015 – Glass House: A Warped Mirror

We explore the life and legacy of Philip Johnson through his iconic Glass House. Delving into Johnson’s multifaceted career, we reflect on Johnson’s profound impact on modern architecture, his controversial political past, and how these facets interplay with his architectural legacy. This episode navigates the complexities of his contributions within the context of his support of fascists, anti-semites, and the Nazi Party. Highlighting the Glass House’s design and significance, we reflect on how to view Johnson’s work in the context of his personal history, emphasizing the importance of learning from the past to inform our understanding of architecture and history.



Farnsworth House vs Glass House

Show notes & links


Guest Bio

Gwen North Reiss is an educator, poet and writer located in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Johnson Study Group is a pseudonymous group of researchers and educators.

Nora Wendl is an associate professor of architecture at University of New Mexico and executive editor of the Journal of Architectural Education. Wendl’s work engages architectural historiography through methods involving image, text, narrative, performance, and exhibition. Her research has been supported by the Graham Foundation, Santa Fe Art Institute, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, among other institutions. Wendl has published, lectured, and exhibited widely. Her book manuscript, “The Edith Project,” was recently shortlisted for the 2022 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.



Episode Summary

  1. Philip Johnson’s Glass House stands as a testament to his pioneering spirit in minimalist architecture, challenging traditional concepts of space, structure, and environment.
  2. Johnson’s privileged background and education provided him with unique opportunities to influence and shape the architectural landscape through both his wealth and connections.
  3. His tenure at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was transformative, not just for his career but also for the museum’s architectural exhibitions, significantly impacting the direction of modern architecture.
  4. Constructed in 1949, the Glass House epitomizes the ideals of modernist architecture with its simplicity, transparency, and integration with nature, serving as a living manifesto of Johnson’s architectural beliefs.
  5. Johnson’s engagement with fascist politics during the 1930s and 1940s has been a subject of much debate, complicating assessments of his legacy within the broader context of architectural history.
  6. Despite the shadows cast by his earlier political affiliations, Johnson’s career witnessed a remarkable resurgence, affirming his status as a central figure in 20th-century architecture.
  7. This episode delves into the nuanced process of reconciling Johnson’s architectural achievements with his contentious political history, offering listeners a multifaceted understanding of his impact on the field.
  8. Highlighting the importance of acknowledging and learning from the complexities of historical figures like Johnson, the narrative encourages a critical examination of how we memorialize and evaluate the contributions of influential architects.
  9. The Glass House, both a literal and figurative reflection of Johnson’s life, encapsulates the duality of transparency and introspection, mirroring the architect’s personal and professional evolution.
  10. Through a detailed exploration of Johnson’s life, works, and the enduring significance of the Glass House, the episode underscores the critical need to engage with the architectural past in a manner that is informed, nuanced, and reflective.

Listen to companion episode

Farnsworth House, Telling the whole story

If you haven’t listened to the first part – Farnsworth House, Telling the whole story – that’s ok.

This episode unravels the complex story behind the creation of this architectural masterpiece, from Mies’s dramatic departure from Nazi Germany, leaving behind his family, to the protracted design and construction process that eventually led to a notorious lawsuit and rumors of a romantic entanglement with Dr. Farnsworth—rumors that bear no resemblance to the truth.

Join us as we speak with Scott Mehaffey, the Executive Director at the Dr. Edith Farnsworth House National Historic Site, and Nora Wendl, an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of New Mexico, for an in-depth discussion on the house that not only stands as a testament to Mies van der Rohe’s architectural genius but also inspired Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the subject of our next episode. Get ready for a compelling journey into the past, marked by innovation, scandal, and the timeless allure of midcentury modern design.

Farnsworth House vs Glass House

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Aerial footage of the Glass House from The Glass House on Vimeo.

Aerial footage of the Glass House, built between 1949 and 1995 by architect Philip Johnson. The Glass House is a National Trust Historic Site located in New Canaan, Connecticut. The pastoral 49-acre landscape comprises fourteen structures, including the Glass House (1949), and features a permanent collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture, along with temporary exhibitions.

Aerial footage by Derrick Belcham.


Brick House

Details

“Here’s the thing, what’s good about discussing the truth about these historic sites and the people who built them or owned them is, fascism is on the horizon again. it’s there. And so it’s very valuable to look at these things and see where things went wrong.”
– Gwen North Reese, Glass House Educator


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Episode Transcript


Johnson Study Group: The relationship between the violence the organizing the propaganda the speech writing the financing the traveling it’s all very tied to very organized violence

Gwen North Reiss: later life, aside from saying it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,

You know, I have to give him a lot of credit for saying, how do you expiate guilt? You know, that’s, that’s a good apology.

