Philip Johnson’s glass house: Don’t believe the hype

Since it opened to the public in the spring of 2007, I have been eagerly waiting to tour Philip Johnson’s glass house. This weekend, I finally got my chance:

Johnson’s house, which was built in 1949, is heralded as an icon of minimalist design. As you can tell from the image, the house has four glass walls and sparse furnishings. It is a home without excess and a home without clutter.

I’ve always admired Johnson and his ability to live so minimally … that is, until I went to visit his home.

Was he a minimalist? Ha ha! Ho ho! Hee hee!

In addition to the glass house, the 47-acre grounds are covered with numerous other homes and buildings where Johnson spent his time:

  1. the brick house, a small guest house that also hides the mechanical support systems for the glass house
  2. the Popestead farmhouse, a second guest house with an enormous kitchen he used to cook in when he had guests (even though he had a kitchen in the glass house and another in the brick house)
  3. the studio and library, where he did his work and stored his collection of books
  4. the painting gallery, which housed 42 of Johnson’s friends’ large paintings
  5. the sculpture gallery, an entire building devoted to his sculpture collection
  6. Da Monsta, which Johnson built for no apparent reason and named it to sound like a hip-hop reference (not a joke)
  7. Grainger, the house where he watched television
  8. Calluna Farms, a fifth house on the property where his boyfriend lived that is currently occupied by the grounds keeper

In my mind, there is nothing minimalist about a nine-house/gallery property. If you have a separate house where you watch tv and another house where you keep your books and another where you keep your boyfriend and all of his things, it completely defeats the purpose of calling oneself a minimalist.

If I had more than one house I could easily keep one of them in the perfect minimalist condition. Imagine how clutter free you could be if you had nine houses/galleries to contain all your stuff.

Oh, and I should mention that Johnson also had an apartment in New York City containing even more possessions.

Was the glass house architecturally amazing? Yes. Was the property beautiful? Yes. Do I recommend seeing the property if you have the chance? Yes.

Do I still think of Philip Johnson as a minimalist? Not in the least.

After the tour it felt as if the glass house was little more than a publicity stunt.

Philip Johnson’s glass house is located at 199 Elm Street in New Canaan, Connecticut. The house is a National Trust Historic Site and tickets to tour the home can be purchased online.

(Image by Eirik Johnson for Time magazine’s article “Splendor in the Glass)

41 Comments for “Philip Johnson’s glass house: Don’t believe the hype”

  1. posted by Karyn on

    There’s something a little bit disturbing about keeping one’s boyfriend and things in a dedicated, separate house, as if he were one of the collections, along with the book collection, the painting collection, and the sculpture collection. 😉

    I don’t imagine anyone with a significant other would spend much time living in a glass house, anyway, unless it had curtains.

  2. posted by Annie on

    Actually it’s a huge relief to see that no one (okay, perhaps only a very few) can actually live SO minimally as to live in only one, small, transparent house. I’d never heard about all the other buildings and am glad to see the light for what it is 🙂 Too funny!

  3. posted by Lori Paximadis on

    You hit the nail on the head: publicity stunt. Or conceptual art, at a minimum.

  4. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    Reminds me of Henry David Thoreau, living the simple, contemplative life on Walden Pond.

    Except for the fact that his mother and sisters did all his housekeeping, cooking, and laundry, so he could be all philosophical about how the simple life, close to nature, is best. If he’d had to heat his own beans he might have had a slightly different outlook.

    Ruth

  5. posted by Molly on

    A whole house to watch TV?

    Wow.

    Most people I know don’t even have a whole room…

  6. posted by Anita on

    Erin, plase correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that Philip Johnson never claimed to be a minimalist. Rather, he used his property to build structures and experiment with different styles.

    The glass house was simply his take on a minimalist design concept that had been popular in German architectural thought for quite some time. Yes, it did become his most famous work, but I don’t think he intended it to reflect or contain his lifestyle… so I don’t think he can be accused of false advertising 🙂

    The view from the house must be stunning, though!

  7. posted by A on

    Ruth Hansell –
    That has always griped me about Thoreau, telling everyone to get back to the land and the simple life while he let his Mamma do his laundry. I’ve never been able to take “Walden” all that seriously because of it.

