Philip Johnson (1906-2005) was born in Cleveland (Ohio) in 1906 and became a major influence in architecture. Before designing his first building at the age of 36, Johnson was not an architect, but worked as a critic, writer, architectural historian, museum director, politician and journalist.
It was Johnson who is believed to have coined the term “international style in architecture”, applying it to European architecture of the 1920s during an exhibition at MOMA.
Few can boast of having contributed to American architecture on such a grand scale as Philip Johnson and some of his contemporaries, for example Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The Sony Building and the Lipstick Building in New York, Thanksgiving Square in Dallas, the Crystal Cathedral in California… are just a few of the monumental structures in Johnson’s record. They are all collected in a new book from Phaidon entitled Philip Johnson: A Visual Biography.
Philip Johnson (1906-2005) belonged to both the secular and intellectual worlds. He was a friend of Jackie Onassis, shot for Robert Mapplethorpe and was immortalised by Andy Warhol in one of his silkscreen prints. The architect’s modernist-postmodernist portfolio, meanwhile, inspires many contemporary designers. In 2016, the Four Seasons Hotel’s cherished restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building, a joint creation of Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, underwent a dubious renovation. Miuccia Prada repurchased some of Johnson’s furniture from the 1958 interior and installed it in the Torre restaurant at the Fondazione Prada in Milan.
Diary of an eccentric architect
One of Johnson’s projects is the most influential in the fashion world, his Glass House near New Canaan, Connecticut. Completed in 1948, the house won Johnson the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1979. The structure stands out among other strange structures and spaces created by the architect, and remains the pinnacle of his career. The cylindrical, brick-walled bathroom is the only enclosed room in the house, and everything else is visible through the glass: the walnut-panelled kitchen island, which seems to float, and the living area with the carpet, armchairs and sofa bed from the Barcelona ensemble by the aforementioned Mies van der Rohe. A painting by Nicola Poussin, said to be the starting point for the landscaping of the surroundings, was originally among the decorative elements, and there was also a figurative sculpture by Alberto Giacometti on the coffee table. “When I find myself in the Glass House, I always notice Philip’s brilliant work with the parallelepiped shape, the straight edges and the way everything contrasts with nature,” says artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, whom Johnson helped in the early stages of his career.
Johnson referred to his New Canaan home as “the diary of an eccentric architect”. It is such a well thought-out plan, considering his social affiliation to New York and Dallas. It was here that Philip would escape, here he would receive guests, here, away from the noise of the city, where he would spend weekends with his partner David Whitney. Glass had been built before Johnson – Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre, for example, appeared in Paris in 1932 – but it was his house that acquired such outrageous fame, the architect imbued with his vision, not only lived in the building, but turned it into a mysterious landmark.
The occupants of glass houses are not only capable of glorious parties
In 1967, Vogue saw first-hand the rich cultural potential of Johnson and his Glass House (already quite famous at the time): right on his lawn and in the neighbouring underground museum, a benefit performance by the ensemble of the famous choreographer Merce Cunningham was held in the middle of summer. Philip himself and the art collector John de Menil were the organisers. Guests at this “picnic” with bojolais nouveau enjoyed a modern dance performance by Cunningham’s company and also listened to a live show by The Velvet Underground, a group nobody knew at the time (a favourite of Warhol, who by the way often visited Johnson’s house).
Today, the Glass House is more than just a set for a fashion shoot. Every year, the Glass House hosts a big summer party, one of the highlights of the social calendar. There are also temporary exhibitions of internationally renowned artists: Yayoi Kusama is replaced by Robert Indiana, and so on. The place is reminiscent of the glamorous East Coast venues of the mid-1800s, where, like a good Dirty Martini, everything is mixed together: architecture, art, music, dance and design. “I first heard of the Glass House when I was in college,” says Tom Brown, who shot a surreal lookbook here for one of his collections in 2018. The images reference the David McCabe shoot with Andy Warhol, which took place here in 1964. “I didn’t realise until the end why I wanted to see this house in person, I just really liked it…. The brevity and restraint continue to inspire me to this day.”
The creative director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s line, Virgil Ablo, also made a pilgrimage to the Maison de Cristal. When he studied architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, his studies piqued his curiosity. “Johnson didn’t just set out to build a house. He first found a plot of land, and only then was the concept born. I think that says a lot about his design methods, his ability to work with what he has on hand and create something that blends seamlessly into the landscape.” In 2017, Ablo found a good use for the space, photographing the lookbook for Off-White’s first pre-fall menswear collection, House Hunting. Models posed in and around the house, in the sculpture gallery, by the lake pavilion and in the circular pool.
As for recent events, Oscar de la Renta designers Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia couldn’t resist coming to Connecticut to photograph delicate Japanese floral jacquards, ombré patterned silk dresses and suits with military elements from their resort 2020 collection. The immaculate lawn and white partitions of the sculpture gallery’s glass ceiling served as a beautiful backdrop. “Laura and I were inspired by the Meiji era of Japanese history: it’s the middle of the 19th century, the time when Japan began to engage with the West in earnest,” explains Garcia. – The tranquil gardens of the Glass House, combined with the austerity of its architecture, seemed the perfect place.
A timeless source of inspiration
What is it about the Glass House that inspires designers with such different aesthetic visions, be it Prada, Ablo, Brown or Kim and Garcia of Oscar de la Renta? The idea of a home made primarily of glass has been haunting the imagination of many since the days of Queen Victoria, when exotic plants were grown in glass greenhouses at a certain temperature. The transparency, almost invisibility of glass, allows the building to reflect the fleeting beauty of nature. And it is not just a matter of daylight, which, depending on the time of day, marks the colours of the interior and, in general, affects its perception. It is also about blurring the boundary between outside and inside. As Virgil Abloh concludes, “I can’t imagine anything more contemporary than the old concept of the glass house. I am fascinated by this metaphor, many parallels can be drawn.
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