You know, he, he knew, he knew his guilt, and he basically had to turn his life around, and that’s what led him back to Harvard Graduate School, to just learn how to be an architect. He had sort of stumbled by wanting to be influential.

JWP: Welcome to Journey with Purpose. This is episode 15. Today we’re going to wrestle with two separate and interconnected things. A complicated man who made some very poor choices and an artifact [00:01:00] he created which has global impact. Today we’re speaking about Philip Johnson and his glass house.

Now, Philip Johnson is a complicated figure. By all accounts, he was a brilliant social gadfly. He was incredibly rich, and by his own admission, through his writings during the interwar years, he supported fascist and antisemitic causes. And many parts of the U. S. government were afraid that he was a secret Nazi agent.

Now, we aren’t going to go through all the ins and outs. The background on this. Mark Lamster has an amazing book. It’s called The Man in the Glass House, which goes deeper into this, I think this is a fascinating subject because we have to square the circle of this brilliant man who, for 10 years, organized, funded, financially supported, and palled around with American fascists, anti-semites, [00:02:00] and with Nazis.

What I find encouraging is that the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which both owns and operates the Glass House. And the Edith Farnsworth house, which we talked about in the last episode. They don’t hide the complicated history of either building. And in the glass house itself, they openly talk and wrestle with Philip Johnson’s past,

And in fact, they use this history to teach and to guard against the rise of contemporary fascism and antisemitism in America.

so we have a little bit of a dual mandate today. to begin with, we’re going to speak with Gwen North Reese about both the house and Philip Johnson. Hey Gwen, thanks for coming on the pod. Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about Philip Johnson?

Intro to Johnson

Gwen North Reiss: my name is Gwen Northreece and I am speaking to you from New Canaan, Connecticut, where I work at the Glass House part time as a educator.

Gwen North Reiss: it was 1906 that he was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He [00:03:00] majored, in philosophy and the classics at Harvard. He came from a family that was sort of middle class well to do, but not super wealthy. But his father was an attorney who did a lot of startup work for companies, which in those days, basically involved getting patents.

And, Homer and Louise Johnson decided to give their children Philip and two sisters in inheritance when they were late teens and about 20 so they could use it for their educations or for travel. And they gave the girls cash and real estate which seemed very safe and they, decided that Philip could just spend for himself. And so he got some stock certificates from his father that his father had been given just as payment.

Gwen North Reiss: Those stock certificates were from a company we now know as Alcoa. the patent had been for the modern manufacturing process for aluminum from bauxite ore, which hadn’t been done before. So he suddenly within a short time was a millionaire and this was in the 20s when a million dollars was, [00:04:00] a enormous wealth. his father was even shocked that by the time he was an undergraduate at Harvard, he had that wealth.

JWP: So it was this wealth that catapulted him into an upper echelon because he was then able to attend Harvard and really bankroll his own position at the Museum of Modern Art. Can you speak a little bit about this, please?

Gwen North Reiss: When he finished his bachelor’s degree, he went to MoMA and he said, if you will let me be, the, architecture curator, I will pay my own salary and I’ll pay my assistant’s salary. So That’s how he got, he got started. And it was the first architecture department at any major museum.

MoMA did it first. so he immediately got working on several things and his famous exhibition, the 1932 International Style Show, introduced European modernists to the American art scene. And of course there were American modernists involved in it too. And, and [00:05:00] Frank Lloyd Wright for sure was part of that show.

He just went through so many hoops to make that happen with all the personalities involved and all the work involved. And that became. such an important landmark, in the architecture world, in the art world.

Fascism

JWP: during his time as curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, he put on some amazing shows that had deep impact in both the art and architecture worlds. One of the shows was in 1932 It was called international style modern architecture since 1922 It introduced us to designers such as Mies van der Rohe to Gropius, to Le Corbusier, and really started to create this pantheon of mid century modern designers, who are frankly really only male architects.

Which we haven’t been able to shake to today, but then things went sideways. Gwen, can you tell us a little bit about what happened in 1932 1934?

Gwen North Reiss: And then a few years [00:06:00] later, , he was at MoMA for a while. By 1934, he had a sort of disastrous digression into politics. He was back and forth to Germany during the time when he was, getting to know a lot of the Bauhaus architects. And as a young gay man, he probably fell in love with the freedoms in Berlin.

