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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Philip Johnson

Phillip Johnson, 95, architect
Recently, several of my friends and I have begun comparing notes online about the economic and architectural variations of the domiciles in the areas in which they live. The variations are astounding. They range from castles to crackerboxes. And the costs certainly confirm the old real estate adage, that only three things are important determinants--location, location, and location. These one might translate into proximity to natural beauty, metropolitan areas, and service infrastructure. On the theory that "a man's home is his castle" architects down through the ages have moved from literally designing stone castles to bricks and mortar, wood, steel, glass, and in some cases, such as the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright, all of the above. Along this line, the most recent innovations have come in the area of glass and steel, and no doubt influenced by Wright, as well as Mies van der Rohe, the home of American architect, Philip Johnson, stands with those of Wright as one of the most important houses of the 20th  century.

Phillip Johnson Glass House, 1949, New Caanan, Connecticut
It sits quite unobtrusively amidst thirty-two acres of rolling, wooded countryside near New Canaan, Connecticut (above). It's not large by today's standards, approximately 30 feet by sixty feet. Though built in 1949, it has such an ageless, understated grace about it that things like time, eras, and style are absolutely meaningless. Basically, the structure is a steel cage of slender black columns supporting a flat roof and framing four walls composed solely of glass. The house sits on a concrete and brick slab rising barely a foot above the ground. Its only interior walls are a cylindrical bathroom/fireplace unit made of brick which also serves to conceal the necessary service elements; and rises in height slightly above the roof level. Inside, one enters a spacious foyer. A cooking area is to the left, the bathroom "tower" off to the right, and straight ahead, the living area. To the left of that is the dining area, and to the right, the single sleeping area. Broad shades near the ceiling may be pulled down for privacy or to ward off the sun.

Simplicity itself, no rooms, only spacious, open areas.
The kitchen is to the left of the entrance. Each side features a door.
The house is an archetype--a fundamental piece of architecture. It's not a house for the untidy, for children, those demanding privacy, or for whom comfort is more important than aesthetic satisfaction. In fact, architectural critic, Paul Goldberger, suggested, it's probably not a house for anyone but Philip Johnson. The ambiance is somewhere between that of an art gallery and a picnic shelter. The furniture is of chrome and black leather designed by van der Rohe. The floor is hardwood accented with area rugs. The various functional areas are broken up only by cabinets in the kitchen and a row of wardrobes separating the living and sleeping areas. Each side of the house has access to the outside but the only traditional door in the house is that into the circular bathroom. The wallpaper is by mother nature as carefully manicured by Johnson himself. The structures wide-openness seems to belie the cliche regarding a man's home being his castle, but one wonders if Johnson has ever heard the one about people who live in glass houses.

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