Saturday, May 19, 2007

Throwing Stones at The Glass House

Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan is open for small public tours and I went to see the “estate’ for myself last week.

The Glass House is a secular shrine for devout Modernists, several of whom joined me on this pilgrimage. We’ve all seen the pictures – a transparent temple sitting on a ledge. We all know the catty criticisms – no privacy, where do you change your clothes? And we all know that questioning its beauty and significance is considered by the cognoscenti to be an early symptom of philistinism.

I’m agnostic on the Glass House. I think it’s beautiful in some sense. But it’s not really a house at all. It’s a garden folly.

That doesn’t become obvious until you enter the building. My first impression was that the ceiling is very high and that the interior is a surprisingly larger space than I had expected.

My second impression is that the house is inconsequential. Everyone instinctively walked from the front door directly over to the glass walls to look out at the view. I asked the tour guide if this was a typical reaction and she said yes approvingly, visitors always go for the view.

In fact, the view is spectacular. Johnson culled the forest and left behind all the mature trees with stones walls outlining the dips and rises of the land. The landscape is entrancing. Your eye moves from individual scenes to the panorama and back again. You could look at it for hours.

My third impression was that there is nothing whatsoever worth looking at inside the house itself. It’s little more than a translucent Motel 6 suite. The woodwork on the cabinets is bleached and dried by the sun. The kitchen is of similar look and vintage as the one I had in my college dorm room. And the bathroom is . . .um . . . unpleasant.

The docent’s narrative confirmed my suspicion that this was a virtually uninhabitable space. All the doors need to be opened to cool the place on sunny days – it’s a greenhouse after all – and since there are no screens to keep the bugs out, I imagine it’s not the best place to be in the summer.

Nor in the winter, apparently. Johnson liked having a fire in the fireplace even though it was so poorly designed that more smoke filled the house than the chimney. From the looks of the darkened ceiling, I’d be surprised if the house even had a chimney.

But I can only imagine what the place is like at night when the landscape is lit by the floodlights Johnson placed on the roof toward the canopy of trees and beyond. That must be sublime. But see, it’s the land, not the house that is truly beautiful.

In pictures of the Glass House there is 17th century French baroque painting by Nicolas Poussin standing in the middle of the room as a partition mounted in a sleek metal frame. That juxtaposition of old and modern had always intrigued me. It seemed a clever way to display traditional artwork in a modern building with no traditional walls. But, as usual, the promise of modernism is thwarted by the actuality of the natural environment.

The beating sunlight, withering humidity, intense heat, and numbing cold have pummeled the Poussin into flaky submission. The painting is ruined. It might as well have been kept outside.

A few minutes of exploration exhausts the highlights of the Glass House interior and after more gawking at the view we walked over to the Guest House. Nothing inviting here. Just a plain door on a stark brick wall. Some wag once described this building as looking like the box that the Glass House came in. Actually, it looks far more sinister than that. A prison or an incinerator is more like it. At its most attractive angle it could pass for an electrical substation on a college campus.

But open the door and there is a pleasant surprise. The windowless interior is flooded with natural light pouring down from skylights overhead. The small tour crowded into the bedroom. This room had no natural light, just fabric covered walls and an austere bed under an undulating canopy. When our guide told us that this was Andy Warhol’s favorite room and would spend all day in there, I noticed those standing closest to the walls step away slightly so that they weren’t touching anything. I made a mental note to wash my hands thoroughly when I got home.

There’s a nice little library in the Guest House that may be the most comfortable place on the property if it weren’t for the sounds of Andy Warhol coming from the next room. The books? Best-sellers from 1980.

Outside again we walked toward the art galleries. The paths across the estate have been paved to accommodate disabled Americans in accord with the Americans with Disabilities Act which seems to be in direct conflict with the Americans Concerned About Paving the Natural Environment Act. Johnson liked narrow pathways and springy footbridges because they offered safe sensations of danger. But “Safe Danger” is not a concept recognized by the ADA and these charming features are being torn out before someone gets hurt because getting hurt is about the worstest thing that can happen in life.

