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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

People Who Live in Glass Houses

Carlo Santambrogio's glass house, Milan, Italy, (an ice cube?).
There's an old story about a jungle king who grew tired of his antique marble throne. So he went on line at and ordered up a new, modern, vibrating recliner. When it arrived via FedEx, he was overjoyed with his new throne and had the old one stored away. One night, as he was having dinner with some guests, there came a violent earthquake whereupon the old throne came crashing down upon the king from the attic making an incredible crack in his crudely crowned cranium. The moral to this story: those who live in grass houses should stow thrones. That's an incredibly long way to go for a bad pun, but an apt introduction for a piece on those who live in glass houses...or at least those who design them. In the case of American architect, Philip Johnson, they were one and the same.

Philip Johnson's Glass House--more like a cottage, actually.
One of the major problems for an architect designing a glass house is literally where to "stow the throne." Here I'm referring to the one usually encountered in the bathroom. By inviting the outdoors in, privacy literally goes "out the window." However, privacy would seem to be considered a must in disposing of bodily wastes, even for those living in glass houses. Johnson solved the problem with a single circular enclosure, rising through the roofline, contrasting strongly with the otherwise rectilinear lines of his glass and steel house (above). Mies van der Rohe, in designing his glass and steel Farnsworth House, had chosen a more traditional elongated, rectangular core containing all utilities (two baths, kitchen, and laundry). Philip Johnson chose to live in his glass house for some 58 years. In fact, a critic once cracked that only Philip Johnson could live in such a place.
The Farnsworth House, 1945-51, Plano, Illinois, Mies van der Rohe
The van der Rohe glass house was designed for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago nephrologist looking for a quiet getaway where she could engage in her hobbies of playing the violin, translating poetry, and communing with nature. The sixty-acre rural site she chose was on the Fox River near Plano, Illinois, some fifty-five miles southwest of Chicago. (Today it's far from rural.) Designed and built for a cost of around $100,000 over a period of six years from 1945 to 1951, the 1,500 square-foot house served as a private retreat for Ms. Farnsworth for some 21 years. In 2006, the picturesque Fox River which had been the main attraction of the site, flooded, bringing water some 18 inches deep to the main floor of a house already resting on five-foot "stilts." There was some damage to woodwork and furnishings but the glass and steel structure otherwise "weathered the storm" quite nicely.
The Johnson house living room demonstrates that living in a glass house is as much about looking out as looking in. Ironically, the minimalist furnishing are by van der Rohe.
Built in 1949, the Philip Johnson house in New Canaan, Connecticut, rests on a concrete slab and is, in some ways, purer than the earlier Farnsworth House which, influenced it. The Farnsworth House (that which is not glass) is painted white and thus imposes itself upon the landscape, in making a stunning architectural statement. The Johnson abode is charcoal gray except for its central bathroom turret, thus becoming a part of the landscape. In effect, we have two groundbreaking architects with surprisingly different approaches to the same concept. Of course, what we're really talking about is as much glass walls as glass houses. And since Johnson and van der Rohe, glass walls have become stock-in-trade for modernist architects all over the world.

The glass bookcase and stairs. Would you feel comfortable climbing glass stairs?
However Italian architect, Carlo Santambrogio, was not satisfied to just erect four glass walls and call it a house. His glass "cube" (top) takes Johnson's purity a step further. Virtually everything in the house is glass (except for the beds). The walls are glass, the furniture is (mostly) glass the floors are glass, the roof, the stairs, presumably even the privy. Santambrogio's house near Milan, Italy, is a concept house (being duplicated in Paris), so presumably it probably won't actually be lived in. Not that one couldn't live in it. The glass walls can be heated, it's structurally sound, spacious, three "floors" (well, levels anyway), and contains all the usual amenities. However, it's hard to imagine where they "stow the throne."
I suppose one could get used to it (buying Windex by the barrel I mean).


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