Famous (or infamous – depending upon who you ask) Architect Philip Johnson starting building what would would become his own personal design sandbox in 1946 with the purchase of 5 acres. Over the years he would amass a total of 40 acres and create a veritable stylistic architectural diary spanning 50 years. Architecture, like fashion and art, sees many trends and seasons and Johnson’s epic career saw many changes in what was considered “hot” in the architectural world. Never a staunch purist, Johnson strove to be current and relevant; he would lope onto whatever stylistic bandwagon that happened to be rolling through the city. His business success combined with family resources allowed this talented practitioner and educator to build his trendy experiments right in his own backyard. Prior to his death, the property was generously donated to The National Trust and opened to the public.
Touring the rolling hills of this beautifully orchestrated property is walking through a living museum of the last half century of the history of architecture.
Procession is a theme on the property. Each move is carefully choreographed. One is welcomed to the property by a large Egyptian inspired gate built in the 1970s (which oddly reminded me of the entrance to Jurassic Park).
The most famous building on the property is the Glass House. Built in 1946, it was a direct “interpretation” of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illinois. Johnson and his longtime partner, art critic and curator David Whitney, used this restrained study in living as a weekend retreat. The nearby “Brick House” (not as celebrated as it’s glass counterpart – because it looks like, well, a brick) was built at the same time and served as guest quarters. The Glass House really is elegant – it’s a Modern Manhattan penthouse sitting in the woods. Brutally edited, it always makes visitors wonder aloud where menial things like toothbrushes were stored. I’m being serious – there are no pillows on the bed – Johnson hated pillows.
During the early 1960s Johnson was working on the design of the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center. He began experimenting with the delicacies of poured concrete by creating an exotic folly in the valley overlooked by the Glass House. The scale of this spidery pavilion is very deceiving. It’s only about 7 1/2 feet tall so, when viewed from the Glass House, it appears much further away than it really is.
During the 1970s an underground painting gallery and a building to house Johnson and Whitney’s growing sculpture collection were added to the property. The sculpture gallery building was undergoing a major renovation so, unfortunately, we didn’t get to pay it a visit.
The 1980s saw the advent of the “Post Modern” period of architecture. I’ve never been a big fan of this style – it always seemed like an infantile and smug joke. At this point, Johnson built a “Ghost House” made from chain link and a small study building – both “recalling” the works of Robert Venturi and Aldo Rossi. I seem to remember from school lectures that the little study building was once painted white. Apparently, Johnson fell in with one of the top “color analysts” in the world and they talked him into painting it brown. I recognize artistic boredom when I see it…
The decade of the 1990s blessed us with the disturbing deconstructionist period. Now in his 80s and not to be left behind, Johnson proved he could sing pop songs with the best of the kids. He created Da Monsta (an architectural critic called the building “a monster in the landscape” and Johnson, being old-man hip, turned it into “Da Monsta”). This building was definitely my least favorite on the property. Its wacky, unsettling Cabinet of Dr. Caligari interior so emotionally bothered my intern architect Brendan, he couldn’t wait to get out of there. Edgy, yes, but are buildings really meant to upset?
If you find yourself in Central Connecticut and want to walk through an influential architect’s 50 year career, I highly recommend paying a visit. Information on visiting can be found here.
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