Jul 19, 2011
Since the opening of its first section in June 2009, the High Line has received considerable acclaim in both mainstream and specialist design media. If Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim museum spawned the “Bilbao effect” in which cities around the world sought to replicate Bilbao’s tourist and development boom by commissioning their own iconic cultural destinations, so the “High Line effect” may be underway,as American cities strive to transform derelict industrial infrastructure into new public spaces for much the same reasons (notably, Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail and Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct). But from a design perspective, the High Line is an exemplary monument to contemporary design pragmatism in which design is neither simply form-making nor theoretical elaborations but a complex response to existing physical infrastructure, competing socio-political forces, and ecological concerns. The project has also refocused American design culture on new possibilities for urban space, the power of grassroots community activism, and of course, new urban projects as a means to stimulate economic development.
The elevated freight rail line that became the High Line originally ran down the west side of Manhattan. It was completed in 1934 as a means to bypass congested streets and connect the Meatpacking district and Soho manufacturing industries to the rail yards at 34th Street (see historical photographs here). With little regard for existing buildings, the great steel structure ran 30 feet above the city streets between 10th and 11th Avenues, occasionally running through the middle of warehouses so goods could be easily transferred. By the 1950s, trucking had overtaken rail as the favored means to transport freight, and the elevated line was only used sporadically until the last train ran down the line in 1980. The southern-most part of it was then demolished, leaving one and a half miles of abandoned track from Ganesvoorst Street in the Meatpacking District to 34th Street, level with the Empire State Building. Over the next 20 years, while the hulking steel structure came to be seen as an eyesore by local residences and businesses, above, nature was reclaiming the line, as weeds in the form of grasses, wildflowers and even trees self-seeded along the tracks.
The High Line’s now mythical story began when freelance writer Josua David and business consultant Robert Hammond met in 1999 at a neighborhood meeting to discuss the potential demolition of the abandoned railway, and decided to form a non-profit dedicated to preserving the structure. Over the next few years, their non-profit group, Friends of the High Line, not only gathered community support, but also had sufficient business acumen to engage in sophisticated networking, fund-raising, and publicity that secured private funding and support from local business people and celebrities, and eventually funding from city, state, and federal governments. However, after 9/11 and the subsequent downturn in the city’s economy, the High Line project was increasingly framed as an economic development project as much as a preservation or public urbanism project (see Steen). Not coincidently, as plans for preserving the rail line were being developed, Chelsea and the Meatpacking District were rapidly changing neighborhoods. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the downtown art scene shifted its center from Soho to West Chelsea, while the Meatpacking District was fast becoming a designer destination with new fashion boutiques, cafes, and restaurants replacing the disappearing meat industry (see my 2007 entry).
A model of savvy contemporary fund-raising, advocacy and publicity, the Friends of the High Line also had a commitment to sophisticated design and imaging. Pentagram’s Paula Scher designed the Friends logo and pitch publications, and in 2000, photographer Joel Sternfeld documented the elevated railway in a series of now iconic images that captured the melancholic and quiet beauty of the green ribbon threading through the city. This was a key moment, argued Karen E. Steen, “that the High Line became a park in the minds of New Yorkers. Until then all anyone had ever seen was the corroded underside.” An open invitation for public proposals for how to transform the abandoned track into a public space was the first step in envisaging its future, followed by a more focused design competition in 2004. A notable precedent was the Promenade Plantée in Paris, a freight rail line redesigned as a public pedestrian route in 1993. Like its French precedent, the High Line was not simply an urban preservation project but a transformative one, but one that was up until this point open to possibilities as to its future functions and appearance.
The competition’s winning design team comprised landscape architect James Corner’s studio Field Operations, interdisciplinary architecture studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and horticulturalist Piet Oudolf. Their design scheme was founded on the idea of preserving the existing “wilderness” of grasses and wildflowers that had self-generated on the tracks by simply paving around it and preserving the railway tracks. However, as much of the existing stone ballast was contaminated with asbestos, and there were drainage problems and accessibility issues, a more extensive redesign was required. The resulting scheme aimed to recreate the feel of the abandoned railway line yet transform the structure into a usable and accessible public park. This required ripping up the tracks and ballast and inserting a sophisticated drainage and irrigation system into the steel structure, then replacing the tracks and designing a concrete paving system, custom-designed wooden seating, and planting in a complex layering of grasses, shrubs and trees.