He was taken in by his own admission, by the spectacle of the rabid nationalism of the Nazi party. And he ended up promoting fascist politics in the us , by becoming a correspondent for Father Cochran’s Magazine, social Justice. And Father Cochlan was just an rabidly antisemitic priest, who was promoting fascism. his friend and mentor at MoMA, Alfred Barr, argued vehemently with him, always reminding him that the Nazis were a threat to artists and art.

So this was, a disaster.

More than a disaster

JWP: Well, when you look in this history, you can really see that this is a little bit more than just a disaster. I [00:07:00] think it’s really important to remember in 1932 when Johnson left MoMA, he was cavorting with funding and supporting homegrown fascists like Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and he was starting his own version of the brown shirts, the gray shirts.

He was 26 years old, he was independently wealthy, he graduated from Harvard, he was well connected, he started the first architecture program at a major museum, curated some of the most important pre war architectural exhibits ever, he wasn’t a kid. This wasn’t some wayward lost weekend, he was an adult making adult choices.

To that end, I wanted to dig deeper into what some other views of Philip Johnson were. I spoke with members of the Johnson Study Group, a multidisciplinary group of people who are urging us to rethink Philip Johnson, his work, and the organizations that both he supported and supported him. Welcome to the pod, please introduce yourself.

Johnson Study Group: Hello. I’m one of the co founders of the Johnson study group. if [00:08:00] nothing else, I think the Johnson Study Group, wants to invite folks in the U. S. especially to consider the ways that the built environment, and architecture might be complicit in some of the most extreme forms of violence in the last century, and that there’s work that we need to do to make sure that that’s not the case in this one.

JWP: So I’d really like to understand your group’s point of view on Philip Johnson, since, again, I’m having a really hard time squaring contemporaneous accounts of his writing and his choices that, frankly, seem pretty antisemitic. And the actions he undertook and participated in with some of the artifacts he later created. can you tell us how your group can help us contextualize that or how we should think about that

Johnson Study Group: if hitler had lived we wouldn’t have cared about his paintings if he had gone back to them. I think there’s , so much deference to this figure which it indicates how much deference we have to wealth.

The relationship between the [00:09:00] violence the organizing the propaganda the speech writing the financing the traveling it’s all very tied to very organized violence, but When folks are pointing this out in the fbi file in a contemporaneous way the fbi Continuously reviews its own, documents and then says well he comes from this wealthy family in ohio So it must all be fine. And effectively it gives a sense of like the kind of default way that we acknowledge or don’t acknowledge violence in this country.

There’s a sense that if someone is polite and well educated and wealthy, then whatever they’re organized, whatever they’re doing and discussing and paying for and organizing, however, they’re tied to that violence has to be somehow subsumed, so this discussion about like him as a man or what to think of him to me is Already a kind of a symptom it’s similar to the the fbi’s failure.

JWP: Okay, I think we have to stop here for a second. Now, [00:10:00] the inflammatory question Is, was Philip Johnson a Nazi? So Johnson’s writing during this period we’re talking about really focused and promoted anti semitic pro german political stances. Philip Johnson was a columnist for Father Coughlin’s Social Justice. It was a notoriously anti semitic newspaper that reprinted Nazi speeches essentially unchanged under Coughlin’s name, As well as republish the protocols of the elders of Zion and defended the Nazis after Kristallnacht in a social justice article published in July of 1939, Philip Johnson writes, quote, the lack of leadership and direction in the French state has let one group get control, who always gained power in a nation’s time of weakness, the Jews. end quote This isn’t the only example of it. There’s. A set of really horrible racial suicide tropes that he wrote [00:11:00] about in 1932. And it’s pretty easy to connect what the Nazis were saying, what Johnson was writing about, what Father Coughlin was writing about, what fascists were writing about. At that time, and really draw a line to what, say, the Proud Boys and the really far right neo fascists are saying today.

in the end, we’ll really never know the answer of how deep Philip Johnson stepped into the abyss. Man is no longer here. But it’s clear from both FBI file and by research that he supported both anti Semitic causes And was a supporter of, even if indirectly, Nazi causes.

He made multiple trips to Germany, starting in the 1930s, and was a guest in the Nazi regime from 1937 onwards. And he was meeting with Nazi officials well into September of 1940.

