November 30, 2006
More Reflections on the Glass House
Vincent Scully shares his memories of Philip Johnson and his iconic residence.
Vincent Scully, the legendary art and architecture historian, may have the longest relationship to the Glass House than anyone on the planet. As a graduate student in 1948, he visited during construction of the house, and then returned countless times over the next half century. When I interviewed Scully for our oral histories section of the Glass House feature, I immediately got a useable anecdote for the piece, but we kept talking about Johnson, the property, the social scene swirling around it, and the legacy of both architect and estate. The following is an edited version of our conversation:
In one of your writings you called the Glass House the longest ongoing salon in the history of the United States. What was it like there?
He ran what amounted to a kind of seminar on weekends and almost anybody could go anytime. And there was always talk about architecture. He was very close to Yale—he gave a lot of talks there—and he had a lot of Yale people out there. I also saw Kahn and Schindler and all those people. It was fascinating. The thing I remember is that you could always go there, and it was a place of intelligence. He’d give you a good drink too.
That’s what everybody says.
Oh, yes—enormous drinks—big square cut glasses. And of course, it was fascinating to watch it [the estate] change over the years. Originally, it was—though beautifully austere—rather suburban. You had the Glass House, a lawn and a walk, and across from it, the Brick House, where he could escape. Then there was a Lipschitz statue on the lawn and a circular swimming pool.
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That was its first phase, the early years?
Yes, then in the fifties, he built his pavilion, his little folly down in the pond, way down below. And I remember how stern the critics were with him. They called him decadent, because he made it too small to stand up in. On purpose! And he answered them beautifully saying: “I consciously tried to leave modernism’s tradition of functionalism and turned to the much nobler and older tradition of landscape architecture.” It was a folly to make the landscape look bigger. And as time went on, he cut more and more, and all that suburban quality left. He seemed to get back to the bare bones of Connecticut. And you felt old Connecticut when it was hardscrabble farms. We kept trying to defend the trees. We wanted Johnson to stop cutting the trees, but he was opening it up and getting down to the bones. You have to remember that all the Connecticut woods are second growth. In the nineteenth century it was all farms. Then everybody moved west, stopped farming, and the trees grew back. So in a curious way, he was cutting back beyond the suburb, below the suburb. It may be the greatest monument to the Connecticut landscape that we have. In the end it was really a kind of tragic and noble place. A little bit like a great cemetery—especially with that entrance, which always seemed somehow funereal to me.
You have an amazing relationship to that property, in that you saw every phase throughout its 50-year run. What was that evolution like?
After Mies, the Hadrian villa was really the great influence on him. I remember he went to the villa in the summer of 1952, because my wife and I met him in Venice by chance, and I told him he had to go. I was able to say that because I had just spent a year in the American Academy in Rome with Frank Brown, the great archeologist. He was showing architects and classicists and historians that Roman architecture wasn’t just the dingy affair of engineering, which so many critics had always thought it was. But it was actually the poetry of calms and light and water folding. Johnson went there and began adapting forms from the villa right away. That was his Roman phase, which started about 1953. In ’54 Johnson started doing the Port Chester synagogue. At the Glass House his art gallery looks like the tomb of Agamemnon at Mycenae. He started so Miesian and abstract, but then he goes back and burrows down into the earth, with a kind of Main Street that angles back in upon itself, going down into the earth, into the sculpture gallery. And then way over on the other end he puts his monuments—the library, which looks like Rossi; his Russian Constructivist stuff, the monument to Lincoln Kirstein; and his ghostly building in fence swathed mesh, like Gehry. And then finally Da Monsta, which of course is very beautiful, but he’s also trying to be like Gehry.
Is your favorite building still the Glass House?
Oh, yes, but it’s really the whole complex now. I think the Glass House is one of the most important buildings of the twentieth century, because one of the tenacious objectives of Modernism was the freedom of the individual from everything—not always a good idea—but the freedom of the individual from community. Johnson really does liberate the individual from everything. There’s nothing there. The Farnsworth House has the steps, and the porch—it has memories of other architectures, and can be read as a frame. But this one is read as a volume of glass and nothing. Look at it very closely: the details disappear in a funny way.
What is his legacy as an architect and social presence?
He was a kind of power broker. And in some way, I think, that’s less attractive, just as to me the least attractive period of his work was when he was doing the high rises with John Burgee. He’s pretending at that time to be the tough architect, the hard guy. Of course, Burgee was doing all the interior work for him. He pretended to be that tough guy, which he never was. Philip cared about nothing but the aesthetic experience. He didn’t care about community. And you know how easily he would cry about art but rarely about anything else? He was also supportive of the young. That was part of his existentialism. He really believed in a Nietzschean way that—not only did he have to key into the century’s will to power—but he had to embrace change. And since the young embody change more obviously that your own generation, he always put his trust in the young, and followed them to the end. It’s perfect that it’s going to the National Trust. Perfect. Because people will visit those grounds and weave their own myths around it. And misread it, according to their own needs, and it will grow, and his spirit will always haunt the place.