The Glass House

By Edward N. Film, A.I.A., LEED AP

A weekend last May I joined a group of fellow architects to see Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Cannan, CT.  Surprisingly, it’s not just one house but a 47-acre campus with a whole arrangement of structures.  Being a prolific architect who worked in the field for 50 years, Philip Johnson designed a large number of pavilions on his property. 
The Glass House was the first built and later a painting gallery, a sculpture gallery, a pavilion, a library/study, a visitor’s center, and a sculpture called the Kirstein Tower were added.  The Glass House itself is made up of   two buildings across a lawn; the glass box and a separate windowless brick box (the brick pavilion has windows just not on the main elevations).  The Glass House is not meant to be practical.  It has a sleeping area, seating, dining and kitchen area, as well as a bathroom.  There are no operable windows and it serves as more of a weekend pavilion for a person who has another residence.   


The painting gallery is like a bunker set into the hillside with an entrance that reminded me of the entrance to an ancient tomb.  Inside there were three circular areas with large panels that rotated around a column so you could flip through the panels like pages of a book.  An excellent solution to saving space.

The sculpture gallery is a huge sky-lit brick building with a monumental stair that connects five platforms that provide a space to display and view the sculpture.  There are few right angles and the way the stair wraps through the building reminded me of a Piranesi print.  The structure is a large steel beam with openings in it for a mechanical louver system (unfortunately the ventilation system is rusted shut).    The roof is one huge skylight with thick mullions and the lighting is thin fluorescent bulbs that parallel the mullions and almost disappear.  The thick mullions provided interesting shadows on the wall even when  there is no sculpture in the space.

The one structure not designed by Johnson on the site is the Ghost House by Frank Gehery.  It has no program and was designed as an architectural garden folly.  It has the form of a stereotypical house with a two foot wide slice of space taken out of the middle.  The exterior walls are made of chain link fence giving it a transparent effect and plants grow on the inside of the house using the chain link as a trellis.  Every few years they go through the house and remove all the plants so that it can start over again. 

One aspect of the project that really interested me was that even though Philip Johnson was famous for modern architecture, he created a landscape out of a renaissance painting.  There is a painting in the middle of the house and it was used as the inspiration for the landscape outside.  The road is winding to be picturesque, there’s a river running through the valley with a pond and a pavilion, the trees have had their lower branches removed and areas have been cleared to make layers of forest that you see through to glades beyond and breaking the view up into planes of light and shadow.  Johnson carefully chose all the details of the view sitting on this terrace directing the workers as to which branches of the trees to remove.  It was incredible to see all the phases of an architect’s career in one place and the fact that he was building it for his own use and not a client gave me a great sense of his ideas.