I am back from my visit to Philip Johnson’s Glass House and was truly wowed by the experience. I was very curious to see what it actually felt like to be inside a glass house, would you feel on display and exposed or would it feel completely different? I will get to my reactions in a moment, but first a little background.
The Glass House is set on a 46 acre property with 13 other structures. Johnson initially purchased property in New Canaan in 1949 and built the glass house and brick house on a much smaller site. Over 60 + years, Johnson was able to acquire neighboring properties to grow his compound to 46 acres. Initially Johnson would spend weekends at the glass house with his primary residence being his apartment in New York City. In the last years of his life, the glass house became his full time residence. The glass house was modeled after Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House located in Plano, Illinois.
Both the Mies & Johnson houses have exterior walls made entirely of glass supported by steel I-beams around the perimeter. The I-beams were placed on the outside of the glass walls (in the Farnsworth House) and on the inside (with the Glass House). Johnson’s glass house is heated by radiant floor heating piped from the brick house and cooled by natural cross ventilation from the east/west entry doors in the summer.
The feel inside the house was surprisingly comfortable. I expected it to feel quite exposed, but the furnishings actually keep the eye focused inside. When you do look outside, you are surrounded by nature which is very tranquil. Only the North facing bedroom area felt exposed as the bed was placed almost on the floor and had no other furniture around it to distract the eye. The view from the bedroom also faced a neighboring colonial house which seemed so out of place amid the modern environment of the glass house.
Feel of the Landscape
Johnson designed not only the house but the landscape for the property. The glass house overlooks a steep precipice with a man-made pond below. Check out this short video taken from the patio just outside the glass house to get a feel for the surroundings. Of course there is lots going on here visually and from a design perspective with respect to scale, placement and composition, but the tour guides at the property will do a better job of explaining all that then I could in this format.
Johnson used historic prescient when designing the structures for his property. He would often take details from historic structures and incorporate them into his designs. The tour covered all of these historical references to the past in great detail, but there was one that really jumped out for me. I noticed this comparison with Jefferson’s Rotunda at UVA in his hillside art gallery. The hillside art gallery consists of 4 concentric circles that overlap. Take a look at Jefferson’s plan for the rotunda and then compare it with the ceiling of the art gallery. The floor plan is created in the ceiling tracks for the movable art walls.
Gallery of Photos from the Site
If you are interested in visiting the Glass House you need to book a tour in advance via the Glass House website (see link below). It is somewhat costly at $32.00 per ticket for the basic tour (if purchased online) but well worth it in my mind. The basic tours last 90 minutes which goes by in no time at all. I would really recommend one of the extended tours which are 2 hours or the most costly private tour for $250 (if money is no object). With the private tour you get to go into all the building including his studio (office) space which is not included on the basic tour. Of course the ultimate trip would include spending a night in the glass house, but alas that is not available. All tours start at the Glass House visitors center in downtown New Canaan, then after a brief overview of Johnson’s life and career, you take a bus to the property.