  8. posted by PJ Doland on

    The sheer act of calling it “The Glass House” seems to imply a belief that it was actually livable. Had it called it “The Glass Detached Room” our criticism might be a little different.

  9. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Anita — I never met Philip Johnson, but from what I have studied about him over the years:

    1. The design for the glass house is a complete rip-off of Mies van de Rohe’s Farnsworth house in Chicago. Johnson saw the plans for the Farnsworth house and then built and completed his house before van de Rohe could finish his. (http://www.farnsworthhouse.org/) Johnson had a habit of doing this, which can clearly be seen in the Da Monsta building (a hat-tip to a Frank Gehry design). So, he definitely experimented with other people’s work … I don’t know if I’d say he experimented with design …

    2. I’ve read a few things that Johnson wrote about the minimalist structure of the glass house and why he set certain objects in specific places in the home, his ideas of contrast in minimalist design, etc. etc. etc. He definitely believed in minimalism. He and his boyfriend were also known for moving other people’s things when they were set down in the house because they disrupted the minimalist effect of the house. He definitely thought of himself as a promoter of the minimalist movement.

    3. Regardless of how Johnson thought about himself, it’s how others hold him up as an icon of minimalist design. And, after touring the beautiful property, I have to say that this iconic reputation isn’t accurate. Johnson didn’t “live” in this house (and he named it the glass house, not a glass tribute to minimalist design), he “lived” on the whole of the property and its nine buildings.

  10. posted by Krys on

    If there is such a thing as a “building hoarder”, I think Johnson might have qualified.

  11. posted by Glenn on

    I would like to see some interior shots of the “Glass House”, what is missing from it that would require the “Brick House” to support it?

    This does alter my perception a bit. Instead of thinking of my office as cluttered, I can now think of it as “too small”.

  12. posted by Anita on

    @Erin: I stand corrected as far as Philip Johnson’s take on minimalism goes. Had no idea he was so keen on… drawing his inspiration from others’ ideas.

    On a linguistic note, though, I would say that simply calling something a “house” does not imply that you mean to live in it. After all, we have houses of Parliament, opera houses, publishing houses, greenhouses, outhouses… and don’t expect people to live in any of those, even if they are on their property. But I’m being nitpicky.

  13. posted by sam on

    I really enjoy the Modern Interior Design present in the glass house. I feel it is truly minimalist.

  14. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Anita — Living in an outhouse … EWWWWWWWWW! 😉

  15. posted by anniep on

    this post made me laugh – i love it! i didn’t and think a lot of people don’t realize that he has so many “extras”, makes me feel good when i sit in my living room and stare at my books and know that i am actually more minimalist than him! thanks for sharing, you gave me a good chuckle today!

  16. posted by momofthree on

    Ok space for a single person I suppose—where are the “facilities” for those occasional middle of the night trips? Is this “house” really practical for the winter in CT?
    If not, I would think that this “house” truly a piece of experimental architecture and not really practical for any purpose other than “show”…

    so, how much was the ticket to the property??? Nine buildings on 47 acres? Yep, that’s building hoarding to me, and it’s not even a farm, with all the out buildings one would expect. My great aunt & uncle in central MN had the house, barn, one car garage, the tool shed (almost as big as the garage), the pump house (when it fell over in the 1940’s they never rebuilt it), two seater out house, one dog house, and the brooder house for the chickens. It was their working farm for well over 50 years and that’s only eight buildings to support them.

  17. posted by stefanie on

    @ Anita, first comment, thank you for saying much of what I was thinking.

    @ rest of comments that call the house a publicity stunt or Johnson dishonest for calling the building a house. He was an artist. He worked primarily starting in the mid-twentieth century. He made an experimental space in the glass house, and likely the other buildings on what was his own personal property. In other words, he could do what he wanted with his own space, whether or not its a historical treasure now. I don’t understand why this has seemingly made so many commenters hot under the collar.

    @ Erin – Minimalism and minimalist have very specific connotations in the terms’ use in Modern Art, so perhaps the language you’re using here is not quite accurate compared with how Johnson saw his work, and how others saw it when it was first created and now.