The precast concrete planking system devised by Field Operations provides a flexible underlying framework that merges into both wooden seating and planting beds (see image above). The plantings include various meadow grasses and wildflowers inspired by the wild growth that had reclaimed the tracks. Using native species in natural compositions, Oudolf created micro-ecologies along the length of the High Line, so that the walker encounters grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands, all along a narrow elevated space above the New York city streets. In recreating the improvised character of nature reclaiming the abandoned railway tracks, Oudolf paid particular attention to colors, textures, and seasonal changes. The tracks were re-laid where they originally sat, and even the new custom-made furniture, including solid wooden deckchairs that run on wheels along short sections of track, looks like it might have always been there.
The design team’s leader, landscape architect James Corner is a significant theorist as well as practitioner (see also Field Operations’ massive ongoing project, Fresh Kills Park, a 2200 acre former landfill site on Staten Island). A student of ecological design guru Ian McHarg, Corner has long advocated a holistic approach to landscape architecture that emphasizes “more organizational and strategic skills than those of formal composition”, preferring to focus on performance and event spaces to scenic compositions (Corner, 1999: 160). In this sense, the High Line is less a scenic landscape than a narrative promenade punctuated with what Corner terms “episodes”. Walking the High Line is a multilayered experience which begins with a certain distancing from the city streets and subtle immersion into the micro-ecologies of the plantings. There is both an expansiveness and sense of escape from urban density as vistas of the Hudson River or along city streets open up, as well as an intimacy too, especially where the High Line tunnels through buildings or the walker becomes immersed in the tall grasses or trees and forgets the city altogether.
A key design strategy was the manipulation of duration and an emphasis on slowness, suggesting a new type of public space for a contemporary flâneur. From Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s carefully considered durational character of the stairs up to the High Line (see image above), the emphasis on a slow promenade with various diversions along the way has created a distinct urban narrative. In a rethinking architecture’s role in such urban projects, architect Elizabeth Diller stated: “One has to accept that there is more to architecture than space-making: architecture is event-making, it’s always thinking about perception, and space, use, choreography, setting up relations and so forth” (“Architecture as Dissident Practice” p.59). The elevated promenade offers a unique perspective from which to view New York, but also creates its own choreographed narrative. The “sunken square” at 10th Avenue, comprising a stepped space which culminates in a cut-out “window” above the street (see images below), is a particularly 21st century public space that at once frames the traffic along 10th Avenue for High Line flâneurs while at the same time framing them for the traffic below.
A close observer of the details of urban life and its characters, Charles Baudelaire’s 19th century Parisian flâneur lived in state of heightened present, strolling distractedly amongst the crowd. In the 20th century, Walter Benjamin’s flâneur was a particularly middle class stroller with the economic means to indulge in such slowness, an ambivalent character that Benjamin saw as both a heroic critic of capitalism and consumerism (in his refusal to shop), as well as a figure who rejected the realities of urban existence by inhabiting this dream world of distractions. Perhaps a 21st century flâneur would be an extension of these previous characters whose consciousness is now framed by digital technologies? As a 21st century space then, the High Line seems designed with a new type of flâneur in mind – it is a space for strolling, seeing, and being seen – as well as functioning as a reassuring physical space relieved of urban tension and pressure, a kind of post-industrial haven.
However, the ecological approach adopted by the designers, which combines the readymade, the natural and the artificial – industrial history, “wild” nature, and the spectacle of New York – is subtle and complex, as well as open to possibilities and transformations (it seems, for example, a perfect space for performance art, theater, or dance). Unfortunately, the popular success of the park may limit these possibilities as the High Line has aided in raising the profile of the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea as a designer destination (complementing recent buildings in the area including Gehry’s ICA building, and luxury condominiums by Jean Nouvel and Shigeru Ban). The High Line may thus be seen as the icing on the cake – a public park and rare strip of green space – in an area that has been attracting signature architecture and rising real estate costs over the past decade or so. There is thus some irony in a design scheme that critically intervenes and re-imagines the contemporary city only to be immediately subsumed by economic imperatives. For designers though, the High Line is a high-profile precedent that suggests numerous possibilities inherent in trans-disciplinary design projects that might repurpose existing industrial structures into the public spaces of the future.
Benjamin, Walter, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. by Harry Zohn, Verso, London & New York: 1983.
Blum, Andrew, “The Long View”, Metropolis, November 2008 (on James Corner).
Corner, James, “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes”, in James Corner, ed., Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1999.
Goldberger, Paul, “Miracle Above Manhattan”, National Geographic Magazine, April 2011.
Hardy, Hugh, “The Romance of Abandonment: Industrial Parks”, Places, 17:3, 2005, pp.32-37.
“James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro: the High Line, New York, New York, USA, 2001-2009”, A+U: Architecture and Urbanism, No. 5, May 2010, pp.36-61.