And I’d like to really remind people of the timeline here. The Nazis carried [00:12:00] out Kristallnacht in 1938. Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939.

And Johnson was a guest of the regime to see part of this invasion. Then the Nazis invaded Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France in 1940. He was still meeting with them around this time. Now eventually, Philip Johnson realized that backing the Nazi regime was really backing the wrong horse. We don’t know how he came to that conclusion and Mark Lamster’s book can only theorize why. I don’t know if he had a Saul to Paul revelation and he atoned for it. I don’t know if he was just seeing the winds of change blow and decided to back a winning horse. By all accounts, throughout the rest of his life, he was a bit of a leaf on the wind. Flowing from this way to that way.

But again, we don’t know. We can only look back at what other people heard, and said, and look at his writings, and look at his actions. We can [00:13:00] look at his FBI file, which is 150 some odd pages long. We can analyze his historical record. Again, here’s Gwen North Reis on Philip Johnson.

After

Gwen North Reiss: By the time he understood the truth of his situation, he, he just had to start his life all over again, he turned back to architecture, which was his great love. he went back to school to learn how to become an architect.

Drafted

Gwen North Reiss: He was actually drafted into the army in 1943 when he was finishing his graduate school degree, because obviously the war was still on. , he was drafted in 1943 and because of this record and because of the FBI files, he was not allowed to be an officer .

His close friend, Landis Glorius, who’s one of the New Canaan architects, was fluent in German. And Landis went to Bletchley Park and was one of the group that helped, break the Nazi, code during World War II. So his close friends and colleagues were doing all of these things, but they did not allow him to be an officer or even [00:14:00] an interrogator. He was basically doing cleaning and training routines and, he was prevented from, from having anything to do with, the army in a, in an upper echelon

After the war

JWP: So in the end, the FBI could never charge him with any material supporting the Nazi regime. And it’s kind of beside the point. Mark Lamster’s biography really details Johnson’s constant support of the Nazis, and a growing awareness By the US government about Johnson and his support and their fear that he was a covert Nazi agent There’s even a memo from J Edgar Hoover asking field agents about who this Johnson guy was

Key parts of the US government were looking into this matter and focused on him and his activities Now I asked the Johnson study group about this and how they would like us to think about Johnson and his work and his impact And they had this statement

Johnson Study Group: Johnson’s commitment to white supremacy white supremacy not power white supremacy Was significant and consequential he [00:15:00] used his curatorial work as a pretense to collaborate with the german nazi party Including personally translating propaganda, disseminating Nazi publications, and forming an affiliated fascist party in Louisiana.

He effectively segregated the architectural collection at MoMA, where under his leadership from 1933 through 1988, not a single work by any black architect or designer was included in the collection. He not only acquiesced in, but added to the persistent practice of racism in the field of architecture, a legacy that continues to do harm today.

JWP: Now we reach out to the Museum of Modern Art through both back channels and official channels. We haven’t received anything back for them for this podcast. That’s okay. We’re a tiny fish. Now publicly in the end of 2020 and around 2021, they through popular press had intimated that they were going to reassess Philip Johnson and his place in the museum.

So far, I haven’t seen anything that’s come from it and come out publicly. It doesn’t really surprise me. The man [00:16:00] literally created. a curatorial wing of MoMA. He was so intertwined through both the curatorial end of MoMA, but also the man who was a trustee. He was friends with the Rockefellers. So it’s going to take time.

I’m going to assume good. And I’m going to hope that MoMA can use this moment as really a teaching opportunity so that we can understand these amazing artifacts. And square it with someone who made some really bad choices.

Now you might remember from the last episode about the Edith Farnsworth house. We spoke with architectural historian, Nora Wendell, about how we should think about history and people and the artifacts and specifically around Philip Johnson. And how should we tell that story Hey Nora, thanks for coming back on the pod. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

How to think about Johnson

Nora Wendl: My name is Nora Wendl. I am an associate professor of architecture at the University of New Mexico, the executive editor of the Journal of Architectural Education.

JWP: when we last spoke about the Edith Farnsworth House, I was really [00:17:00] inspired by your request that people can handle the complexity of the whole story. In this case, in the Glass House and Philip Johnson’s actions in the 1930s and early 1940s. Seems a little bit more serious.

How would you guide us in dealing with Philip Johnson and his legacy?

