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Natural Artistry

How did an icon of American architecture approach landscape design? As a new tour at the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan reveals, he took it to a high art.



The pool has geometric form.

photographs by stacy bass

There’s a photo of Philip Johnson shot in 1964 in which he is sitting, cross-legged, on a tatami mat on the floor of the pavilion he designed for the pond on his New Canaan property. In the photo Johnson looks to be in the midst of a picnic. There are a bowl of leafy salad, half a cantaloupe and a bottle of wine. Open-faced and beaming, the foremost modernist architect of his time appears sublimely relaxed and at ease, afloat in a bucolic idyll of his own design. From that spot Johnson could survey the splendor of his land, a forty-seven-acre parcel he acquired in pieces gradually beginning in 1946 with his partner of forty-five years, art critic and curator David Whitney. It was on this land that he would break ground on the Glass House, his private residence and also an archetype for modern architecture for decades to come.

Independently wealthy from a stash of Alcoa stock he received from his father, and older than his peers by the time he earned his architecture degree from Harvard—he’d already served as curator at the Museum of Modern Art—Johnson approached his Glass House and its lush grounds as a lifetime opus, playing the role of architect and client simultaneously. In shaping them he relied on influences from the areas of study that intrigued him, including history, art, pop culture and landscape design.

The vista he would have taken in from the location featured in the 1964 photo, perhaps one of the most dramatic on the property, consists of a tumbling cascade of rocks framed by tall trees and spilling downward toward the pond across the face of a sixty-five foot slope from the foundation of his Glass House. The house appears to hover atop a promontory he built to achieve as deep a viewshed as possible into the distant woodland that abuts the pond.

 

 

This view and many others are among the visual highlights in store for visitors during a special series of new tours at the Glass House focusing on architecture, landscape and art.

Philip Johnson Glass House
Among the stunning views are the allée of maples and the viewshed of trees.

“Johnson was familiar with the open landscape of Ohio where he grew up, but he loved New England and especially Connecticut,” says Maureen Cassidy-Geiger, one of the guides for the new tours. She is a former curator for the Frick Collection and a member of the faculty at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum/Parsons The New School for Design.

A formal protectorate of the National Trust for Historic Preservation since 1986 when Johnson turned it over, the Glass House and its surroundings remain very much as they were up until Johnson died in 2005 at age ninety-eight. (Whitney followed later the same year.) Together with Whitney, Johnson practiced a form of landscape design in which he edited out—rather than added in—trees, shrubs and plants, some of them native, some of them not, in order to elevate each of the vistas to the level of high art.

The view from the promontory under the Glass House—one among many that are at once serene and arresting—is just as much the work of his deft hand as the eleven architectural structures he designed on the site, and yet it appears entirely naturalistic, the epitome of a rambling English manor. In truth, the effect was achieved after much debate. Johnson and Whitney are said to have argued so intensely over each of the individual trees that would be cut down that on the day the tree removal team arrived, the men took up separate posts and shouted directions to the crew through megaphones.

Philip Johnson Glass House
The manicured lawn around the Glass House, and the pavilion and Lincoln Kirstein Tower.

In many ways Johnson predicated his design on organizing principles such as procession, compression and release—meaning that he directed, with visual cues, both the eye and the moving body through a series of spaces shaped by the elements within them. The driveway under the pine canopy, for instance, eventually spills a visitor out into the open meadow down below.

The tours will encourage visitors to see Johnson’s structures within the context of the surrounding landscape. Through a series of “pause points,” they will have the chance to linger in order to “notice, discover and study the view,” according to Cassidy-Geiger.

One pause point is the pristine swimming pool, a shocking shot of turquoise in the manicured green “lawn-carpet,” (the term used on the tour) and the rectangular concrete deck that glances off its circumference. The geometric construction is a bold reference to Russian art of the 1930s and ’40s. The lawn on which the pool and deck sit is the only grass on the estate that Johnson insisted be frequently mowed.

Another pause point is the pond pavilion, with its mossy patina. Then there are the Lincoln Kirstein Tower, which Johnson called “the staircase to nowhere,” along with the stone wall that widens on one end, and the rock outcropping down near the grove of skunk cabbage and willows, which serves as a place to sit and ponder a gurgling brook. “He wanted to be the master of all he could see, to infinity,” says Cassidy-Geiger.

Philip Johnson Glass House
Views of the Glass House from a meadow studded with cattails

During the detailed two-hour tour of the grounds, guests will be allowed to venture to at least two spots previously unvisited by the public: Calluna Farms (Calluna meaning “heather”), an 1890 farmhouse and gardens Whitney bought in 1981 and restored and used for his experimental plantings, and Grainger, a 1735 timber-framed house that served as a hot-weather retreat for Johnson and Whitney. Grainger’s exterior is painted in a black-matte paint custom-made by Donald Kaufman and Taffy Dahl, and it features both an etched-glass window by Michael Heizer and a stone-walled garden to which Whitney transferred the peonies and irises he originally planted at Calluna.

Adjacent to Calluna is a flat garden, like a multicolored tapestry, of succulent hens-and-chicks—Sempervivum—that is planted inside a perimeter centered with an asymmetrical crucifix. All of it is constructed of the Stony Creek rose granite Johnson used in 1978 when he designed the iconic AT&T Building on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

After a two-hour stroll around the grounds the architect called home for nearly sixty years, it will become readily apparent to a visitor that, though he may not have been a native, Johnson was able to thrive in his adopted homeland because he was free to contrive his surroundings into his very own Shangri-La. Says Cassidy-Geiger, “It is handcrafted by man and yet it looks like the work of God.”

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