Kazi, Olympia, “Architecture as a Dissident Practice: An Interview with Diller Scofidio + Renfro”, Architectural Design, Vol. 79, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2009.
McDonough, Tom, “The Crimes of the Flaneur”, October, Vol. 102, Autumn, 2002, pp. 101-122.
Molotch, Harvey and Mark Treskon, “Changing Art: SoHo, Chelsea and the Dynamic Geography of Galleries in New York City”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33:2, 2009, pp. 517-41.
Steen, Karen E., "Friends in High Places", Metropolis, December 2005.
Ulam, Alex, “Back on Track”, Landscape Architecture, Vol. 99, 2009.
All photographs by D. J. Huppatz.
May 24, 2011
Two heavyweights of contemporary lifestyle design, IKEA and MUJI, are slugging it out for control of domestic life worldwide. The objects with which they do battle are remarkably similar – functional, simple, honest, and ornament-free tools for living. However, the marketing and consumption of the two brands emphasize their essential differences through reference to widely held stereotypes of Swedish and Japanese design. Mundane objects are imbued with the humane spirit of Scandinavian modernism or the Zen-like purity and humility of traditional Japan. Nevertheless, beyond these apparent differences, IKEA and MUJI can also be seen as united in a broader struggle to discipline the middle class home through their aesthetic ordering.
By far the older brand, IKEA began as a Swedish mail order company in 1943, and slowly began to specialize in furniture, opening its first store in 1953. MUJI began as a small line of products in the Japanese Seiyu supermarket chain, and expanded to an entire store of MUJI products in 1983. While IKEA had a few decades head start, both brands accelerated their global expansion programs through the 1990s and 2000s so that now, according to their respective websites, IKEA operates 316 stores worldwide, while MUJI operates 493 stores (although only 134 of these are outside of Japan, the remaining 359 stores are in Japan). The retail offerings of both companies could hardly be described as minimalist: IKEA’s range is currently over 12 000 products, while MUJI’s is over 7000 products. Despite this difference, IKEA continues to be solidly founded on domestic furniture, while MUJI offers a broader range of products, including clothing, food, stationary, and furniture.
Through their emphasis on reductive forms, honest design that clearly expresses a useful function, and restrained decoration, both IKEA and MUJI continue the aesthetic and ethical ideals of 1950s “Good Design”. However, neither brand emphasizes the talents of any individual designer but instead both rely on the intangible aura of national design genius. For non-Swedish and non-Japanese consumers, traditional Japan and Sweden are constantly evoked in nostalgic, largely imaginary visions of their respective cultures. Everyday objects are veiled with the not only the authority of Swedish and Japanese design traditions, but also the values associated with progressive Swedish social democracy and the humble simplicity of pre-modern Japanese culture.
For example, we know that IKEA was born in the cradle of honest, traditional peasant culture in Småland, founder Ingvar Kamprad’s home province in southern Sweden. The carefully designed objects retain a raw, handcrafted feel that draws upon both these Swedish roots and later Swedish modernist design. For Ursula Lindqvist, the IKEA store is a celebration of design nationalism, “a living archive in which values and traits identified as distinctively Swedish are communicated to consumers worldwide through its Nordic-identified product lines, organized walking routes, and nationalistic narrative” (Lindqvist 2009: 44). IKEA’s “total design” – from the flag to the meatballs – works to color both the experience and the products with an image of Swedish-ness, regardless of each individual store’s global location or the real origin of the products.
Although considered everyday in a Japanese context, MUJI have similarly marketed products outside of Japan to correspond to a self-conscious image of “traditional Japan” and its values of simplicity, modesty, and serenity. As MUJI’s Creative Director Kazuko Koike explains in the recent promotional book: “The nature of the MUJI concept—its simplicity, an unadorned integrity, and the way a MUJI product blends into a living space without asserting itself—all of these qualities are common in traditional Japanese architectural space” (Koike et al 2010: 48). However, writer William Gibson understands this recourse to traditional Japan as essentially imaginary. MUJI, he writes, “calls up a wonderful Japan that doesn’t really exist. A Japan of the mind, where even toenail-clippers and plastic coat-hangers possess a Zen purity: functional, minimal, reasonably priced. I would very much like to visit the Japan that Muji evokes” (Gibson 2001).
Despite the nationalist discourse, the minimalist aesthetic that shapes both IKEA and MUJI products makes them appear functional, a characteristic both brands emphasize. As the overt consumerism and brand consciousness of the 1980s and 90s receded, both corporations could appeal to middle class consumers who aspired to progressive social ideals and a productive lifestyle that appeared simple, ordered, and humble. Given both brands also emphasize their low cost, there is also the suggestion of the democratic nature of quality design for the widest possible audience. In recent years, both brands have added the obligatory environmental rhetoric to their progressive social ideals. However, particularly for IKEA, the emphasis on extremely low cost products means their products are perceived to be without lasting value, “the absolute opposite of heirlooms” (Hartman 2007: 495), the ultimate disposable furniture.
