“This house was hated when it was built.” Recalls the former Dean of American Architects, Phillip Johnson, he continues, “If Mr. Johnson has to make a fool of himself why doesn’t he do it in somebody else’s town?” So goes the story of the local newspaper coverage, and sentiment after Johnson finished The Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. The Harvard historian/architect once profoundly stated that architecture was not about words, but about tears. He considered an authentic emotional response to be the closest one can come to appreciating true architectural greatness.
Johnsons’ Seagram building in New York is considered one of America’s finest high-rise structures. Yet, no other structure forever fastened his legacy as did The Glass House. A project that was originally designed as a masters thesis at Harvard Graduate School of Modern Design.
Philip Johnson was born in 1906 in Cleveland, Ohio, and in his words, much of his early years were wasted on stupidity. His father left him very valuable stock. The result, Johnson was very rich at a very young age. He attended Harvard after graduating from Hackley High School in Tarrytown, New York. Johnson did not have much career direction before or after Harvard. He traveled the world, tried his hand at journalism, and even covered the Poland invasion of 1939. He enlisted in the US Army and spent two years in uniform before returning to Harvard at the age of 34 to study architecture.
Ironically, he gained his architectural experience before he gained his architectural education. At the young age of 26 he became the founder and director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). These early years found the young Johnson being awarded the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects. In relation to his early achievements, Johnson co-authored the book, The International Style. This book was the accompanying document to a unique museum exhibition entitled, “International Style: Architecture Since 1922.” This book introduced modern architecture to the American public.
When history is accounted for, The Glass House is the piece of work that will forever make synonymous Philip Johnson and greatness. The Glass House graces the cover of the authoritative architectural reference book, American Masterpieces. Johnson pulled inspiration for this design from The Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In 1946, with the money his father left him, Johnson purchased five acres in New Canaan Connecticut. The Glass House sits on a shaped meadow in the center of the property that has now expanded to 40 acres. The home faces west and provides unending views, and more importantly serenity and reflection.
This project was technically Johnson’s first and most important work. It has been called one of the world's most beautiful and yet least functional homes. Contradicting the theory of functional requirements, Johnson did not envision it as a place to live as much as a stage, a statement. The house is often cited as a model example of the International Style.
The house is a viewing platform used to appreciate the surrounding landscape. The term Glass House now symbolically describes the entire site, and details the translucent nature of the structure. After all, the home is simply four walls of glass. The property has ten additional buildings that were designed at different periods. In 1986, the home was donated to The National Trust, and is now open to the general public.
Other important Johnson works include: The Sheldon Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska, International Place in Boston; Tycon Towers in Vienna, Virginia; Momentum Place in Dallas; 53rd at Third in New York; NCNB Center in Houston; PPG in Pittsburgh; 101 California in San Francisco; United Bank Center Tower in Denver; to the far flung National Center for Performing Arts in Bombay, India; Century Center in South Bend, Indiana; a Water Garden in Fort Worth, Texas; a Civic Center in Peoria, Illinois; the Crystal Cathedral in California; and a Dade County Cultural Center in Miami.
Philip Johnson was the first recipient of the prized Pritzker Award after its creation in 1979. Perhaps the best explanation of the man and his work is contained in Johnson’s own book, Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words. This work effectively brings together nearly seventy years of experience as a curator, historian, collector, and architect. In his book Johnson quotes writer Oscar Wilde as saying, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
With the volume of quality works done in his name, Johnson will never suffer such unimportance.