I had the good fortune of spending Tuesday evening touring Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. The tour was a part of an ongoing series called "Conversations in Context", which invites leaders in the creative field to come to the Glass House and host a tour and conversation about the house's historical significance and its relevance in Art & Architecture today. The stars of Tuesday's conversation were Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and Canadian author/artist Douglas Coupland.
While walking the grounds, Bjarke and Douglas provided many interesting insights into Johnson's buildings and what they found to be the lasting significance of his estate. Bjarke, paraphrasing from his own book Yes is More , pointed out that what he found so interesting about Philip Johnson was that he approached Architecture much like a curator (which, of course, Johnson also was for the MoMA) and that while he wasn't necessarily interested in always doing something totally new, he did have an incredible talent for spotting what may be the next big thing and adopting it into his repertoire. As Bjarke made this observation we looked out over Philip Johnson's study (with obvious influence from le Corbusier), his "Ghost House" made of chain link as an ode to Frank Gehry and, of course, the Glass House influenced by Mies van der Rohe. The point was not that Philip Johnson stole all of these ideas from his contemporaries but rather that he was lighting-fast to recognize what they were doing and to join the movement. Johnson was a collector of many things, as evidenced by his remarkable painting and sculpture galleries, but perhaps his greatest collection was of Architectural whimsy.
The Glass House itself was a magnificent singular act completely about nature. It was a statement about a house and about living and it was sited on the edge of a ravine in the woods. Most architects today practice in urban or semi-urban situations and rarely have the opportunity to design on such a site where only nature is the context. Architects are almost always drawing from context (often of an urban nature) when designing. Interestingly, people tend to think of Johnson's 14 acts of Architecture on his New Canaan estate as "follies" in that landscape; Bjarke Ingels referred to them as each being the realization of one pure idea about Architecture. While I agree that each folly can be read as one pure Architectural idea I could not help but think about sitting down to design any building within the context of the Glass House. Clearly, the Glass House had to have been the driving contextual reference for each new building (even more so, perhaps, than the magnificent landscape they sit in); with each new building, new context and a new type of quasi-urban condition was being established.
Aside from the Glass House, many of Johnson's other buildings on site seem to be a bit overdone, but I guess that is to be expected of an eccentric, millionaire-architect who has 49 acres to play with. The tour, itself, was an incredible event. As a young-and-hopefully-up-and-coming Architect myself it was a real treat to get to meet and speak with Bjarke Ingels, who at 38 is really on top of the profession right now. I did not know much about Douglas Coupland prior to the tour, but I will certainly be giving a few of his books a read after listening to him. The tour guides and staff of the Glass House were very knowledgeable and personable; the group was small and the admission was reasonably priced (all things considered). I will definitely be keeping an eye on the future Conversations in Context hosts and hopefully making more trips up.