The Glass House
Glass House, 1949
The Glass House is best understood as a pavilion for viewing the surrounding landscape. Invisible from the road, the house sits on a promontory overlooking a pond with views towards the woods beyond. The house is 55 feet long and 33 feet wide, with 1,815 square feet. Each of the four exterior walls is punctuated by a centrally located glass door that opens onto the landscape. The house, which ushered the International Style into residential American architecture, is iconic because of its innovative use of materials and its seamless integration into the landscape. Philip Johnson, who lived in the Glass House from 1949 until his death in 2005, conceived of it as half a composition, completed by the Brick House. Both buildings were designed in 1945-48.
Since its completion in 1949, the building and decor have not strayed from their original design. Most of the furniture came from Johnson’s New York apartment, designed in 1930 by Mies van der Rohe. In fact, Mies designed the now iconic daybed specifically for Johnson. A seventeenth-century painting attributed to Nicolas Poussin stands in the living room. The image, Burial of Phocion, depicts a classical landscape and was selected specifically for the house by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art. The sculpture, Two Circus Women, by Elie Nadelman stands opposite. It is a small version of a marble sculpture that is in the lobby of the New York State Theater (now David H. Koch Theater) at Lincoln Center in 1964.
The floor plan of the Glass House reveals a fairly traditional living space. Although there are no walls, Philip Johnson referred to areas within the rectangular, loft-like space as “rooms.” There is a kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom, hearth area, bathroom, and an entrance area. Despite the very modern style of the house, the layout could easily be a colonial home, something Johnson noted.
As detailed in the floor plan, the placement of furniture throughout the house is precise. A rug defines the living room area, while seating around a low table anchors the space. The living room is the focal point of the house, and like nested boxes, it is the center from which the site is successively occupied: living room, house, courtyard, and landscape. The fixed furniture plan contrasts with the surrounding landscape, which is ever-changing through weather and season.
The “room” with the greatest privacy is the bedroom, which also contains a small desk. It is separated from the living room by a series of built-in storage cabinets with walnut veneer. Although today open space floor-plans are common, it was highly unusual in 1949.
Walking tour with Philip Johnson, 1991
“In the case of the Glass House, the stylistic approach is perfectly clear. Mies van der Rohe and I had discussed how you could build a glass house and each of us built one. Mies’ was, of course, primary and mine was an adoption from the master, although it’s quite a different approach. In my case, there were a lot of historical influences at work. The Glass House stylistically is a mixture of Mies van der Rohe, Malevich, the Parthenon, the English garden, the whole Romantic Movement, the asymmetry of the 19th century. In other words, all these things are mixed up in it but basically it is the last of the modern, in the sense of the historic way we treat modern architecture today, the simple cube.
The Glass House started because of the land that was there. That was my hardest job by far. I worked for three or four years throwing out ideas. And it was all conditioned by the landscape itself. In finding that little knoll, I was in the middle of the woods in the middle of the winter and I almost didn’t find it. I found a great oak tree and I hung a whole design on the oak tree and the knoll because this place. Don’t forget, it is more of a landscape park than it is a work of architecture, anyhow. It’s more a memory of the English parks of the 18th century, which are called English gardens, for some reason. There’s no garden anywhere, I mean, there are no flowers, as Americans think of gardens. It’s just a sort of a landscape in which I focused it on this knoll and this oak tree. And the view from that knoll and the view back was how I figured the whole thing.
I went through several stages. One was even with Romanesque arches all over the place, brick, basically a stone and brick house. I finally, in despair of getting the house on the knoll because the knoll is too small, I had to take half the house and put it back against the hill, which is the way it is now. So I put a pavilion out on the end so I could look around the world the way you can from a bandstand in a Middle Western town. You stand on the bandstand in off-season and there’s the town at your feet.
I thought it’d be nice to have a place that you could swivel all the way around and see the whole place, which is what you can do here. I claim that’s the only house in the world where you can see the sunset and the moonrise at the same time, standing in the same place. Because that’s an impossibility in any house; you have to walk to another room to see one or the other of those effects. But I get it all the time here in the Glass House.