Pausing before the entrance to the subterranean Painting Gallery the docent told us Johnson was inspired by some famous mausoleum in Mycenae. He didn’t need to go so far for inspiration. Basically any cemetery crypt, underground parking garage, or high-security command post such as the one in “Colossus: The Forbin Project” would have inspired this structure.

The innovative angle here is that Johnson’s collection of modern art is stored and displayed on three large rolodexes set on their sides. Changing the artwork displayed is just a matter of turning a huge page in the catalog. The flaw in this inspiration: the radius of the “pages” very nearly intersect at the middle of the room so you would have to constantly move the furniture across the floor if you wanted to see more than three selections of art in one sitting.

The entrance to the gallery is a generously sized vestibule wallpapered in carpeting. Another modernist conundrum: it looks good but doesn’t take nature into account. Remember it’s underground, cold, and damp. Consequently, the carpeting hosts what smells like an advanced civilization of fungus. It was as if a dozen wet Labrador Retrievers had just been shooed out of the building after having lived there for the winter.

Perhaps this olfactory element is what links the gallery to the decomposed aristocracy of Mycenae? I’ll certainly think back to Johnson’s gallery the next time I’m called upon to design a kennel.

Modernism is a difficult thing to define but I think one of its intrinsic characteristics (in architecture, art, music) is that it rejects permanence. It is of the moment and, therefore, does not age well. In fact, it’s not supposed to age because the act of creation is what matters, not the thing that was created by the act.

This is immediately clear from looking at what’s left of Johnson’s art collection. They had the Frank Stellas displayed in the dank dog house when I was there and on close inspection it’s clear that they’re not fairing any better than the Poussin even though they are roughly 300 years more modern. The canvas is peeling off the oddly shaped stretchers and the felt has already disintegrated on one multimedia piece. Looking behind the Stellas, the others don’t look any better.

Leaving the art bunker you are once again confronted with real beauty. The sunshine, fields, stone walls and trees are magnificent.

Next it was off to the sculpture gallery. I was particularly interested in this building since it looked so striking in photographs. With whitewashed walls, ochre steps and a constantly changing pattern of light and shadow, it suggests a Greek village. On the day I visited it was sweltering inside because the mechanism for opening the glass ceiling was rusted shut.

Our guide said that Johnson once considered living here rather than the main house and I could see the attraction. It looks like a multilevel loft space with the possibility of real privacy. Of course, we were not allowed to descend the levels because, according to the ADA, if a disabled American can’t do it, then no one can.

The George Segal sculpture in one of the alcoves looked rusted and dirty. It was probably flawlessly rusted and impeccably dirty when it was installed in the late 1970s. Now it looks like crap. It’s supposed to capture an inconsequential moment shared by an intimate couple. Today, it just looks inconsequential if not a bit ominous like an unmade bed in a squalid tenement which I don’t think is what the artist had in mind originally.

Again, out in the fresh air and sunshine, you see the real beauty of the place and imagine what it might look like if you replaced all these scruffy structures and built a real faux Connecticut farmhouse with peaked roofs and stone chimneys and a big red barn.

Frankly, even the Johnson joint would be just another Fairfield County teardown if the National Trust for Historic Preservation didn’t own it now. And that’s thick irony since the Trust was created to protect traditional architecture from modernism’s onslaught. Now they’re protecting modernism from the backlash. Perhaps even more baffling is that an icon of an architectural movement that rejected historical references has now officially become a historical reference point.

My bottom line impression? My subconscious mind kept replaying the theme to Green Acres until I realized the lyrics: “Land spreading out so far and wide. Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.”

Come to think of it, Philip Johnson really is sort of an inside out hybrid of Mr. & Mrs. Douglas from Green Acres (a program with much wisdom to impart, at least according to my subconscious). Johnson, like Oliver Douglas, is a persistent dreamer fighting a losing battle against nature. And like Lisa Douglas, he tried to replicate his beloved Manhattan in an inhospitable place.

And actually, he succeeded in some elementary way. What was it they used to say about New York? “Great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

The Glass House is exactly that.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your blog, but I think your feelings about modernism and its supposed clash with nature blinded you to the beauty, intellect, and significance of the Johnson compound.

Anonymous said...

Judging a house by its intellect and significance is nice, but if you can't live there, what's the point? I love this essay for exposing the emperor's lack of clothes.