualification I never used professionally. 
My real father, John Hale Calef, was a professional architect. He and my mother split before I was born, and I didn't meet him until I was in my early 20's. In high school, I had trouble with advanced mathematics, so ended up in the Humanities, taking degrees in English and Creative Writing. Until I ran into Robert Grenier at UC Berkeley in 1968, I had thought I was training myself to become an English Professor and academic literary critic, but Bob encouraged me to try creative writing instead--which is what happened.  
When I took a job with the Government in San Francisco in the mid-1970's, my tenuous connections to the "literary scene" in the Bay Area spontaneously dissolved. It seemed impossible, commuting and working 40 hour weeks on the technical drudgery of claims and programs and appeals, to continue to think seriously about literature. Earning a living and supporting my family were honorable pursuits, even if this tended to eat away at the sources of my creative life. There's a certain dignity in self-denial, but the implications of that choice can come back to haunt you later.
In any case, I was naturally drawn to the obvious major figures of Modernist design, beginning with Frank Lloyd Wright. My father had grown up in a little town in Wisconsin, New London, which is just a skip and a hop away from Spring Green, Wright's first grand estate residence, which he called Taliesin. Taliesin means "the shining brow" in Gaelic, and also the name of a Welch bard [534-599]. My true family name, Calef, is traceable back to West Yorkshire or East Wales in the British Isles, so there seems a kind of association there. Anyway, my father fell in love with design at an early age, and was precocious, winning a national scholarship competition, the prize for which was a visit to the 1939 New York World's Fair. I don't know the sequence of events accurately, but I believe he was attending Northwestern University, when he decided to visit Wright and apply for admission to his apprentice program at Taliesin West, in Arizona. Wright liked my father's student work, but there was no money for the tuition, so my father ended up studying architecture elsewhere. 
I think it must have been in the course of my wide reading about Wright that I first encountered Philip Johnson's work. Johnson [1906-2005] was a fascinating figure. Born to wealth [with a large holding of Alcoa stock], he attended prep school, and then Harvard, concentrating on history and philosophy, spending time traveling in Europe, where he became inspired by the great monuments of architecture (Chartres, the Parthenon, etc.). He met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe just as he was designing the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition; it seems difficult to imagine a more propitious introduction to the principles of what would eventually become known as the International Style in architectural design, than to have been a party to this crucial, canonical project (which still exists, and can be visited).

Johnson's importance, as an architect, and as a promoter of Modernist and post-Modernist architecture, through his essays, interviews and as a highly visible personality, cannot be overstated. Beginning with his co-curatorship [with Henry Russell Hitchcock] of the exhibition "The International Style: Architecture Since 1922" at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1932, following a comprehensive tour of the new architecture in Europe along with Hitchcock and Alfred H. Barr, Jr. The International Style, according to the monograph [now a highly prized and scarce item in its first edition] accompanying the exhibition, consisted of these basic principles: 1 An emphasis on architectural volume over mass (planes rather than solidity) 2 A rejection of symmetry and 3 A rejection of applied decoration. They might also have added flat roofs, exposed structural elements, and trans-parency-lucency. 
During the balance of the 1930's, Johnson quit his work with the Museum of Modern Art, and became involved in politics. Perhaps influenced by his first-hand exposure to contemporary Germany, he became sympathetic with Nazism. It may be difficult now to comprehend how people of otherwise sophisticated temperament could have such sympathies (Charles Lindbergh also did, for instance); perhaps it was in reaction to the Communist-Socialist sentiments of the period (the World Economic Depression); Johnson lived and moved in a world of wealth and privilege. In later years, he repudiated his former position, saying he couldn't understand how he could have been so naive, and fully accepted his personal guilt. As the Thirties came to a close, Johnson returned to Harvard to study architecture in 1940, receiving his degree in 1943 (at the age of 36). 
The birth of the American version of the International Style movement in architecture was largely spearheaded by Johnson, and Mies van der Rohe (who had emigrated to America in 1937 after being hounded out of Germany by the Nazi cultural jackals). Architecture, at least the very innovative kind which starves for commissions and typically encounters resistance from planning and permit departments, may well be the playground of the privileged. Johnson's choice to create a model design house for himself turns out to have been very providential, but almost certainly couldn't have happened without the backing of a large personal fortune. Acquiring a large tract of open land in New Canaan, Connecticut, he set about constructing a residence [the Glass House, 1949] which would stand as a canonical demonstration project for most of the Modernist design principles he'd been advocating since the early Thirties. Its characteristics are immediately apparent, since all the walls are made only of glass. This simple, astounding, fact sets the structure historically apart from every building ever made before. The interior articulations of the space are minimal, restricted to a chimney and bathroom cubicle in the middle, which separates an open sleeping area from the public space. The flat roof is supported by straightforward structural steel girders, which become design elements of their own, and the human scale of the wall height is set by a metal trim course. White curtains hung from the ceiling edge permit visual closure of the otherwise transparent walls. Much has been written about the metaphysical meaning of this structure, but perhaps the most obvious initial fact to acknowledge is that its most critical requirement is its isolation, which both facilitates privacy and allows it a self-contained aesthetic focus which it shares with the private estates and the pristine retreats, both here and on the Continent. Such pastoral seclusion had never before been conceived as the occasion for such highly synthetic and unfettered form. The existential, meditative, "naked" prospect of the solitary philosopher, discretely apart from the fuss and distractions of the modern world, sedately regarding the harmonies and inspirations of nature "out in the open" has continued to intrigue and seduce architects and architectural theorists for over half a century. 

