Feb 20, 2011

Philip Johnson: Glass House and New Canaan Estate

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.

The first view of the Glass House, partially concealed behind a fieldstone wall.

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.

The Library to the left, and Ghost House, a chainlink tribute to Frank Gehry, to the right.

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.

Originally designed as a visitor center at the entrance to the estate, Da Monsta was Johnson's final structure here, an appendix to Johnson and Wigley's 1988 MoMA exhibition, Deconstructivist architecture.


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.

Johnson in front of the Glass House, 1949.

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.

A short video taken from in front of the Glass House. Between the fieldstone wall and the brick Guest House, you can just make out the Donald Judd sculpture (a large concrete ring on the ground). The shot pans past the Guest House, across the lawn and pool. Note in the background, the mound and red entrance to the Painting Gallery, then the white Sculpture Gallery, before the shot ends on a corner of the Glass House.

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.

Living Room of the Glass House. The key to Johnson's design lies on the glass-topped table.

Guest House, left, Glass House and pool.

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.

Guest House, interior.

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.

All the world's a stage: lighting the 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.

A view from the Glass House of two follies in a picturesque landscape: the Lake Pavilion and the Lincoln Kirsten Tower.

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.

The author as wallpaper: a self-portrait on the Glass House

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.

Additional images

The Glass House:

Floorplan of the Glass House. Johnson stated that the plan was simply a conventional domestic floorplan without any dividing walls. The main entrance is at the top of this plan, to the right is the kitchen (K), in front the living room (L), and next to that, the Dining Room (D). Behind a storage wall is the Bedroom (Be) and concealed behind the large cylindrical hearth, the Bathroom (Ba).

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.

Glass House: the bedroom

Glass House: the dining room

Glass House, the kitchen. The equipment of domestic labor can be partially concealed when not in use.

The Painting Gallery. Johnson and his partner David Whitney were avid contemporary art collectors and built this bunker-like gallery for displaying some of their paintings (Warhol, Johns, and Salle, for example). Inside, only three paintings were on display at a time, but movable walls (see below) could be revolved to reveal other paintings stored behind.

The Sculpture Gallery (the video below gives a good idea of the interior)

The dramatic entrance gate to the New Canaan estate

A framed view of the Library from the Monsta. Johnson carefully considered views across the estate.

Another view of Da Monsta

And finally, the designer doghouse!

All photos and videos by D.J. Huppatz except the black and white 1949 shot of Johnson in front of the Glass House and the interior shot of the Guest House. Unfortunately, the Guest House was closed for renovations when I visited.

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