June 06 2019

The Duality of Philip Johnson on the 70th Anniversary of his Iconic Glass House

This year, Philip Johnson's Glass House turns 70. As the father of American modernism—depending on who you ask—we track the history of not only the iconic structure but also its creator and his interesting past juxtapositioning homosexuality and fascism.

Depending on whom you ask, American modernism was born under the shade of an old oak tree, on a grassy knoll in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1945. It was there that the architect Philip Johnson conceived his Glass House, a design he later said seemed to ‘hang’ off that tree, merging domestic architecture with its natural surroundings. Johnson would spend two years designing and another two constructing the House, which he occupied from its completion in 1949 until his death in 2005, for much of that time with his partner David Whitney.

As its name suggests, the Glass House is an entirely translucent rectangular volume, trimmed in black-painted steel. A brick column contains a discreet fireplace and a single bathroom walled in pistachio tile, breaking up the open floorplan while offering the only true privacy in the house. A living room is outlined simply by a carpet, a dining room by a glass table and chairs, a kitchen by a rectangular island. A series of wooden closets block some sightlines to the bedroom, adorned only with a bed and simple desk – but this is a house that keeps no secrets, and every angle is naked to the outside eye. This means, of course, that the home’s principal décor is the shifting landscape of its property; the crisp russet of autumn warms its interiors like a hearth, while heavy winter snowfalls throw its dark frame into sharp relief.

By now, “loft living” is a coveted luxury of the yuppie class; in 1949, a home without walls was truly radical. What would it mean to open up private domestic spaces, not just to each other, but to the outside world? Exposure was a significant risk for gay men in postwar America, when homosexuality was condemned and criminalized. Of course, the house’s large, leafy property shielded Johnson and Whitney from view—but the gesture still has profound implications. This was an open architecture designed for a more open future.

Andy Warhol and David Whitney by David McCabe, 1964/65
Andy Warhol and David Whitney by David McCabe, 1964/65
Andy Warhol and David Whitney by David McCabe, 1964/65
Andy Warhol and David Whitney by David McCabe, 1964/65
Andy Warhol and David Whitney by David McCabe, 1964/65

Johnson’s house was far from the first example of what’s known as the International Style, a modernist lexicon that preferred clean geometric lines and material such as steel, glass and polished marble. The young American took many of his cues from Mies van der Rohe, the pioneering German architect whose pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition took the design world by storm. Both men began designing glass houses in the very same year; Johnson’s for himself, in New Canaan, and Mies’s for Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago nephrologist, in the backwoods of Illinois. It’s hard to say whose came first, and in the end, it hardly matters; the Farnsworth house, bright white and elevated on pylons, resembles a Greek temple, while the Glass House is stripped down, a kind of absolute zero of architectural form. Both paradigms, however, would profoundly influence modernist architecture in America, from the Case Study Houses of Southern California to the boxy beach cottages of Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

The two architects had collaborated before they became rivals. In 1930, van der Rohe designed Johnson’s Manhattan apartment, along with its furniture, including the iconic daybed that still sits in the living room of the Glass House. It was there Johnson entertained prominent New Yorkers, such as Nelson Rockefeller, arts patron and future Vice President, and Alfred P. Barr, Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. Barr chose The Burial of Phocion (1648), the oddly anachronistic painting by Nicholas Poussin, for its permanent location in the Glass House. All three men often dined with Lincoln Kirstein, a fellow MoMA trustee and ballet impresario, whose friendly feuds with Johnson were recently highlighted in the MoMA exhibition, ‘Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern’.

Meant to be scaled, its miniature version is swarming with plastic GI Joes, as if nodding to an uncomfortable truth of Johnson’s past.

A tiny geometric model of the beguiling monument at the far end of Johnson’s property opened that show. The white tower, like a vertical stack of Jenga blocks, was designed as a monument to Kirstein, who founded the School of American Ballet. Meant to be scaled, its miniature version is swarming with plastic GI Joes, as if nodding to an uncomfortable truth of Johnson’s past. The architect was a longtime Nazi sympathizer, even traveling to Nuremberg to hear Hitler speak in 1935. Yet after the war, he renounced his politics, and Kirstein—a Jewish socialist—wrote letters to the government in his defense.

Historians have struggled to reconcile Johnson’s politics with his queerness, which became ever more evident in the architectural projects of his later years. The Brick House—yin to the Glass House’s yang—sits across a short lawn from its fraternal twin and was completed in the very same year. Although it’s been closed to the public for several years while undergoing renovations, photographs of its womb-like interior depict a fantasia of pink pile carpet, silk and cotton. This was the style the critic Reyner Banham derided as Johnson’s ‘ballet modernism’, best showcased in the architect’s design for the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, a confection of spindly white arches fretted in gold. The terra cotta statue by Elie Nadelman in the living room of the glass house appears there too, oversized in polished bronze. If this Johnson was lusciously camp, in later years his corporate commissions acquired an almost cheeky sense of daring: see his AT&T Building, the Madison Avenue office tower disguised as a Chippendale wardrobe, or PPG Place in Pittsburgh, a skyscraper that seems built for the White Witch of Narnia.

Of course, privilege comes in many forms, and as theorists like Jack Halberstam have argued, there’s nothing incompatible about fascism and gay identity. Yet these thornier aspects of Johnson’s legacy encapsulate the opposing styles that also defined his practice, from restrained modernist to exuberant postmodernist. Like a weather vane, he followed the winds of changing taste, while seeming to know the very ways they would blow.

Left: Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Matthew Placek. Right: Robert Indiana. Photo by Tom Powel Imaging.
Left: Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Matthew Placek. Right: Robert Indiana. Photo by Tom Powel Imaging.
Left: Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Matthew Placek. Right: Robert Indiana. Photo by Tom Powel Imaging.

Over the past several years, the Glass House has invited artists, dancers and musicians to contend with that legacy within the house’s sanctified walls, as well as in two gallery spaces on the property dedicated to Johnson’s art collection. In 2015, Gerard & Kelly’s Modern Living used dance and spoken word to explore the simultaneously liberating and restrictive aspects of modern design. Yayoi Kusama, meanwhile, gave the house a pox of big red polka dots. Presentations by Frank Stella and Julian Schnabel have filled the galleries, and in 2017, a collection of oversized steel numbers by Robert Indiana fanned out across the lawn. This summer, ‘Gay Gatherings: Philip Johnson, David Whitney and the Modern Arts’, organized by Thomas Mellins and Donald Albrecht, will feature photographs, ephemera, and artwork by the many gay men who visited Johnson and Whitney, from Kirstein to John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Andy Warhol. Together, they transformed American art—and through the prism of the Glass House, we can see them in a new light.

Writer
Evan Moffitt