Outdoors Triumphant at Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan
Stacy Bass; courtesy of The Glass House
The outdoors is as much a part of the experience of The Glass House as the indoors.
From any point in the elegant, simple home, hills, meadows, rock outcroppings, pond, river and trees can be seen and they often look as if nature had just left them there.
(We're not the only ones favorably impressed by The Glass House. Check out 12 Stunning Images of What Happens When Fine Art and Architecture Collide on BuzzFeed.)
In reality, Philip Johnson, the architect, owner, and occupant for 56 years, carefully “edited” the landscape. He planted pine trees early on and had other trees pruned so that vistas could be seen, not only from the house, but from elsewhere on the 49-acre grounds.
The natural, effortless look takes a lot of manicuring, even today. Johnson’s meticulousness, when he was alive, is illustrated by a story in which someone had swept up pine needles on the path to the house and Johnson said to the sweeper, “Why did you do that? I had them just where I wanted them.”
The story may be just an example of his sense of humor, or it may be apocryphal.
However, if one were not meticulous, how could one live in a house which can be seen into, as easily as occupants can see out?
To give the home more privacy, the stone wall along the New Canaan street was increased in height, even though the house is set fairly far back and can’t be seen as you first enter the grounds.
“He loved old English manor homes and noted that you could never see the manors until you had driven up a long drive,” said our guide, adding that Johnson believed in “hide and reveal,” rather than showing everything at once.
Guests walk down a curving drive, gradually seeing more of the house, until they enter the gravel paths immediately outside the iconic dwelling. These paths are surrounded by perfectly manicured grass, which is intended to serve as a carpet for the outside of the house. And, incidentally, the sound of visitor’s feet crunching along the gravel paths was intended to serve as a doorbell.
The floor inside is a herringbone pattern of industrial bricks laid on their side. There are no interior walls other than the round brick silo placed to the right of the entrance. It houses the bathroom and, on the side opposite to the door of that necessary room, the silo holds a small fireplace, which faces the sitting area.
There, two chairs, an ottoman and a lounge, all by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, sit on a beige carpet.
There is one free-standing painting. Surprisingly--considering that Johnson was immensely influential in the world of modern art from the 1930’s until his death in 2005--the painting is a landscape attributed to Nicolas Poussin, circa 1648. Johnson saw to it that his own landscape, what he called the “wallpaper” of a glass house, imitates that of the Poussin. A tree just outside looks very much like one in the painting and if one sits in the chairs (definitely not allowed, but one can hunker down to approximate the height), the skyline in the painting matches that of the skyline outdoors.
So, where do you put paintings when you live in a glass house?
Johnson built several other structures on his 49 acres, approximately one every ten years, and one of them was an underground art gallery set in a hillside. Frank Stella’s paintings were on display when we were there and the gallery has movable, carpeted walls so that paintings can be changed without having to be re-hung.
There is also a sculpture gallery, one of the largest structures on the grounds.
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