The lady who showed us around asked: Who would like to live here?
I was the only one to raise my hand…
For a second I thought this meant that I was to have the house all to myself. It does’t hurt to dream a little bit, does it?
In 1928 Philip Johnson met with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. This led to a lifelong friendship and rivalry between the two. Van der Rohe was working on the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. Johnson was impressed and on his return he would vehemently promote and introduce the New Architecture in the US. He even worked together with van der Rohe on the Seagram Building in New York, where he retained an office.
What better way to launch the New Architecture than to build what was to become one of its finest examples?
The Glass House sits on a 43 acres plot in New Canaan, Connecticut, 50 miles (80 kilometer) north of New York City. It was completed in 1949 and innovative in its use of material. The 1728 square foot (160 square meters) structure of glass and painted steel has an open floor plan. The only walled space that provides privacy is the circular bathroom.
Furniture is reduced to its minimum. The leather daybed was especially designed by Mies van der Rohe for Philip Johnson. We also recognize the iconic Barcelona chair, designed for the German Pavilion. It is said that, on the official opening reception at the fair, King Alfonso XIII refused to sit down because the chairs were too low for his rank. They surely were not too low for the likes of Andy Warhol and the crowd Johnson used to invite to his glass house!
Every visitor to the house asks the same question: Is this livable? If you think of a house as a cosy shelter turned unto itself, as an impenetrable haven of privacy, then Johnson’s “greenhouse” certainly doesn’t work for you. Because of the glass on four sides, the house is cold in winter and hot in summer. It’s not the most comfortable place to live in. We would almost feel sorry for Johnson, if it weren’t for the fact that he had a couple of other houses to retreat to.
So much for the facts and figures, questionable or not.
Walking up to the grounds it becomes clear that this is the place of a person driven by a vision so strong he never backed away from it.
The importance of the Glass House for contemporary architecture cannot be the subject of any doubt. Nevertheless I do ask myself what was more important to Johnson: the house or the all around nature?
From some points you can see right through it. As if the landscape cuts it like a knife. From another vantage point, the surrounding trees are reflected in the windows, making it almost disappear in the landscape.
Paradoxically, the role of nature becomes even more significant from inside the house. Protected from the elements, the pure visual impact through the glass panels on all sides is simply overwhelming. Some call it a lack of privacy. I call it genius.
And I still would raise my hand for it.