In contrast, MUJI promotes their products as longer lasting due to their inherent qualities. MUJI’s distinction in the US was initially among connoisseurs of good design (its first appearance was in the MoMA giftshop), but it may have lost its exclusivity as the brand has become popular, reducing each products’ coveted designer appeal. In Japan, MUJI’s reputation is quite different – more like a Japanese Target or K-Mart than a designer brand – and its products might thus be considered more disposable in that context. However, MUJI’s advertisements certainly highlight the brand’s designer aura, as each product is shot individually against a neutral background, so that even a t-shirt or cup attains a rarefied aesthetic value. Interestingly, Creative Director Kazuko Koike questions the possibility of “fake” MUJI products, on the grounds that “the strong feeling you sense when holding a MUJI product in your hand does not emanate solely from its extremely simplified form. There is a philosophy reflected in all of MUJI’s products, communication, and design: a single, consistent ideology in seemingly simple and low-cost products. This cannot be copied easily” (MUJI 2010: 152). Given an indistinguishable MUJI fake would be relatively easy to manufacture, MUJI, ironically for a “non-brand”, relies heavily on advertising imagery and marketing in order to maintain its original aura.
The distinctive lifestyle marketing employed by both IKEA and MUJI has its roots in 1960s lifestyle brands such as Terrance Conran’s Habitat. Launched in London in 1964, Habitat framed individual products within a coherent ensemble, or “total design”, that extended from its retail stores to its advertising and catalogues. Stimulated by a desirable lifestyle rather than functional products, the “Habitat Man” of the 1960s understood consumption as a pleasurable activity rather than a rational decision-making process: “For Habitat Man the shop is not a schoolroom but a theatre, a place where fantasies are played out and identities taken on and discarded with each new set of commodities” (Hewitt 1987: 29). This theatrical framing of a desirable lifestyle within a coherent ensemble has been successfully adopted by both IKEA and MUJI, although in slightly different ways.
MUJI’s “total design” is possibly even more holistic than IKEA’s, due to a close collaboration between product, communication, and interior designers from the brand’s inception. In addition to the products, advertisements, and catalogues, MUJI’s retail stores confirm the brand’s aesthetic ideal through their raw materials, minimalist aesthetic and meticulous ordering of everyday objects. Maintaining both a distinctive, designer aura and an everyday, useful one has been the delicate balancing act of MUJI’s design team across various disciplines. As Holloway and Hones argue: “essential to the presentation and identification of the Muji brand is the existence of a set of display spaces that share a unified aesthetic, in which the border between the shop-floor space and catalogue space is relatively unmarked” (Holloway and Hones 2007: 559). Like Habitat’s designer lifestyle of the 1960s, MUJI’s lifestyle ideals are expressed in a seamless aesthetic experience.
IKEA maintains a similar seamless aesthetic across its products, advertisements, and catalogues, but its retail experience diverges from MUJI’s. IKEA’s stores are not simply furniture showrooms, but have become complete destinations, including a restaurant and childcare facilities (and I know of a couple who take full advantage of this by dropping their kids off at the free childcare and then enjoying a romantic dinner sans enfants in the restaurant). While a MUJI store emphasizes the compact, organized aspect of an ordered lifestyle, IKEA’s larger stores house more expansive exhibition spaces that feature a variety of domestic tableaux populated by IKEA’s equipment for living.
In Japan, MUJI have extended the lifestyle experience beyond retail stores that sell products for the domestic realm by creating a (partially) prefabricated MUJI House, MUJI campgrounds (for a MUJI vacation experience), and are currently planning a MUJI hotel. Creative Director Koike describes this latest expansion as part of a complete lifestyle education program: “I expect MUJI HOTEL to be a place that reveals the wisdom and details of living that MUJI has accumulated. One of the great purposes of the hotel is to make these details and this wisdom tangible so that people who have not noticed them yet will pay attention” (MUJI 2010: 235). Thus, with a MUJI education, people can understand that a t-shirt is not merely a t-shirt, nor a chair simply a chair: they are conduits for the communication of MUJI wisdom.