    As an art historian, these kinds of assumptions make me crazy.

  18. posted by Kris on

    In my mind, both Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Mies van de Rohe’s Farnsworth house have a low comfort quotient.

    To have a high comfort quotient, a house should have at least three things: a comfortable reading chair, a comfortable sofa, and comfortable dining chairs.

    First, the reading chair. A house should include at least one cushy chair with arms. By the chair should be a small table to hold a cup of tea or a glass of wine as well as a book or a magazine or a newspaper. There should also be a good reading light near by: either a table lamp or a floor lamp will work. In addition there should be a toss pillow on the chair and an ottoman in front of the chair. (And ideally, the ottoman should be on casters to make it easy to move.)

    If possible, this chair will be located near a window to let in summer breezes and near a fireplace to offer winter warmth.

    This spot can, of course, be used to spend a couple of hours reading on a rainy day.
    If there’s a second comfortable place to sit nearby, it can also be used to have a long, intimate conversation with a friend. In addition, it can be used by a new mother to nurse her baby.

    Second, a house with a high comfort quotient should have a comfortable sofa.

    The sofa should, of course, offer a place to settle in for a conversation with family members or friends. The sofa should be long enough to allow for napping, but not so long as to be hard to move. It should also have arms to allow someone to turn sideways and rest her back on an arm while she reads a book. For maximum comfort, the arms should be rounded, not be square. (Square arms have sharp edges which are uncomfortable to lean against with your head or back.)

    Add a couple of toss pillows and a throw to make napping and reading even more comfortable.

    Third, a comfortable house needs comfortable dining chairs. Most of all, this means a comfortable seating surface. This can be a padded seat or a hard seat with an added cushion or even a woven cane surface.

    The dining chairs should be comfortable enough to encourage diners to linger long after a meal in an extended conversation. (On a more prosaic level, the chairs should also be comfortable enough to allow you to sit for long sessions at the computer.)

    The furnishings in both the Glass House and the Farnsworth house seem appropriate for a bank lobby but not for a home.

  19. posted by Erin Doland on

    @stefanie — The glass house itself is an example of minimalist design (according to your art history textbook definition). It is also an example of Modern design (Johnson defined the Modern movement when he went to work for the MOMA, so he obviously meets his own definition). The other eight houses/galleries on the property are proof, however, that Johnson was not a minimalist and that the house was an insufficient dwelling since Johnson could not contain his life within it.

  20. posted by Ange on

    While I agree with the post (this is defn not minimalism), I will say there is some beautiful art and architecture at work here. The painting and sculpture galleries, as well as the studio, are stunning. The brick house & boyfriend’s house (ick, banishing your SO to his own place… unless is an Oscar to his Felix…), not so much.

  21. posted by Jasileet on

    Great article. Leaves me absolutely shattered, but whatever. Good to know.

  22. posted by Marie on

    I remember 30 years ago having a conversation with my husband-to-be about Johnson’s lovely glass house, and how neat and tidy and minimalist it seemed. My future husband, who was an engineering student, called it “a lark” and “a fake house” and claimed that no professional person could live without books, papers, and “professional clutter”. He said no one but a monk could live so possession-free, and that Johnson probably had a 5-car garage, out of camera range, stuffed with belongings.

    Thanks for telling us this truth.

  23. posted by Mletta on

    Very interesting bits of info. Thank you.

    Definitely not “minimalist.”

    But as someone who lives in a small NYC apartment, I LOVED the idea of separate galleries, studio and library. Gives me a lovely fantasy to dream about! (These types of spaces really should be separate, IMHO, from one’s main “abode.” It also cuts down on unwanted intrusions, interruptions, etc.)

    My significant other, meanwhile, was delighted with the thought of a separate place to watch TV. The thought of him and his mates all hanging out, with no one to hear them, totally made his day. Although, we’d be thrilled to just have a separate room, anywhere! Space, the ultimate urban dwellers fantasy.

    As for housing one’s significant other in a separate space…anyone who has lived with another has entertained that fantasy on occasion! It’s not clear whether this is actually where his SO lived during their shared time.

