A see-through icon of architecture

Visitors can now tour architect Philip Johnson's famed Glass House in Connecticut.

The entrance gate to architect Philip Johnson's property here gives the effect of a stage curtain rising: A thick aluminum bar levitates between two concrete obelisks, promising tantalizing sights to come.

I've come to visit the Glass House, an emblem of the International Style of architecture and Johnson's acknowledged 1949 masterpiece. This style relied on strict geometric forms and industrial materials, and its origins date to the 1930s Bauhaus architects. Johnson was not the first to conceive of a house with glass walls, but his was the first actually built.

The Glass House was a touchstone for Johnson – a beloved weekend retreat and a place where he wasn't beholden to the whims of clients or the constraints of a traditional house. "That's what this is, a playhouse. You pull the rope in after you, and it's yours," he once said.

"Glass House" refers to the actual building and is also shorthand for the entire 47-acre property set in the rolling Connecticut hills.

For more than 50 years, the architect designed additional structures, experimenting with styles and materials but integrating them into the whole property.

A guided tour will take us through the house, a guesthouse, art gallery, visitor center, and sculpture gallery.

Philip Johnson (1906-2005) was a native of Cleveland, but New York City became his stomping ground. His noteworthy designs there include the AT&T (now Sony) Building and the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). He founded the department of architecture and design at MoMA and served as a curator and trustee.

Visiting was considered a privilege

The Glass House site, which he donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1986, opened to the public in June and has already become a magnet for design mavens.

Before then, visits were by invitation only and were given out sparingly to friends and students of Johnson's, who taught architecture at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. This exclusivity added to the undeniable mystique of the Glass House.

Our guide is Gigi Fernandez, an architect who worked in Johnson's New York office from 1996 to 2004. Ms. Fernandez says the architect's aim was to create a sense of procession: He wanted visitors to feel each transition from the moment they entered the grounds until they caught their first glimpse of the house. She calls it "hide and reveal," and it's an architectural tease.

House and site, matched

The Glass House is perfectly proportioned to the grassy ridge on which it sits. The glass panels, set in a frame of dark steel, reflect the surrounding landscape (Johnson claimed he had "expensive wallpaper"), alternately revealing and concealing the interior. In only 1,728 square feet, the architect has managed to convey a purity of modernist vision and yet, at the same time, bring it down to a manageable, domestic scale.

The interior, which hasn't changed since the 1950s, hews closely to the tenets of Modernism – minimalist furniture in black leather, steel, and chrome; and storage limited to a set of cabinets that also serves as a divider between the living area and the bedroom.

The only interior wall is a floor-to-ceiling cylinder that contains the bathroom. (The plumbing and mechanical elements are concealed inside the guesthouse, which is connected by an underground umbilical cord to the Glass House.)

Johnson had a childlike enjoyment of nesting boxes, says Fernandez. In the Glass House, the "boxes" are all rectangular – from a small keepsake box atop a coffee table to the area rug to the shape of the house itself, contained within the rectangular boundaries of the terrace with its low granite railing.

Standing inside, I'm drawn outdoors again by the siren call of the landscape. From the terrace, I look down on the pond that Johnson carved out of a wetland and the pavilion that he created to play with the concept of scale. The pavilion, which looks much taller than its mere 63-inch height, floats above the glassy surface of the pond like a Roman temple.

Johnson influenced the appearance of the surrounding woods by pruning and clearing trees, but the effect is natural, not fussy.

While Johnson loved the Glass House, he found he couldn't work in it, according to Fernandez. He was too distracted by the changing light and the moving trees. Instead, he created a freestanding small library that he called his "monk's cloister," where he could read and think.

Architectural style

Johnson embraced the International Style as a student and later as an associate of German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the 1940s and '50s.

Eventually though, Johnson's eclecticism got the better of him, and he broke away from pure interpretations of that style, borrowing and tweaking elements of historic styles.

For example, the Chippendale pediment on top of the otherwise modern Sony Building (1984) was derided as looking like a piece of furniture. Its humor was lost on critics at the time, but the Sony Building is regarded today as an early example of Post-Modernism.

Many of Johnson's buildings came to reflect a Pop Art sensibility, but his tastes were too wide-ranging to fit neatly into either the Minimalist or Pop Art camps. He also drew inspiration from disciplines other than architecture and counted among his friends the choreographer Merce Cunningham and the artist Andy Warhol.

His work couldn't be pigeonholed. Johnson said: "People say about me, I'm the best architect because I change all the time. They say, I'm the worst architect because I change all the time."

The architect took his legacy seriously, but his hubris is tempered with flashes of humor, which find expression in the structures he built at the Connecticut site to suit himself and his partner, art collector David Whitney.

Johnson relished his privacy, going so far as to remodel the guesthouse so that its tomblike interior contained a stark bedroom and a reading room, in a veiled effort to discourage friends from staying more than one night.

His 1990s design for a visitors' center on the property, called Da Monsta (as in "monster"), is as close as a building can come to pure sculpture, with its colorful warped and twisted interlocking forms.

"The only test for architecture," Johnson once said, "is to build a building, go inside, and let it wrap itself around you."

Artistic buildings for displaying art

The tour moves on to the subterranean Painting Gallery, constructed in 1965, which feels like a cross between a military bunker and an Egyptian tomb. The gallery houses a rotating collection of modern art, including works by Frank Stella (a friend of the architect) and an Andy Warhol print of Johnson.

A short distance away is the Sculpture Gallery, built in 1970. Here, stairs descend into small rooms that each feature a different sculptor's work, including that of Robert Rauschenberg and George Segal. The staircases were inspired by those Johnson saw in Greek villages, according to Fernandez.

As our hour draws to a close, we again pass the Glass House, where another tour is under way. The transparent walls offer an unobstructed view of the participants, whose forms come together and shift apart in uninterrupted motion, like dancers. The house seems to both display and embrace its occupants. The sense of theater is complete.

• The Glass House site is open from April through October. Visitors are required to make advance reservations; tours for the rest of 2007 are sold out, and 2008 tours are half sold out. Cost of a tour ranges from $25 to $40. To make a reservation or to learn more, phone (203) 966-8167 or visit the website, www.philipjohnsonglasshouse.org

New Canaan: hotbed of modern architecture

Philip Johnson was not the only architect who found fertile ground in New Canaan, Conn.

No less a master than Frank Lloyd Wright added his imprimatur by designing the Rayward House in 1955. A quintet of architects trained at Harvard's Graduate School of Design (GSD) in Cambridge, Mass., also found their way to this New England village, building homes for themselves and clients from 1947 to 1966. The group was dubbed "The Harvard Five," and it included Marcel Breuer, Eliot Noyes, John Johansen, Landis Gores, and Philip Johnson – all of whom had connections to Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and later chairman of the GSD architecture department.

All but two of their houses remain in private hands, with only the Glass House open to the public. The New Canaan Historical Society has plans to restore the Gores Pavilion, designed by Landis Gores in 1959, for eventual use as a cultural center. Occasional house tours and programs are offered by the historical society. The next event is an all-day symposium and tour of homes by Noyes, Victor Christ-Janer, Edward Stone, and others on Nov.3. The cost is $250.

For a free overview, visitors can take in an ongoing exhibition at the society, "New Canaan Architects 1953-1983," which features the work of these prolific individuals as they developed signature styles and moved out into the world. For more information, visit www.nchistory.org or phone (203) 966-1776.

New Canaan also boasts historic structures that date back to Colonial and pre-Civil War eras.

QR Code to A see-through icon of architecture
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today