“The Glass House is my 50-year diary.” — Philip Johnson
opened for the fifth season on Sunday — bathed in May Day sunshine — the estate a palette in which art and architecture meet history and nature.
The term “diary” may not do Johnson’s Glass House justice: this 47-acre estate is more like a living, breathing canvas…a stage on a promontory in which WE become the players.
While you may have seen photos of the Glass House, nothing quite prepares the first-time visitor for the experience of actually being there.
A dramatic entrance gate with a “floating” aluminum rod is akin to stepping through the Looking Glass: it leads the visitor from Ponus Ridge Road to a fantasy world in which everything is slightly out of scale and there are surprises at every turn. We step into a magnificent white pine grove in which everything is carefully arranged…even the pine cones resting on a soft bed of needles serve a purpose.
We walk past the dramatic red-and-black building known jokingly as Da Monsta — the newest building on the estate — and venture downhill past the funnel-shaped Monk’s Cell, which served as Johnson’s private library. We observe the Ghost House, a chain link version of a child’s playhouse. Like a ghost, this tiny house vanishes when covered by honeysuckle and creeper vines.
Continuing our journey into Wonderland, we pass a concrete Donald Judd sculpture that resembles the base of a silo. The curve of the concrete leads the eye to a stone wall that’s twice as high and twice as wide as most in New Canaan, another oddity of size and scale. As we travel along this massive wall, the Glass House is gradually revealed on a sea of green.
Black gravel walkways connect the Glass House on the left to its twin — the Brick House — on the right. The visitor is forced to walk single file to the glass doorway, with the gravel acting as nature’s “doorbell” that announces one’s arrival.
The Glass House is, as Johnson said, “a pavilion for viewing nature,” where the indoors and outdoors merge as one. I find the 1,700 square foot house to be much larger than expected, with a soaring ceiling (that had to be shoveled TWICE this winter, we’re told) and a zigzag brick floor. There are functional yet elegant furnishings. The kitchen is so hidden, a member of our group asks where it is. There are scratches on the countertop, reportedly left by a wild turkey that had the misfortune of flying through one of the windows.
The view is a breathtaking mural; Johnson doesn’t distinguish between architecture and landscape architecture. While the scene appears to be random, closer examination reveals a carefully designed vista with a manmade pond, lakeside pavilion, and a fascinating “tower to nowhere” sculpture that typifies Johnson’s love of “safe/danger”. The careful climber who reaches the top is said to be rewarded with a Biblical passage, though this part of the estate is off limits for our group.
As our tour guide answers a barrage of questions, I’m only half listening. I’m caught up in photographing this feast of geometry and nature. Rectangles and circles are Johnson’s shapes of choice. The Glass House is a series of nesting boxes, with a Malachite box on top of a rectangle table within a home that’s constructed as a perfect Golden rectangle.
I imagine what it must have been like to live here. My eyes rest on the Mies van der Rohe seating area, where intellectuals converged for lively and legendary exchanges that shaped art, culture, and design.
Our group departs the Glass House to walk around the Brick House (now closed for renovation) and uphill for a pleasant stroll above a turquoise pool to the Painting Gallery, which resembles a bunker and is 20 degrees cooler than the outdoors. I prefer the views of the woods to the claustrophobic display here, and I’m relieved when we’re on our way.
We cross a footbridge to the Sculpture Gallery, where shafts of light cut through the irregularly shaped room like slices from heaven. The structure itself is a work of art , as natural light casts dramatic shadows on the unusual pieces. Birds are occasionally drawn inside this airy sanctuary, leaving their calling cards behind.
As I reluctantly return to the “real” world of New Canaan — the wind bidding farewell through the white pines — I think about Philip Johnson’s legacy. He’s been called brilliant and eccentric. He lived modestly, he lived close to nature, and he lived for almost a century.