    FYI: There are many happily together couples who both share one space and have their own separate spaces (in apt. buildings, in separate parts of a large house, etc.)

    I think if you’re “relegated” to such a space, like being banished, it’s one thing. But perhaps if you prefer this…as many today do, when they are being honest, it’s OK.

    Personally, I could never live in a glass house. Anywhere. Way, way too “open” I’d need drapes at night.

  24. posted by Jeanne B. on

    And the truth is revealed! LOL!

    I love the idea of having the SO in a separate house or quadrant. Space is important to me. No reason to have each other underfoot all the time.

  25. posted by Karyn on

    @Mletta and Jeanne B. – Of course significant others need (if at all possible) their own space. I wasn’t advocating Constant Togetherness; I was just making a snarky comparison of how “Boyfriend + Stuff House” seemed to parallel “Gallery House” and “Sculpture House” and other collections. 😉

  26. posted by Christine E on

    Having taken this tour myself, I’m not sure I agree with all your points. I regarded many of the out-buildings as his workspaces, not his home. As an architect, he worked in his study, and he built the painting and scultpure galleries as places to showcase the work of artists who were his contemporaries. These are not personal/home spaces at all. He was just lucky and talented enough to have constructed a professional life in which he could walk to work and not leave his property! My office (corporate work space) is far more crowded with stuff than my home, because much of that stuff is needed – or at least once was needed – to do my job.

    As for the guest house (the Brick House, which I can’t wait until that is ready to be open to the public to tour) — it is pretty common for people of means to have a guest house on one’s property. Whether or not one has a permanent guest (a significant other) or uses it only on ocassion doesn’t matter.

    Also, I got the sense that he kept the old farmhouse on the property because it was already there and why tear it down, and it turned out to be a good place to house your caretaker. If I had 40+ acres, I would need a staff to tend to it. So why not have “staff quarters”?

    Lastly, I don’t beleive “da Monsta” was constructed for no reason. I understood from the tour guide that Johnson thought it would be used as a visitor’s center, having known that his property would be turned into a musuem after his death. It’s not suitable by current public building standards and I’m sure the neighbors didn’t want all that car traffic, so The National Trust created a visitor’s center in the center of town.

    Anyway, it is beautiful and inspirational, even to someone who lives in a circa 1750 saltbox home. I regarded this house as simple and utlitarian, with every object in it being well-used and loved. There was actually fairly good cabinetry storage. I think back to the folks who originally lived in my home and the few belongings they must have had within the home as being quite similar to Johnson’s home, even though they were centuries apart.

  27. posted by Christine E on

    To momofthree who asked about “the facilities” —

    See the chimney structure in the middle of the house? The fireplace is on one side and the bathroom is cleverly constructed on the other side. There IS a door and everything.

  28. posted by Christine E on

    Last thought — if I lived on these fabulous grounds, with a home site that was out of view of all of my neighbors, I, too, would want a house with no curtains to spoil the view of 200 year old stone walls, rolling hills, trees and wildlife. While touring the grounds, I saw a red-tailed hawk and two canadian geese. I’m sure deer and foxes abound on this property. I would LOVE to gaze at them from my dining table all day and night.

  29. posted by Pat on

    I’m with Stefanie here: “minimalism” has a particular meaning w.r.t. architecture and art history, and a work, installation, or artist can be aesthetically minimalist without necessarily adhering to the usage current on Unclutterer.com. Our usage — call it “life-minimalism” — is particular to a very specific culture, that of 21st century internet “lifehacking” culture.

    The blog-culture prototype of “extreme minimalism” is something like a person living in a 100 sq. ft. apartment with 100 things, three pieces of furniture which transform into other furniture, etc. The aesthetic minimalism of the Modernist era is a precursor to this, but if someone in 1949 calls themselves a minimalist they’re not going to know the cultural connotations that this term will have 6 decades later.

    If you go to a sixty-year-old architectural installation expecting it to conform to our particular definition of minimalist… well, yup, you’re gonna be disappointed.

  30. posted by Marie on

    My husband hates window coverings of any kind, so he would love this. Thus, I’d love the “significant other” house, so I’d have a place to stuff him and be able to have curtains for some privacy and peace of mind.

