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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Review: The Glass House

The Glass House by The National Trust for Historic Preservation
Rizzoli, 2011
Hardcover, 80 pages

In 1986 Philip Johnson donated his New Canaan, Connecticut estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It opened to the public in 2007, two years after the death of Johnson (at 98, just shy of his 99th birthday) and his companion David Whitney (who died six months later, at the age of 66). Referred to now in its entirety as The Glass House, the "campus" includes ten structures designed by Johnson and built between 1949 and 1995. This slim guide put out by Rizzoli, an update to the one published by Assouline in 2008, visually documents these and other parts of the property, which can be visited annually from May to November.

At only 80 pages, the book is hardly an in-depth look at the duo and their estate, but it does a good job of giving some order to Johnson's six-decade exploration of architecture. This happens via a site plan, short texts by Paul Goldberger and Johnson (from a 1993 book on the house, one of many to focus on the influential structure), numerous color photos (unfortunately, the symmetrical ones are marred; their centers lost in the book's fold), a timeline of important events, and "site facts" on the buildings and artwork dotting the land. Information on the individual works is found in this last section; with it and the helpful site plan by Pentagram I made my own map/timeline hybrid (below) to trace the structures on the expanding estate (it started at five and eventually reached 47 acres) through time.

[The P.J. Dipper? Sequence of Philip Johnson-designed additions to The Glass House | Illustration by archidose; background from Google Maps]
1 - Glass House, 1949
2 - Brick House, 1949
3 - Pavilion, 1962
4 - Painting Gallery, 1965
5 - Sculpture Gallery, 1970
6 - Entrance Gate, 1977
7 - Library/Study, 1980
8 - Ghost House, 1984
9 - Lincoln Kirstein Tower, 1985
10 - Da Monsta, 1995
While the book certainly can't replace a visit to The Glass House -- which, tsk tsk, I've yet to do -- it definitely paints a pretty picture. As well, a number of archival photos (showing Johnson eating lunch at the Pavilion, for example) remind readers that it was also a place for living, of emotions, of dreams, not just the preserved monument of modernism it has become. Yet it's easy to see Johnson planning for the estate's posthumous existence, not just in his bequeathing it to the Trust but in the way he treated the land as a canvas for exploration, moving from modernism to postmodernism to deconstructivism. Of course it's the first house that is still the main draw. It remains the most famous project for a style-shifting architect whose self-importance is evident in the way the house puts the occupant on display, and the way he put his and Whitney's once private 47-acres on display for anybody who pays the admission.


  1. Support the preservation of the Glass House and its programs by purchasing the book directly from the Glass House Design Store!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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