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A Tale of Two House

Philip Johnson's Glass House is often cited as his best building. While it was completed before Mies van der Rohe's house for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, it is generally considered derivative of that project, even though the all-glass house was hardly invented by Mies.

A Tale of Two House

Philip Johnson's Glass House is often cited as his best building. While it was completed before Mies van der Rohe's house for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, it is generally considered derivative of that project, even though the all-glass house was hardly invented by Mies.

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With the death of Philip Johnson at 98, America has lost one of its most prominent architects. In Johnson's New York Times obituary Paul Goldberger wrote, “Mr. Johnson was known less for his individual buildings than for the sheer force of his presence on the architectural scene.” Goldberger suggests, as did Johnson himself, that neither the architect's individual buildings nor the mercurial array of designs characterizing his career are of lasting significance. While Johnson has been praised as a champion of theoretical ideas in architecture, most critics have dismissed even his best buildings as intellectually lightweight and stylistically derivative.

Johnson's Glass House (1949) is often cited as his best building. While it was completed before Mies van der Rohe's house for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, it is generally considered derivative of that project, even though the all-glass house was hardly invented by Mies. The Glass House, however, is more than just a knowing copy of Mies' work. The Glass House and the Farnsworth House are diametrically opposite as spatial conceptions, and they represent completely differing ideas about their relationship to the landscape. That Johnson was aware of the elemental nature of his design is suggested by his early plans for the Glass House and its relationship to the guest-house on the property. I suggest that in this project he did indeed create an architecture of ideas and that the building is undeserving of the many critical descriptions relegating it to a secondary position in 20th-century architectural history.

opposing views

In an article he wrote for The Architectural Review published in September 1950, Johnson catalogs his precedents for the Glass House. These include the work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (classical pavilions); the Acropolis in Athens (classical pavilions with a site plan informed by the landscape); the planning of Le Corbusier (abstractly derived from the Acropolis); and Mies' design for the Farnsworth House. Johnson also cites a De Stijl composition of rectangles by the Dutch architect Theo van Doesburg. In his introduction to Philip Johnson: The Glass House (Pantheon Books, 1993), Jeffrey Kipnis suggests that Johnson's essay has “shaped the scholarly treatment of the Glass House.” Kipnis demonstrates this when he writes: “The genius of the Glass House obtains from the fact that, although it derives its style from Modernism, the discrete ordered space it engenders belongs more to classical architecture. There is little disagreement among the critics on this point.”

I would argue the opposite: that Johnson's Glass House is totally Modern in its use of International Style ideas about continuous space, the relationship of objects (enclosed cores, bathroom, fireplace, kitchen, etc.) to surrounding space, and the relationship of interior to exterior, whereas the Farnsworth House is classical in the disposition of its symmetrical bathroom and kitchen core and in its treatment of the relationship of interior space to the exterior landscape.

The Glass House has its brick-paved floor set barely above the adjacent lawn. The visual effect is that of the horizontal extension of interior space out into the landscape (even with the columns defining the corners of the interior volume). The exterior steel is painted black, making it recessive with respect to the dark verdant colors of its surroundings and suggesting a diametrically opposite relationship to the landscape than at the Farnsworth House. The travertine-paved floor of the latter is raised up above the landscape because of the flood plane of the Fox River. This removes the foreground from view and treats the landscape as a panoramic vista rather than a visual extension of the interior space. As a panorama, the landscape resembles the photo collage in Mies' famous interior perspective of the Resor House. Where Mies' disposition of interior elements implies a static or classicized subdivision of interior space, Johnson's “free plan” and De Stijl–like composition of linear freestanding cabinets and cylindrical brick core create a Modernist continuity of space around these elements.

Lastly is the difference between Mies' and Johnson's treatments of supporting columns. The Glass House's columns are in the plane of the glass wall but project inward, placing them directly under the house's fascia. At the Farnsworth House the columns sit outside the glass wall with the fascia welded to the flange of their “I” profile. Johnson's design suppresses the visual importance of the columns, while Mies' accentuates it, making his pavilion temple-like. Mies disliked the Glass House and is said to have told Johnson that he got the design wrong. This further suggests that beyond the initial premise of making an all-glass house, the Glass House as an original work owes less to Mies than Johnson's critics have understood or acknowledged.

being there

For anyone who has visited both houses, the experience further suggests how little the one is indebted to the other. They are fundamentally different in terms of their sensibilities. The Farnsworth house is Zen-like in its sense of balance and serenity. One has the impression, as with a Greek temple, of being in the presence of a perfect object. Unlike the Barcelona Pavilion, with its directional Modernist space and unaligned column and paving grids, at the Farnsworth House the column centers align with the grid of the travertine floor, classicizing the design. Lest we miss the idealized nature of the house, the steel columns and beams are painted white. According to the late Myron Goldsmith, who worked on the house, Mies is said to have never used slotted screws on a project again when he realized the screw heads on the glazing stops could not be aligned, spoiling the perfection of his design.

At the detail level, Johnson's house, by contrast, is about tactile experience—not abstract perfection. The dark brown herringbone brick floor, which is waxed to a rich luster, has a warm sensual quality to it, suggesting languid luxury. The fireplace-bathroom core is also built of brick, but it is the inside of the bathroom that confirms the house's tactility. In the bathroom the curved walls are covered (except for the shower) by individual tan-colored leather tiles with beveled edges, cut to the size of bricks and applied in a running bond like the bricks on the bathroom core's exterior. Plumbing fittings are finished in polished brass. At the Farnsworth House the two bathrooms, in cool contrast, have pristine travertine floors and walls and chrome plumbing fittings.

conceptual level

Johnson's early development sketches imply a primary intellectual idea consistent with an understanding of the iconic nature of the design. This idea has nothing to do with the minimalist premise of Mies' glass house designs. From early in 1947 the Glass House was conceived as part of a composition that included a guesthouse. Johnson's citation of the Acropolis as a precedent suggests an interpretation that Johnson would have owed to Le Corbusier. That is, the interpretation of the Acropolis as an archetypal composition of primary building types: the Parthenon, a trabeated temple (columns and beams), and the Erechtheum, a building composed of walls. For Le Corbusier these building types became his Maison-Domino (columns and floor slabs) and his Maison Citrohan (parallel bearing walls), which Vincent Scully called a Megaron volume. Le Corbusier's designs for building complexes that he called Acropolitan incorporated both of these primary structural/spatial building types.