Always up for an adventure and/or field trip, our staff in the White Plains office recently took a tour of the Philip Johnson estate in New Canaan, Conn. The big feature here, of course, is the iconic Glass House, built in 1949.
The entrance to the 47-acre Johnson estate references medieval gates and serves as a ceremonial marker to the beginning of a journey.
The Glass House sits on a promontory overlooking a pond and woods. The decor has not strayed from its original design and most of the furniture–designed by Mies van der Rohe–came from Johnson’s NY apartment.
Inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house, this modern structure served as the architect’s weekend retreat for 58 years. With a house of glass, Johnson once said he had “very expensive wallpaper” as the surrounding landscape served as his walls. All 1,792 sq ft is comprised of glass and charcoal painted steel, with a brick floor 10″ above the ground. Kitchen, dining and sleeping areas are all in one room, divided by low walnut cabinets. The bathroom, a brick cylinder, is the only floor-to-ceiling enclosure.
As for privacy, this house affords little except to note that it’s located at the edge of a crest behind a stone wall on the estate, overlooking a pond. As far as modern architecture goes, this project was highly influential as a study in proportion, minimal structure, transparency and reflection.
In addition to the Glass House, the estate features a wide range of other buildings, including a painting gallery, sculpture gallery and other artful structures.
The Painting Gallery, built in 1965, houses the collection of large-scale modern paintings including Frank Stella’s work and a portrait of Philip Johnson by his good friend Andy Warhol. The interior space is set up in three circles, each with a setup similar to a vertical Rolodex so you can rotate the paintings, as Johnson only liked to view six paintings at a time.
The Sculpture Gallery, built in 1970, was inspired by the Greek islands and their many villages marked by stairways. With a glass ceiling supported by tubular steel rafters, the interior reveals a complex pattern of lights and shadows on sunny days. This building houses sculptures from artists such as Michael Heizer, Robert Rauschenberg, George Segal and Frank Stella.
According to Kevin Mowatt, one of our NY team members who attended, the tour was a pilgrimage that magnified the group’s shared passion for design.
Kevin put it this way: “Stepping into the Glass House for even a short amount of time, as with other great works of architectural design, was a humbling experience. What I took away was a deeper understanding of the commitment required and payoff that rewards us all as architects.
The Lincoln Kirstein Tower (white structure in background) was meant to be an event on the landscape–a staircase to nowhere. The Pavilion was created on a man-made pond and was used for lunch parties. It was scaled down in size to play on the viewer’s sense of perspective, making it seem further away than it really was.
“Da Monsta” was inspired by the painting and sculpture of Philip Johnson’s good friend Frank Stella and was the last structure built on the site. The name of the building is an adaptation of “monster”, a phrase for the building that Johnson used during a conversation with an architecture critic from The New York Times because he felt that the building had the quality of a living thing.
Kevin pats the “Da Monsta” building, which Philip Johnson would do every morning. Architects tend to get attached like that.
The Brick House along with the Glass House was meant to be a lesson in contrasts. In addition to being a guest house, the brick house contains all of the support systems necessary for the function of both buildings. In later years the Glass House was used for entertaining only.
The Library/Study is a one-room workspace and library where Philip Johnson housed volumes on architecture. He designed it to be a comforting “monk’s cell” where he liked to read and work facing a small window.
From the photos you can see our White Plains staff soaked in all of this architectural significance on a picturesque fall day. Brunch ensued afterwards, along with a download of everyone’s impressions and inspirations.
Katie Wilmes, Shaun Gotterbarn, Billy Collura, Scott Hillje and Adriana Medina refuel after a busy morning. Food always tastes better after a tour of historic architecture.
Kevin summed up the trip as a team-building experience that was satisfying on many levels.
“Given the number of new employees that we’ve added in the last few months, I felt that this company outing was a perfect opportunity to get to know each other. The next day, it was time to get back to work!”