Not content to let the house stand by itself for perpetuity, Johnson soon embarked upon a series of adjacent structures--a guesthouse [1950] two art galleries [1965, 1970], a classical "folly" (pavilion) abutting a small pond below the bluff where the house stands [1962], a study [1980], a gatehouse [1995] and a tower [1985]. Each of these structures is exemplary, in making a distinct architectural statement, incorporating updated design ideas from contemporary art, philosophy and raw materials.                                                        
Historically, the notion of the solitary philosopher, in a sort of monkish seclusion, surrounded by "tamed" nature, has had appeal for centuries--in England, in Germany and Austria, in Italy and Spain. This hybrid incarnation of the form, self-sufficient (without servants), with only an occasional turf service to attend to, visually uncomplicated by other structures--roads or other evidences of human habitation or activity--stands as a monument, a dreamy, elegant toy, made for the pleasure and convenience of one man. 
I continue to have mixed feelings about such monuments to privilege. The resources of society have traditionally been expressed through landed or private wealth, the church, government, and have thus accommodated other priorities than the ideas merely of a single, isolated individual. The tension between an aesthetically pure conception, and the utilitarian functions of human use, has nearly always characterized the design process. We may regard such indulgent projects as Johnson's Glass House, as egregious examples of American vanity and conspicuous consumption, or we may think of them as perfect realizations of an ideal conception, entitled and realized. As far back as Thomas Jefferson's estate (Monticello), we have the enlightened intellectual, with a fine civic sense and responsibility, creating the gentleman's private retreat. Johnson's phenomenal Glass House seems a later version of this profile. As the world gets increasingly used up, consumed, and crowded, such conspicuous private gratifications will become more unusual and nostalgic. 


Steven Fama said...

First a quibble -- you know how I can be, and this one's actually implicit in your post but still: it's not all walls that are glass, but rather all exterior walls. As you note, the bathroom is walled, floor-to-ceiling, within the core of the building.

Second the practical: the sun is vital, but not always the friend of me or you or others. Think of the idiocy of the new de Young museum in San Francisco, the soth facing second floor walls essentially all glass, which must now (and appropriately so) covered all the time with heavy, heavy shading to keep that bad, bad ultraviolet radiation out. Ditto designs (think Eichler, the low rent (though not no more!) dumb-down of Johnson's glass house; the challenge of heating and cooling and just living in those buildings.

It's not just hypocrites who have problems in glass houses!

Curtis Faville said...


Yup, all true, everything you say.

I didn't have time to correct the walls misstatement. But you're right.

There's only so much you can say in a reasonably short blog entry. I could easily write a full-length essay of 20,000 words on this project, just off the top of my head, but I wanted to put up a poster. Maybe that's what our blogs are: Posters with captions?

Steven Fama said...

You've 1500 words here, more or less, Curtis. That ain't no caption.

Part of the potential up-side of a comment box are add-ons by readers that relate, expand upon, maybe even go to the side a bit, of the topic about which the blogger has posted. Posting a comment of that kind is a way for a reader to let the blogger know that s/he's been engaged.

But maybe a bit too meta-commentboxing here, eh?

The visuals of the house here are dreamy. And (here I go again) blogger's options and ease-of-use that way, and the experience of sitting in front of a computer monitor, make the mix of text and image smart, I think. But you know this, I know.

J said...

Lets not forget Phillip Johnson's crowning achievement: the Crystal Cathedral! A massive new-age calvinist chapel in Orange County designed by 'Merica's favorite gay nazi architect. Nothin' but weird

Ian Keenan said...

I've been to one of his museums twice (Amon Carter/Fort Worth) without knowing who the architect is which is a compliment coming from me. It's aged well. Across the street at the Kimball you hear Louis Kahn, Louis Kahn, Louis Kahn but they have a pile of money and no place to put the paintings. It would break their heart to expand that thing or hang Raphaels in the gift shop. I've been meaning to check out the Munson Williams Proctor in Utica but that's one of those poor utilizations of space for the atrium where the commotion behind you distracts you from looking at the painting. I also like the bedroom in the guest house.

One of this essays decries cheapness and function. Calling attention to wealth is a function in and of itself which Johnson has built his career on. Architecture is an unmovable diary of money and cultural values. Poets can taunt the fragments of Oxymandias but the architects send in reinforcements. I do seek out buildings though, with as much compulsion as the next guy.

Curtis Faville said...


My wife is from Fort Worth, so I'm familiar with the Amon Carter and the Kimball. I like Kahn's design, but I suppose it's better building than a museum.

Perhaps in the future I'll have the chance to describe some of Johnson's later projects, which are interesting, too.

Craig said...

Based on a couple of picture books I'd seen growing up, I always associated Wright with heavily cantilevered houses projecting out over cliff edges, perched on high bluffs. But a year or so ago I used census records to track down a parsonage in Wisconsin where my dad lived when he was three years old. My dad's oldest sister sent me a picture of it about six months before she died. It turns out the parsonage was on the same block as a house designed by Wright, built around 1950. I googled up the address of the parsonage and found a catalogue of all of the Wright designs that were actually built. It didn't have a picture of the Wright house, but I did find the description interesting. The unique thing about it was that it was L-shaped, a one-story house with three different floor levels. I guess the point he was making is that a house doesn't have to look like a cracker box. I've never been able to understand how people can stand to live in these sub-divisions where you have row after row of houses all built on slight variations of one design.