  31. posted by Amy on

    The art history debate here is interesting, but we are on a blog about uncluttering and not art history. So in that vein, it is nice to see that it is probably unrealistic for someone to contain one’s life inside such a space without the convenient use of additional dedicated spaces for work & entertainment. It doesn’t quite matter what Johnson called himself, it is about what the structure has come to represent for most people.

    To a layman, it’s like seeing a celebrity with cellulite. Maybe the celebrity never denied having it, but the images we associate with that person don’t broadcast it either.

    Thanks for sharing!

  32. posted by geekgrrl on

    regardless of the definitions of minimalism, even ‘house’, and the facts about Johnson etc, as someone mentioned about his iconic status – this sort of thing gets waved in people’s faces on a regular basis (on the covers of glossy magazines and the like) as a kind of ideal for living the most elegant life. A bit like the also-mentioned Thoreau.

    Like so much else in our culture, the ideals held up before us are artificial and unattainable.

    Thanks for the laugh, I enjoyed this article very much!

  33. posted by AG on

    It sounds like you discovered that the Wizard is a fraud after all.

    {Clicking heels three times}

    “There’s no place like home.”
    “There’s no place like home.”
    “There’s no place like home.”

  34. posted by DJ on

    I agree with you, Erin.

    I once had a friend who lived in a mostly glass house. It was hideously uncomfortable to be in at night, because there were no drapes. I always felt that anyone or anything could be staring in.

    Once while visiting after dark I turned around and saw red glowing eyes staring at me through a window. It was her Doberman, with his nose pressed to the window. Freaky.

  35. posted by timgray on

    When I studied architecture in college we looked at that place and many of us students were not impressed because of the “trickery” that was used. Sorry, but it’s a cheat to house the mechanical equipment for the home in a different building. His Glass house is really nothing more than a glassed in patio that is separate from the house it is reliant on. It was built more as an ego thing and less of a innovation thing. Dont get me wrong, there were things that he in fact did nicely, butt he glass house is one that fails to impress anyone studying architecture.

    It’s like building a car that is amazing, but wont drive anywhere until you hook up the trailer that has the engine,brakes and other parts that makes a car work.

  36. posted by Hugh on

    Well, I have to agree, on the whole. I scored tickets very shortly after it opened and was pretty stoked for the experience. So I have been telling everyone for two years that the emperor has no curtains. My problems are these: much is made of the minimal style of living (by the tour guides), particularly that there was no ventilation installed, so on summer nights the doors were wide open, and turkeys and raccoons tended to wander in.

    But of course there were many other places to go. It is held up as this radical modern idea, which it was, when it was first built alone on that site. But our problem is that living in one space, or living with a minimal kitchen, or with lots of windows, is now so trite, since anybody and their brother could get a rehabbed loft over the last 20 years. Now you visit the space and it just seems dated. It looks radical in photos but seems ordinary in person. I shot some hi-def video that maybe I’ll post one day.

    What nobody ever dares say is that the brick guest house, by contrast having almost no windows, is so close as to completely ruin the effect of the minimal nature of the main house. The guest house has a library and in general a feeling of intense claustrophobia.

    And what about that bizarre fiberglass swimming pool, also far too close to the house and not adapted to the contours of the land?!

    Furthermore, a quick look around shows that the Glass House itself is poorly sited. The views are not nearly what they could be. And all the claims that it is miraculously hidden from the street are just plain not true (we were told this even as we watched cars drive by). Of course the traffic has increased dramatically over the years.

    What else? His studio was air-conditioned – hardly an escape to the wilderness. Then there is that hideous hexagonal(?) gallery space where they had their crazy parties, built like a bunker into the hillside. All that remains on its swinging 25′ interior walls (to allow exhibition of random canvasses at any time) are Stellas so ugly that nobody must have wanted them, so they languish in the cellar. Then there is the lower museum, which really is the only site that has dynamic light in it and feels like a place for people. Of course noone is allowed to walk around it.

