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.