Beyond designing lifestyles, innovative packaging, distribution systems, and organizational design have paved IKEA’s global expansion. Due to their beginnings as a mail order business, the company developed innovations such as flat packaging for transportation and warehouse storage of furniture, which in turn led to customer self-service in their retail stores, and products designed for customer assembly. MUJI meanwhile, are known for their innovative, minimal packaging of smaller products, as both products and packaging are designed to eliminate superfluous layers and materials. In the absence of additional information about this aspect of the MUJI corporation, I can only assume that their global rise has followed at least some of the innovations pioneered by IKEA.
As a global brand, IKEA has been extremely successful in sourcing low-cost materials and labor. Jérôme Barthélemy argues that this came about came about less by design than by necessity. A significant turning point was Kamprad’s decision in 1961 to source products from Poland, as costs there were 50% lower than in Sweden. But this was more of “an adaptation to market circumstances rather than an outgrowth of a formal strategic planning process” (Barthélemy 2000: 82) as IKEA were forced to outsource due to a Swedish furniture cartel who boycotted IKEA in effort to keep prices high. This also forced IKEA to start designing their own furniture, and to adapt their design processes to the globalized manufacturing requirements, which diversified over the decades that followed to ever-cheaper sources of materials and labor. Today, IKEA’s global empire depends on exploiting uneven relationships in order to deliver their low-cost designer lifestyles to middle class consumers in Europe, North America, and increasingly wealthier parts of Asia and the Middle East.
At this point, the Swedish-ness noted above becomes both increasingly irrelevant from a corporate perspective, but increasingly necessary as an image that functions to erase the global processes of production and suppliers of materials and labor (Lindqvist 2009: 52). The real conditions of global capitalism are obscured by focusing attention on good design, nationalistic narratives, and vague notions of sustainability. Despite the recent rhetoric of “respect” and “responsibility” towards manufacturers in the developing world, IKEA’s ruthless price-cutting and sheer scale displaces both local retailers and manufacturers. And it is worth noting that for decades now the complex network of holding companies and associated corporations that make up IKEA (and are still controlled by the Kamprad family) are not located in Sweden, but in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, in order to avoid paying taxes in Sweden.
Unfortunately, I have been able to find out very little about MUJI’s organization, production or distribution systems other than the facts that they do source materials globally, at least some of their products (particularly the clothing) are manufactured in China, and the corporation is still Japanese based and owned. I can only assume that their global expansion over the past two decades might be structured on the same uneven relationships as the IKEA model outlined above. Like IKEA, MUJI promote their products as “sustainable”, but I have found it impossible to follow where their materials are sourced, or where and under what conditions their products are manufactured. For both brands, the image of a sustainable corporation and the image of sustainable products are ultimately more important than the realities of production and consumption.
This emphasis on image is crucial to both IKEA and MUJI, and is certainly important in suppressing further thought about the origins of their products and the purpose of their designer experiences. The systems and processes at work behind the scenes remain obscured by the disciplining action of aesthetic ordering. Despite their differences, IKEA and MUJI are founded on images of an ideal life of unified perfection, a coherent lifestyle aesthetic that functions to allay contemporary middle class anxieties surrounding order, cleanliness, and purity. The bland, globalized good design of IKEA and MUJI also highlights a disturbing distain for excess, exuberance and vitality, and functions to repress local culture, history, and individual creativity.
Barthélemy, Jérôme, “The Experimental Roots of Revolutionary Vision”, MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol. 48, No. 1, 2000.
Flat Pack Accounting, The Economist, May 11, 2006.
Gibson, William, “Modern Boys and Mobile Girls”, The Observer, Sunday 1 April 2001.
Hartman, Tod, “On the Ikeaization of France”, Public Culture, Vol. 19, No. 3, 2007.
Hewitt, John, “Good Design in the Market Place: The Rise of Habitat Man”, The Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 10. No. 2, 1987.
Holloway, Julian, and Sheila Hones, “Muji, Materiality, and Mundane Geographies”, Environment and Planning, Volume 39, 2007.
Koike, Kazuko, Naoto Fukasawa, Kenya Hara, and Takashi Sugimoto, MUJI, New York: Rizzoli, 2010.
Lindqvist, Ursula, “The Cultural Archive of the IKEA Store”, Space and Culture, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2009.
The Local: Sweden’s News in English, “Kamprad pledges Ikea 'transparency'”, 18 May 2011.
Feb 20, 2011
Last summer, along with more Manitoga research and a visit to James Rose’s New Jersey house, I finally made the pilgrimage to Philip Johnson’s Glass House and estate in New Canaan, Connecticut. As with my Fallingwater pilgrimage a few years ago, I paid extra for the longer tour that allows more time for photos and videos, so please enjoy them. Reflecting on the two pilgrimages, I think both Johnson’s Glass House and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater were designed with historical significance in mind – both are photogenic, well-publicized, and dramatically posit human habitation in relationship to the surrounding landscape, though Johnson’s picturesque estate differs from Wright’s sublime monument.
