Conversations in Context, the ongoing series of Philip Johnson Glass House tours led by critics and theorists from the architecture world, could not be more precisely named. In a rare night tour last week, historian Barry Bergdoll (MoMA's Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design) led the season’s final conversation on the property, emphasizing the architecture as result of conversation with other disciplines, with history, with the site, and of course, with the work of other architects.
Architects tend to present their work as isolated from context, contemporaries, and history. In contrast, Johnson described his work as unapologetically derivative. Borrowing both specific gestural elements and broader conceptual ideas from myriad projects, he pioneered the consolidation of diverse and contradictory sources, arriving at a richer, more complex and sometimes even humorous architecture. His acute self-awareness, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of design history, embed Johnson’s work with layer after layer of references, jokes, and commentary.
Approaching the house last Thursday evening, guests were introduced to the ongoing experiment that is the Glass House property: the agonizing approach, set precisely at eye-height; the Harvard Yard-like landscape linking the volume of the Glass House to the mass of the Brick House; and the famous anecdote about Johnson adding exterior lighting to the House, sick of looking at his own reflection.
Inside, Bergdoll pointed out the rigidity of Johnson’s open plan. Despite the lack of wall partitions, pre-determined and immovable furniture arrangements delineate the space, disallowing any objections from future inhabitants.
After leading the group through the Glass House, sculpture gallery, and art gallery, Bergdoll distributed a series of Johnson’s early sketches for the Glass House and let the interpretations begin. The conversation ranged from a comparison with the nearby Marcel Breuer house, to the similarity between Friedrich Ludwig Persius’ landscapes and the Glass House plan. Bergdoll himself supplemented the discussion with details - for example, the material and form of the house were not predetermined, as one might suspect.
What do you see in Johnson’s sketches? More importantly, what do you see in the House? If you haven’t been, you can arrange to see the Glass House, and several other buildings and follies, here.