Glass houses really do exist, outside of the vivid cliché. This one is set in affluent, yet rustic Fairfield County, Connecticut, part of the Big Apple commuter belt. Its creator, and owner, was Philip Johnson, a graduate of Harvard’s design school, best known for designing the Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the AT&T building (now Sony Plaza), among other major buildings. An associate of Mies van der Rohe, Johnson collaborated on the Seagram building. Johnson is considered an architectural pioneer; he was founded the Department of Architecture at the MoMa and, in 1932 mounted an exhibition introducing modern, international architecture to an American audience.
Johnson maintained deep ties to the museum as a curator, architect, trustee and patron, and forged close friendships with important American artists like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. These friends provided many of the sparse interiors at the Glass House, and the sculptures on the grounds. Upon his death, he donated more than 2,000 works of art to the museum.
In life, Johnson surrounded himself with the elite of the American art and design world, celebrities and socialites.
After gaining some experience designing private homes, Philips designed the Glass House set off the road, on a 47-acre estate, overlooking a pond and later, a pavilion. A minimalist to the core, the house is made up of one living space with a partition for the bedroom area and an open, circular bathroom. The only frivolity is an additional small freezer for the ice cream Johnson adored.
Johnson lived in the Glass House from 1949 until his death in 2005, and after hosting an overnight guest just once, decided never to do it again. Instead, he built the Brick House, an opposing study, directly across from the Glass House. The entrance to the Brick House was deliberately placed out of sight of the Glass House to maintain Johnson’s privacy. The only windows are skylights and large, circular ones at the back.
Johnson met David Whitney in 1960, when Johnson was just 18 years old, an approached Whitney after a lecture at Brown University. Despite the 33-year age difference, the two had much in common, as well as a yin-yang with Whitney acting as homemaker. Whitney led his own illustrious life, an accomplished curator, editor and art collector, he, too was friends with Modern masters. The two were a power couple in New York’s creative world.
Whitney died shortly after Johnson, in 2005 and the house is maintained by the National Trust. The Trust has become a platform for architectural salons, films, and programmes combining the appreciation of good design and food. Specialist tours led by leaders in architecture, art, landscape, history or design, are followed by “conversations,” giving context to the sculptures, art and design of the Glass House and its grounds.
Johnson once said the Glass House was his “fifty-year diary,” one which the Trust is keen to keep as an open book, though for the man who believed privacy was paramount, it’s hard to imagine he’d welcome so many visitors.