While the Glass House is an undisputed icon of modernist architecture, the other structures on Johnson’s New Canaan estate are less well known. More than simply a country retreat, Johnson’s estate functioned as a forum for ideas for over fifty years as it grew from an original five acres to forty acres as Johnson bought adjoining properties. Structures on the estate built by Johnson were: the Glass House and Guest House (both 1949), the Lake Pavilion (1962), the Painting Gallery (1965), the Sculpture Gallery (1970), the Library (1984), the Lincoln Kirsten Tower (1985), the Ghost House (1985), and Da Monsta (1994). These various buildings and follies can be seen as an autobiographical map tracing Johnson’s professional life, not only as an architect, but also as a connoisseur, tastemaker, and historian.
After studying classics at Harvard, Johnson worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art from 1930 to 1934, the museum’s formative years. With Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Johnson curated Modern Architecture: International Exhibition in 1932, and the following year he curated an exhibition of modernist industrial design, Objects: 1900 and Today, followed by the more extensive Machine Art in 1934. As both curator and critic, Johnson played a crucial role in defining and codifying modernism in the United States, emphasizing its aesthetic qualities and downplaying its social significance. In the late 1930s, a personal and political allegiance to German Nazism, anti-Semitism, and the American far right haunted his later career. He abandoned his political devotions with the outbreak of the war, and moved to Harvard in 1942 to begin an architecture degree. While he returned to MoMA briefly in the early 1950s, Johnson began a long and uneven career as a professional architect. However, he continued his role as a leading tastemaker by gathering, sponsoring, and promoting American architecture’s cultured elite right up until his death in 2005.
In 1946, Johnson bought a property on the outskirts of New Canaan, a colonial-era village of white clapboard houses within easy commuting distance of New York City. He had followed the lead of fellow MoMA curator and architect Eliot Noyes in purchasing land in New Canaan, and, within a few years, architects Marcel Breuer, John Johansen, and Landis Gores joined them. Known collectively as the Harvard Five, all were committed modernists who either worked at or studied at Harvard. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, all five built homes for themselves around New Canaan, which quickly became a gathering place for exchange of ideas about modernist architecture. In fact, the first organized tour of New Canaan modernist houses was in 1949, after which tours were a regular occurrence as the Harvard Five built dozens of modernist houses in the area. However, Johnson’s Glass House was the best known, and the most shocking.
While posing as a private retreat, Johnson’s Glass House was very public from its conception. Johnson was well aware of the power of the mass media and he made sure that the Glass House was featured widely not only in the architectural press, exemplified by his own 1950 Architectural Review article on the house, but in the popular press as well, exemplified by a 1949 spread in Life magazine. Beyond the instant notoriety, Beatriz Colomina has also noted that as Johnson became a regular and recognizable figure in print media and on TV over the following decades, so did the Glass House (Colomina, in Petit 2009: 75). Johnson’s New Canaan estate was (and in some respects remains) a carefully designed and controlled media event.
Glass House and Guest House
For the post-war media, the image of a neutral space enclosed by transparent walls proved both powerful and irresistible. As Vincent Scully put it, “one of the basic desires of modern architecture—the liberation of the individual—is achieved here” (Scully, in Petit 2009: 22). A model of apparently living with nature, free from society and history, the Glass House seemed to embody a radically modern lifestyle. The carefully composed arrangement of a circular ashtray and rectangular box on the glass-topped table are emblematic of Johnson’s rigorous design logic and aesthetic order that extends from the interior and extends outwards – the forms are repeated in the forms of the Glass and Guest House and circular pool outside. In a fascinating article, Kevin Melchionne speculates on the effects of such a rarefied design on its inhabitant: “Domestic practice becomes the art of maintaining the distinction of implication in the order, of more or less forcing habit to follow aesthetic conception” (Melchionne 1997: 193). That is, such design both constrains and shapes particular actions in a “radical aestheticism” in which inhabiting and maintaining the estate is akin to a curatorial practice.
As abstract sculptures framed on a carefully manicured lawn, the Glass House and Guest House are perhaps less polar opposites and more two sides of the same modernist coin, designed to keep nature’s wildness under tight control. Margaret Maile Petty approaches Johnson’s visual and aesthetic control from a different angle in her analysis of the estate’s innovative artificial lighting. The problem of how to light the Glass House at night caused Johnson to employ lighting designer Richard Kelly to manage both external and internal lighting. The scheme, writes Petty, “allowed Johnson to maintain his controlling gaze over the estate from the safety of the Glass House, while amplifying the stage-like setting of the glass pavilion after dark” (Petty 2010: 5). Particularly when considered in relation to its lesser-known twin, the Glass House is less an exercise in formalist modern architecture and more a theatrical exercise in scenography.
