WSTC/WNLK: THE GALA CIVIC OPENING OF PHILIP JOHNSON’S GLASS HOUSE

Philip Johnson's Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut

Ever since American architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House was opened to the public in 2007, people have had the chance to inspect, close up, the house and its plot — which includes some traditional buildings, an artificial lake, and an art museum. Inspired by the Glass House, a beautiful conversation about modern versus contemporary  styles was recently hosted online by John Hill, a blogger, architect and professor based here in New York City. One of the commentators, architect and preservationist John Montague Massengale, grew up in the New York suburbs, near the Glass House. So did I. Massengale wrote about an experience rather idiosyncratic to our little corner of the world — an adventure also mentioned in the radio piece below.

 After I got my driver’s license, I used to sometimes go peer over the wall at the edge of the property, and once or twice Johnson came out and shook his fist before I drove away.

It was sort of a rite of passage for kids in the area who cared about architecture to have Philip Johnson’s fist shaken at them. Massengale has since argued trenchantly that a lot of suburban corporate architectural components are now being incorporated into new New York business headquarters — like the World Trade Center complex — and this is a development of which, perhaps, he’s not particularly fond.

…they are purposely isolated and apart form the surrounding city like a suburban, gated community … from the look of it, it will be a monstrously scaled landscape of foreboding spaces, underground shopping, and bland skyscrapers landing on bare concrete. The quality of the area is typified by Tower One: the 1,776-foot-tall boring and bland middle finger to the rest of the city.

The Civic Opening was also covered by Suzanne Stephens at Architectural Record.

The audio below is a segment for the Fairfield County Business Showcase, a weekly series I produced for WSTC/WNLK in 2007. (My General Manager required me to use this cumbersome name for the program, but I preferred just to call it, The Showcase, because, well,  it wasn’t just about business.) A group of Darien High School music students provided the a capella jingle at the beginning.

Here’s the audio, and the transcript is pasted below.

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WSTC/WNLK: The Gala Civic Opening of Philip Johnson’s Glass House (Air date: June 23, 2007)

Erik Campano: Right now, on Ponus Ridge in New Canaan, the Glass House is holding its inaugural gala picnic. Members of the inviting committee include the great painter Frank Stella, and groundbreaking architect Robert A. M. Stern. One of the tour guides at the Glass House, Peter, says the celebration includes one very big act.

Peter: …the Merce Cunningham dance troupe, who actually performed here and they’re gonna’ perform their exact same routine as they did in 1967.

Campano: Are they the same —

Peter: It won’t be the same people. [laughs] I knew you were gonna’ ask that!

Campano: The Glass House is certainly worthy of a name as great as Merce Cunningham. After all, it was the residence that Philip Johnson built for himself. Johnson is a defining modernist, and some say post-modernist, architect. Just a few of his many hugely infuential projects include the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, the Sony Building on Madison Avenue, and the Crystal Cathedral in southern California. And the Glass House is, itself, considered a great work of American art, as the site’s preservationist, Sandy Cross, explains.

Sandy Cross: Philip Johnson, in designing this house, introduced Modernism to the United States.

Campano: This could be deemed, then, the first Modernist residence?

Cross: I don’t think we can say it’s the first. [laughs]

Campano: It’s tough to define Modernism.

Cross: I’d say it’s the first glass modernist home.

Campano: Do we know why he chose New Canaan, and why he chose this particular site?

Cross: He chose New Canaan — New Canaan had become a place where Eliot Noyes, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, known as the Harvard Five, had already begun building homes, or building properties, and it was seen as a convenient place between New York City, and Harvard, where they were teaching, or had studied and then taught, and land was avaiable, and land was not that expensive at that time–

Campano: — back then —

Cross: — back then. [laughs] Part of the experience of visiting the Glass House was, once you crossed the threshold into manicured lawn Philip Johnson would bound out of the Glass House and welcome you, and you felt like the most important person in the world.