Nora Wendl: I think you tell it all. I think you, you make it all visible. You make it all apparent. I think that’s the only way I think you have to tell the entire story and maybe tell it from multiple perspectives,

It’s so important that we know everything we know about Philip Johnson right now. And I’m sure we don’t know it all yet. There will be more to be known. And it’s so important that it’s all coming to light. I think it’s so important that it’s being written about. I think, I think the public can handle that. I think the public actually really wants to know the entire story. , There are so many problematic histories of architecture that if, if you don’t tell the whole story, then you’re really just telling propaganda. And I think the [00:18:00] tide has really turned against that. Nobody really has time for propaganda anymore. It doesn’t educate. It doesn’t serve anybody. So the more complete the history is the better.

Atonement

JWP: And so what do we do here? what sort of atonement apologies are we owed or that Philip Johnson gave? Michael Sorkin, an amazing architectural critic and educator, wrote in 1988 that, quote, there’s never been an apology from Johnson, not publicly at any rate, however, apology or no, he has been forgiven, end quote. I don’t know if he’s been forgiven. I know in the last couple of years, there have been a great reassessment of Philip Johnson and his decisions. So I’d like to give Gwen North Reese of the glass house more space to help us understand what Johnson did after the war.

Gwen North Reiss: He went to the Anti Defamation League in New York and formally apologized. and [00:19:00] then in the, Years after that, in the fifties, he designed a synagogue for the Kinesis Tiferith congregation in Port Chester. He also designed a nuclear reactor, , for Israel. And, what he said about this, Very soon after, and again in later life, aside from saying it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,

You know, I have to give him a lot of credit for saying, how do you expiate guilt? You know, that’s, that’s a good apology.

You know, he, he knew, he knew his guilt, and he basically had to change, turn his life around, and that’s what led him back to, to Harvard Graduate School, to just learn how to be an architect. He had sort of stumbled by wanting to be influential.

JWP: so now we’re going to shift a little bit away from the man and his actions to the artifact itself. So we’re going to rewind a little bit to around the end of the war. So Johnson set out the end of the war in what Mark Lamster calls [00:20:00] a glorified prison, which was a army base in the hills of Maryland. the U. S. armed forces were very wary of Philip Johnson. He wasn’t an officer like a lot of his Harvard colleagues were He was basically cleaning the latrines as a lowly enlisted soldier. But this gave him time and access to both the high society of Washington, D. C. And gave him time to dream up a new house, the glass house.

Gwen North Reiss: the Glass House is a 49 acre site and, we’re a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as is the Farnsworth House.

The site includes, seven buildings and several architectural follies and structures, all designed by Philip Johnson. There are also three older houses that date from the 1700s to the early 1900s, and those were just houses that were, on the site. Philip Johnson started with five [00:21:00] acres in 1946. He bought, a small piece of land and that was the piece where the glass house, brick house, and the little pavilion on the pond now sit. And over the years he, bought contiguous properties whenever they became available.

There were probably something like 12 different purchases over his lifetime.

When he had enough land, he would build another building. .

Inspiration & Composition

Gwen North Reiss: He loved English country house landscape and classical landscape paintings. So what he wanted when he had enough land was to have a driveway that showed you vistas of his meadows. , he was constantly taking out second and third growth trees. Connecticut was once all cleared farmland. So he. was always preserving the mature trees and taking out the smaller growth and creating meadows.

It’s really hard to create meadows in Connecticut because the soil is just full of rocks. It’s our major crop here. He said, I’m from Ohio. I wanted to have [00:22:00] meadows.

What he was really up to was a single composition. this is not something maybe that he had in mind in the forties, but as he bought more and more land, the entire place is a composition of landscape and architecture. He often said that , I’m a better landscape architect than I am an architect, and he really, felt that landscape and architecture, that there was no line drawn between them, that they were one art.

JWP: Gwen, can you tell us a little bit about craftsmanship? Because we know from the last episode about the Farnsworth House we heard a lot about Mies van der Rohe’s obsession around craft and perfection. Can you tell us a little bit about what Philip Johnson’s view of craft was in the glass house?

Experimentation

Gwen North Reiss: Johnson certainly respected craftsmanship and I don’t think he held other views, but it is more that he was always trying to experiment. , so sometimes he was just trying to figure out how he was going to build a building. He didn’t know when he started. , and that’s [00:23:00] true of all of his buildings. We often think of the glass house as, a 50 year diary,, he called it his diary. It basically, , runs through so many of the trends in, 20th century architecture, including post modernism. And if you look at what’s there, look at these buildings, we have high modernism, classical architectural follies. An underground berm building, painting gallery. the sculpture gallery, which is inspired by a Mediterranean village, which is often thought of as his best, building. It’s impossible to describe, you have to see it. and then the library inspired by Islamic architecture. De Monsta, his deconstructivist building. he was certainly always looking at the next thing on the horizon in architecture.