In contrast to the Glass House, the forbidding brick facade of the Guest House conceals a sensual and decorative interior. Renovated in 1953, the Guest House’s windowless bedroom has a vaulted ceiling (inspired, according to Johnson, by John Soane’s famous Breakfast Room) that diffuses light from a skylight hidden above, pink silk wall coverings, and an oversized bed. For Petty, “the dreamy, sheltered world Johnson conjured within the Guest House defied the physical containment of its brick walls” (Petty 2010: 8). For a gay man in the 1950s, the Guest House was perhaps the ultimate closet, and its juxtaposition with the Glass House “suggests a commentary on the nature of American domesticity, conformity, and privacy” (Friedman 2010: 56). Such theatricality was not restricted to the Guest House and Glass House – despite Johnson’s repeated references to high cultural sources such as Mies, Schinkel, or Ledoux, the glamorous staging extended through the entire estate.
Landscape as Wallpaper
Initially, the driveway into the estate looked down upon the Glass and Guest Houses, but when Johnson later bought adjoining lots, he reconfigured the procession so that visitors would wind down the driveway and approach the Glass House obliquely, half-hidden by the fieldstone wall in a seductive game of hide-and-reveal (see photo at the start of this piece). While Johnson initially conceived the Glass and Guest House as comprising a kind of Acropolis, by the end of his life, the estate resembled a picturesque English garden, though with references, such as the consciously shaped fieldstone walls, to a seventeenth century New England pastoral landscape (see Johnson in Lewis and O’Connor 1994: 43). The estate was not, of course, a productive landscape for agriculture or livestock, but a purely aesthetic environment.
While the Glass House appears to situate human habitation close to nature, Johnson’s own reading of its relationship to the landscape suggests differently. In an interview, Johnson said:
“I built this glass house shortly after Mies van der Rohe gave us all the model with his famous glass house near Chicago. This one came first, so people think I’m the original. I’m not. I knew the plans of the Farnsworth House very well ... But of course, there are differences ... I wanted to live on the ground. I wanted to be contained. I don’t believe in indoor-outdoor architecture. What you want is a contained house to cuddle you, to hold you, to hold you near the hearth... So this house is contained. I must admit the containment is a rather small feature—a black band that runs around the house—but it keeps the landscape away. It turns the landscape into a kind of wallpaper—expensive wallpaper to be sure—but wallpaper, where the sun and the moon and the stars make different patterns” (Johnson in a TV interview by Rosamond Bernier, Camera 3, CBS, 1976, quoted in Colomina, in Petit 2009: 71).
In a return to Frank Lloyd Wright, Johnson begins with the hearth as the heart of inhabitation, but argues that his Glass House, by insulating his radically aesthetic lifestyle from the landscape outside, ultimately tames nature by rendering it decorative, an “expensive wallpaper” designed by Johnson himself.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Lewis, Hilary, and O’Connor, John, eds., Philip Johnson: The Architect in his own Words, New York: Rizzoli, 1994.
Petit, Emmanuel, ed., Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
William D. Earls, The Harvard Five in New Canaan, New York: WW Norton & Company, 2006.
Philip Johnson, Hilary Lewis and Stephen Fox, The Architecture of Philip Johnson, Boston: Bulfinch Press, 2002.
Margaret Maile Petty, 2010, ““The Edge of Danger”: Artificial Lighting and the Dialectics of Domestic Occupation in Philip Johnson’s Glass and Guest Houses”. There is also a Powerpoint of this paper containing images here.
Kevin Melchionne, “Living in Glass Houses: Domesticity, Interior Decoration, and Environmental Aesthetics”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 56, No. 2, Spring 1997: 191-200.
Alice T Friedman, American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010.
Philip Johnson Glass House blog – a good source of information not only about ongoing events at the house, but also its history and that of other New Canaan modernist houses.
Modern Homes Survey: on New Canaan Modernist architecture.
The Glass House:
A short video shot inside the Glass House. The shot starts on the hearth and pans across the living room, then on to the dining room, before returning to the living room.
The dramatic entrance gate to the New Canaan estate
Another view of Da Monsta
Jan 18, 2011
As part of my ongoing Manitoga project, I visited landscape architect James Rose’s home back in July last year. Completed in 1953, the Rose house is an unusual and little known gem of mid-century modernist design, integrating architecture, interiors, furniture design, and landscape design into a harmonious experience of serenity and tranquillity in the somewhat unlikely setting of suburban New Jersey. While Rose’s adaptation of Japanese aesthetics is compelling, he also drew on modernist principles, and employed an improvised, ad hoc approach to design. The Rose house and garden is an idiosyncratic but provocative design project, and certainly deserves wider recognition.