Campano: He knew you were coming.

Cross: He knew you were coming.

Campano: I guess — I’m just looking at the manicured lawn over here, and in front of it and to the left we have a stone wall, and essentially when you pull up around that stone wall you’re looking right at the house. Was his living space on this side of the house so he could —

Cross: — yes, the living space is on this side so he could see. The bedroom is on the northern side. He would have known you were coming. because he would have let you through the gate on the top, remotely, and of course he would only come if you had been invited. So —

Campano: — or were a teenager growing up in Darien.

Cross: Many people have that story.

Campano: Johnson died two-and-a-half years ago, and donated his almost 50 acres and 10 some-odd buildings to the National Trust. On Thursday, under perfect sunshine, the site held its Civic Opening, and even if Johnson was not physically there to welcome us, the staff did an incredible job standing in for him, welcoming dignitaries and popping the champagne cork. [popping sound]

Bystander: Oh, well done! [applause]

Announcer: Please welcome Lieutenant Governor Michael Fedele. [applause]

Michael Fedele: [over loudspeaker] It’s good to see that. You know, unfortunately, as we see in today’s world, urban sprawl, knock-downs and McMansions, it’s great to see that there’s a conscious effort, not only by the state but by private interests, to maintain open space, and to preserve it for our future generations.

Campano: The house, itself, is relatively small, at least a quarter of the size of the average new home you might see in northern New Canaan. It sits on a promontory, overlooking a dip in the land with a view of an artificial lake and pavilion so beautiful it hardly seems real. The Glass House is — well — it’s glass, as in all four walls are completely made of plate glass. This provoked comment from another architect, who himself built a house called Tirranna on the Noroton River in New Canaan. That was Frank Lloyd Wright.

Peter: Wright said, well, Philip, What’ll it be? Am I inside or am I outside? Do I remove my hat or do I leave it on?

Campano: The Glass House dates from the late 40s, and it does not have one particular amenity.

Peter: The air conditioning’s on right now, as you can tell. That means the doors are open.

Campano: There’s no real air conditioning.

Peter: No.

Campano: Peter pointed out a lamp that Johnson designed.

Peter: This blew down several times — hence, the dents. They’re all authentic dents. Johnson liked to refer to that as patina. [laughter; footsteps]

Campano: Walking around the ground, there’s much more to appreciate, like a sculpture gallery inspired by the design of a Greek village, described by Gretchen, another tour guide.

Gretchen: It has five different levels, and it kind of wraps around in a circular motion, sharing those levels with us. And we have a Michael Heizer prismatic flake right here as you walk in. Then we have a Robert Rauschenberg, kind of tucked away in the venting — you can see right there. Then we have a George Segal, the lovers on the bed, and then a Chamberlain.

Campano: Perhaps more than in the other house, because of the glass ceiling, the light and the weather play a very important role in how you experience this art.

Gretchen: It’s true. It’s so changing. It’s very organic. I don’t know if you heard the quotes back when you were in the Glass House, but people said often, how can you live in a glass house?, and he’d say, I have expensive wallpaper.

The Glass House Visitor Center

The Glass House Visitor Center

Campano: There’s also an underground art gallery reminiscent of an archaeological site, plus a number of other witty pieces, but it’s not really the individual buildings, but the entire place and atmosphere that affect your consciousness. Visitors on Thursday were saying stuff like, they felt a spiritual connection to the Glass House, and they were shy about putting it that way, but I think I know what they mean. It’s very much a sort of natural setting, but it’s also very man-made, a kind of melding inside and outside, the interior of the mind and the exterior grass and trees and hills. You can experience it for yourself by signing up for a tour at the visitor’s center across from the train station. It’s booked out until next year, by the way. They’ll bus you up to the site. Now, Philip Johnson may not come bounding out, but by the end, you’ll sort of feel like you’ve been to heaven to meet him.

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