    As far as the stolen-from-Gehry fantasy building at the top of the drive, yes, it was a late career etude in abstract form and color, and yes, the neighbors said no to having the vehicular traffic in and out of the driveway that would result from using it as a visitors center. However, it is a great relief because the high concentration of narrow reflective surfaces means that the acoustics are completely unmanageable. A speaking voice turns muddy a few feet away, which renders it useless as a place for people and you certainly couldn’t give a lecture there.

    I had fun, but wouldn’t recommend it to a friend. 2 stars.

  37. posted by lisah on

    that reminds me of a beautiful,sparsely (if not completely undecorated)house in Martha Stewart Living a decade ago. everything was hidden behind cupboards,all surfaces bare. As i looked at the pictures I was mentally beating myself up for the knickknacks i have on display, then I read that the homeowner has a second country house that she admitted was crammed with doodads that she had collected! must be nice to be able to afford to play minimalist when the mood strikes.

  38. posted by resisttheist on

    There is much incorrect information here regarding this house. I don’t think minimalism is a term that any self-respecting architect or architectural or art historian would use. It is a layman’s term for a certain aesthetic that seems to be hocked by magazines like Dwell, etc. No good architect (which Philip Johnson admittedly was not) would set out to design something “minimalistic.”

    Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were close friends and collaborated on many projects. It is true that Johnson had seen the plans for what Mies was doing for Edith Farnsworth, and, influenced though he certainly was, he by no means copied. Johnson too had been working on schemes since 1945. Of course the most obvious defining feature – being almost entirely glass – did take it’s cue from Mies’ design, but the houses are entirely conceptually different. As far as ‘Da Monsta’ is concerned, it is not a nod to close friend Frank Gehry (the Ghost House is) but, as Johnson explains, to friend and artist Frank Stella. Whether you believe this or not is another thing. Oddly, though Johnson definitely took up the movements of a generations’ current hottest architects, in my mind he never really copied anyone’s buildings. Not the way someone like Robert AM Stern builds an almost exact replica of an Edwin Lutyens building and calls it a source of influence.

    Philip Johnson did not define Modernism. He and Henry Russell Hitchcock did define the International Style. If you know anything about the International Style, you would quickly realize that this building does not fit the definition the two set forth in their book and exhibition. These are: a focus on volume rather than mass, asymmetrical regularity, and a disdain for applied decoration. The building misses entirely the second tenet; it’s actually quite a classical building when you get right down to it.

    The poster who said that Johnson used the property to test out design ideas is quite correct. This can be seen in the subsequent uses of similar materials, forms, and orders on other projects. For example, the lake pavilion which predates Lincoln Center uses the same type of arch system in its construction. We see it again on Johnson’s Beck House.

    Now, after criticizing these posts, I totally agree that the Glass House may not have been that easy to actually live in. It seems as though the other three houses were used with some frequency and seemed to offer a respite from living in something so, let’s say, intellectually demanding. Life in a glass house is clearly not all it’s cracked up to be. Johnson never claimed to be a minimalist, and if he did, I want to see it quoted somewhere. A little study will reveal that he was really a decadent character.

  39. posted by resisttheist on

    And I’ll add that the Glass House is a terribly good and important building, and certainly Johnson’s best work.

  40. posted by resisttheist on

    I feel compelled to address timgray too. As an architecture and architecture history student, I am impressed with the building, even after seeing it. The fact is that all architects use “trickery” in order to carry out their particular aesthetic vision. Frank Lloyd Wright – arguably the most important American architect ever – used trickery all the time. Because he was so hell bent on the horizontal line, vent pipes for bathrooms and kitchens – regardless of their proximity to a fireplace – were all run through the roof structure and out through the chimney so that the purity of the design would not be marred. Like your quibble about Johnson’s house, I’d call this rather nit-picky. It does little to diminish the quality of the work.

  41. posted by Italia on

    Philip Johnson was an eccentric, visionary architect and designer. I have no problems with him being a minimalist, clearly he was. I think your assessments defeats the purpose of what P.J. stood for in his personal life. As a man clearly devoted to his craft, I can see why he would build different buildings carrying his vision to compartmenalize his life. Part of the artistry of Philip Johnson I think.

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