In the 1930s, Rose studied architecture at Cornell, then landscape architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. In 1937, just as Harvard was on the cusp of a modernist overhaul with the arrival of Walter Gropius, Rose was expelled from the landscape architecture program for refusing to conform to Beaux-Arts principles. Rose, along with fellow Harvard students Garrett Eckbo and Dan Kiley, gained an early reputation as a radical theorist as the trio wrote a series of articles in the late 1930s expounding modernist principles in landscape design (some of these articles are reproduced in Marc Trieb’s Modern Landscape Architecture: A Critical Review). They began with a rejection of the Beaux-Art planning principles and historical styles, advocating instead a practice driven by a spatial order adopted from modernist art and architecture. Rose himself wrote of the need for landscape designs that were more appropriate for modern life, and advocated multiple viewpoints; flowing, continuous space; the integration of house and garden; and a sculptural approach to landscape design.
Living room view to the Garden, James Rose House
After World War 2, Rose’s practice comprised mainly private gardens in and around New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, and he continued to write about modern design. His Ridgewood home, though completed in 1953, was initially conceived during post-war military service in Japan. Here, he completed a model of a future home, and began his lifelong love of Japanese design and culture (he later became a practicing Buddhist). The house is situated on a modest corner block, perhaps one fifth of an acre, and Rose preserved the site’s existing linden trees, designing his house and garden around them. As well as the building and garden, Rose designed much of the furniture, woodwork and panelling, the abstract mosaic, sculptures, water features, and many thoughtful details.
Originally, the house was a single story with three separate pavilions – Rose’s studio, his mother’s, and his sister’s pavilions. These were at once separate yet connected via internal courtyards so that the house comprised a series of enclosed and open spaces that were separate yet interlocking. The low, horizontal, flat roof structure has a Japanese feel, while the use of exposed wood, glass, and concrete blocks also give the house a modernist feel. Interior and exterior spaces were seamlessly integrated, emphasizing an intimate engagement between the human-made and the natural. Flexibility was a key to Rose’s design, and he described the building as an armature around which he improvised spaces, adding and subtracting over time as needs changed.
This flexibility was demonstrated in Rose’s redesign of the house in 1970 (after his mother passed away). In addition to altering the internal spaces, Rose incorporated Japanese-style shoji screens and built a “roof garden” of semi-enclosed spaces, bounded by wooden and fibreglass structures (see photo above). He also included an enclosed meditation room on the roof. The improvised nature of Rose’s practice is highlighted in these later additions both on the roof and in the garden, which included recycled materials for sculptural fountains, and a bench made from an old door. Not surprisingly, Rose had a difficult ongoing relationship with the local building authorities. While the Rose house is a difficult project to describe in words, it is also difficult to capture in photographs, so I have included three short videos below with brief explanations, which will hopefully make the project clearer. Below these I have included a plan and more photographs.
Rose House video 1: Entrance
This video starts at the street entrance to the house. The twisted metal lampshade is a Rose creation. Inside the entrance, the fence to the right provides privacy from the street. The camera then pans across the roof garden to the front door. Note the large tree by the front door – I imagine Rose designed his home around this tree and one in the rear. His studio is to the left of the tree. The camera then moves around the side of the house and focuses on a mosaic created by Rose. The flagstones and plantings in this front courtyard contribute to the Japanese feel of the architecture. The sounds are faint traffic noise and water features from the rear garden.
Rose House video 2: Interior
This short video, though a little dark, gives some sense of the interior. The living room mosaic continues the same forms and colors as the one outside. Rose designed much of the woodwork and furniture in these spaces, some Japanese inspired.
Rose House video 3: Roof Garden and Garden
This video is shot from the roof garden above Rose’s studio. It gives a good sense of the ad hoc character of the roof top structures, their mixed materials, and their interaction with the trees. The pattern in wood you can see at 0:30 evokes a leaf skeleton. The camera then pans down across the rear garden and its three water features, the sounds of which were much more tranquil than they sound on this video.
Internal courtyard with steps going up to the roof garden, James Rose House
Japanese-style rusticated log in living room, see also my Manitoga post
The mural continues inside
The roof garden constructed around a tree
A view from the rear garden
An old door recycled as a garden bench
Living with nature
The Japanese-style meditation/tea room
All photos by D.J. Huppatz