Arriving at Phillip Johnson’s Glass House in the lush hills of New Canaan, CT, on a sunny June day, I was startles to see nine attractive young men and women dancing through the famously transparent house, all mysterious rhythms and couplings. On Johnson’s own bed, facing an enormous pane of glass, a man and woman had a strange balletic altercation. Then all nine dancers jumped and writhed in exuberant style on the herringbone brick floor of the living area and, afterward, marched outside to continue the performance on the lawn by the pool.
The dancers, I later learned, were from Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project, and their performance, a work conceived by the performance and art duo Gerard & Kelly titled Modern Living, was meant to address questions of sexuality and memory and—in Johnson’s Glass House
of voyeurism and exhibitionism—explore domestic rituals in “queer space.” (Johnson shared the home with his partner of 45 years, David Whitney.) At points, the dancers’ syncopated movements recalled a great jazz or country-dance festival; one could barely resist joining in the fun.
Less “in your face” but no less engaging, another piece of art beckoned from the west. Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama had recreated her Narcissus Garden (originally shown at the 1966 Venice Biennale) in the Lower Meadow. There, 1,300 12-inch, mirror-finish, stainless-steel spheres floated in the pond, glinting like shiny pearls when seen from the house and, up close, offering viewers stunning convex selfies, framing their faces artfully with the surrounding water, forest and sky.
I had never seen The Glass House activated in such a dynamic manner as this. Johnson and I had been friends, and I’d had the pleasure of visiting him at home on a number of occasions. In fact, it was there that Philip’s lobbying of a potential client led to my first commissioned house as a young architect.
Now a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the iconic Glass House, completed in 1949, is a staid pavilion perched at the edge of a ridge overlooking 40 acres of perfect lawns and forests in New Canaan—a hotbed of modern architectural experimentation in the 1950s and ’60s. Inspired by the minimalist ideas of Philip’s mentor, the German master Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, The Glass House has thin steel columns that support the floating plane of the roof, its four exterior walls little more than floor-to-ceiling sheets of glass. Inside, the house is loft-like, with an open kitchen, living and dining area. A cylindrical brick silo encloses the bathroom and provides a slight separation for the hardly discrete sleeping area.
Johnson’s estate is a virtual museum of architectural styles, and The Glass House, sitting alongside multiple structures designed by Johnson over his 70-year career, remains his masterpiece, an instant sensation at a time when suburban conformity was the norm. In its early days, curiosity seekers would sometimes line up along the stone wall at the road, straining for a glimpse of the house they’d heard had neither walls nor the least shred of privacy. Even esteemed guests were sometimes shocked. Upon arrival, Frank Lloyd Wright reportedly quipped: “Here I am, Philip, am I indoors or am I out? Do I take my hat off or keep it on?”
Johnson died in 2005 at the age of 98, and his home has now been open to the public for a decade. Both Irene Shum, Curator and Collections Manager, and Cole Akers, Curator and Special Projects Manager, have continued to carry out Philip Johnson’s mission at the Glass House and, as I knew him, his spirit as a patron of the arts. This fall ushers in another Kusama installation, the bold Dots Obsession—Alive, Seeking for Eternal Hope, in which more than a thousand of the artist’s signature polka dots (in Pepsi-red vinyl) will be applied to The Glass House, producing an “infinity room” sensation for visitors. It’s a shame Philip won’t be there to join in the fun.