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Here, serenity under glass

A public window opens onto the very private world of Philip Johnson as the architect's renowned retreat is unveiled to tourists.

June 03, 2007|David Ng | Special to The Times

New Canaan, Conn. — THERE'S a story about Philip Johnson that his friends like to tell. The celebrated architect was entertaining at his Glass House estate in this bucolic suburban town. At one point, a female guest, obviously impressed with her surroundings, said, "Mr. Johnson, I would live here if you'd ask me to." The architect turned to her and coolly replied, "Madam, I didn't ask you."

For Johnson, this 47-acre residence was more than just his home; it was a pastoral retreat filled with buildings he designed, including the transparent house that gives the property its name. And Johnson had another, more personal reason to keep guests at arm's length: The estate was where he lived with David Whitney, whom he met in 1960.

Often relegated to a supporting role in accounts of Johnson's career, Whitney remains an enigmatic figure to this day. Intensely private, he shunned the media. Friends say the house was the couple's Eden, a place where they could live away from judgment and scrutiny. Most of the estate is concealed from the main road; you could drive by and miss it completely.

Beginning June 23, the Glass House will open its grounds to the public for the first time. Guided tours will take visitors to the 11 structures designed by Johnson that stand sentinel amid the thick grass and rolling hills. (The tours are mostly booked through October.) Together, these buildings form a hitherto unseen portrait of Johnson, and of Whitney. In many ways, the Glass House campus was their shared labor of love.

"Most of what was done there they did together. David would talk to Philip about architecture and they would debate the placement of things," says Hilary Lewis, an architecture historian and the coauthor of two books on Johnson. "Philip often said David had a terrific eye. It was his highest compliment."

Their life together is a subject of fascination among academics, some of whom argue Johnson's architecture became more "gay" as a result of this relationship. Of all his work, they say, the Glass House estate epitomizes Johnson's gay sensibility.

(Johnson died in 2005 at age 98, leaving the entire property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Whitney died of cancer five months later, at 66.)

The highlight of the tour is the actual Glass House (1949), a 1,728-square-foot, see-through modernist masterpiece constructed of glass and steel framing. Inspired by Mies van der Rohe, it served as Johnson's living quarters for most of his adult life.

Whitney met Johnson after the house's completion, but his influence is visible on the other buildings. One area of intense collaboration between the couple was color. "They would stand outside testing different color panels," recalls Lewis. "It was something they both cared about deeply."

For the Library-Study (1980), a tea kettle-shaped, one-room masonry building that stands on a pathless stretch of land, the couple chose a bright white for the stucco exterior and red for the door, only to change the exterior several years later to a butterscotch brown. For the Lincoln Kirstein Tower (1985), a 30-foot tall, Lego-like concrete sculpture standing at the extreme end of the property, the couple chose a paint that looks yellowish-green in the winter and bright white in the spring.

Landscaping was an even bigger obsession. Johnson famously called himself a landscape architect. "To me, it's one art," he once said. Friends recall the couple spending hours on their back veranda discussing which trees to cut to bring more light into the forest.

"It was all about framing a piece of nature for them," says Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "The Glass House acted as the frame and the land was the canvas."

For Whitney, gardening became a primary vocation and was his main form of employment aside from art collecting. He planted peonies and succulent plants, sometimes in alphabetical order. Over one of the gardens, Johnson erected the Ghost House (1984), a faux barn constructed from chain-link fencing in hommage to Frank Gehry, a close friend. The structure is mostly decorative, but it had the added benefit of keeping deer away from the flowers.

The National Trust says it intends to preserve the couple's manicured vision of nature; it has even hired someone to maintain the color balance of Whitney's gardens. "It's a difficult job," admits Christy MacLear, executive director of the Philip Johnson Glass House. "The intent is to keep the estate in good condition while honoring their life together."

A public alter ego

OUTSIDE of the Glass House, Johnson cultivated a gregarious persona. He courted the press and championed fellow architects. Seldom without his thick-framed ebony glasses, supposedly inspired by Le Corbusier, he installed himself as the avuncular dean of the architectural elite.

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