JWP: Now, Gwen, can you help us imagine if we’re walking up the walk of the glass house? What it’s like to be on site and as we walk towards the glass house,

Gwen North Reiss: When you’re on that drive, before you get to the middle of the drive while you’re up [00:24:00] at the top of the street, off to the left, you’re going to see the little deconstructionist red and black building that was actually his last building on the site done in 1995. It’s inspired by, an architectural model done by Frank Stella.

He built it. After he had already donated the place to the National Trust and he thought, well, maybe we could use it as a place for a video or a small exhibition of smaller sculptures or paintings, , or just a place, maybe for a shop, which we didn’t do because we have a visitor center that people have to go to first.

But, but we do use it every year for something different and often we used it as a video. or small exhibition. so you see that off to the left. On the right, you see an older, the older building at the street, which he called Pope’s Dead. His mother’s maiden name was Pope, and they often stayed there when they visited.

and then you’re down at what was the original little driveway parking area for the Glass House. That didn’t change. You see the brick house to [00:25:00] your right and the glass house to your left. there’s a diagonal path and a triangular pattern that goes to both of them.

Glass and Brick Houses

JWP: So when the glass house first opened to visitors a long time ago, I was able to actually tour the ground and the brick house surprised me. Can you tell us a little bit about the glass and the brick houses?

Gwen North Reiss: the glass house and the brick house are separate pieces, but they are both part of the original. They were the essential original 1949 design. and here’s where Mies comes into the discussion Johnson and Mies discussed the idea of designing a glass house as early as 1945.

And, Mies had his Farnsworth house, completely designed on paper by 1947, and Johnson saw those sketches, I should say it was more than sketches, it was fully designed. and he had purchased his land in New Canaan in 46. Johnson decided not to have the brick [00:26:00] house at an L with the glass house, he decided to move it over so that there was a courtyard space between them.

So not only was he inspired by Mies Farnsworth House to push the brick house away and keep the singular glass pavilion by itself, but also it became in his mind a courtyard design. You’re, you’re looking at this little courtyard with green grass. And it’s the only part of the property that we mow every week in the summer. otherwise, , we let the meadow grass grow. ,

Gwen North Reiss: if you come in time for the summer party that we usually have in June, the, grass on the meadows is up to your hip level. We have a lot of pollinator pathway plants and butterflies coming through.

And that was always the case. He would let the meadows grow.

Meadows

JWP: when I went on the tour many years ago I saw those meadows that you talk about but I also saw these beautiful stone walls. Can you talk about those?

Gwen North Reiss: the stone walls, actually, I, I should have mentioned that as part of the site, because that was part of the reason that. Johnson bought the property in New [00:27:00] Canaan. He loved the old stone walls. we’re pretty sure the property that the glass house is on was once a dairy farm.

And so it had all these little, little meadow areas with the stone walls around them. And you can see them when you’re, when you’re at the glass house, either in the early spring. or late fall after the leaves come down. you can really see this enormous network of stone walls from the Western promontory of the glass house.

JWP: So in our other episode, we discussed the Edith Farnsworth house by Mies, and that it was designed well before Philip Johnson’s glass house, but he saw it and put it in a few exhibits. MoMA. Now, both houses are obviously connected. Both men are connected together. They’re friends, they’re competitors, they’re collaborators, they’re kind of frenemies.

They’re going to collaborate in the future on a couple of projects, including the Seagram’s building. But right now, when the glass house is under construction and built, the Farnsworth house is still on a sheet of paper. Can you help us compare [00:28:00] and contrast the two houses?

Gwen North Reiss: The Farnsworth house was completed in 1951. The glass house was completed in 1949. So. If you’re just looking at a list of dates, it seems like the Glass House came first, but it’s not so.

It was the Farnsworth House in concept that came first, and Johnson looked at that and modified his design. The Farnsworth House is really the forerunner here. And when you look at the two buildings, I mean Johnson was very much trying to do very much what Mies was trying to do.

But he ended up with something completely different, his classical background. Um, he studied philosophy and the classics at Harvard as an undergraduate. He loved the ancient world. , all of his love of classicism comes through in the glass house structure. It is, solidly on the ground, like a Greek temple.

Gwen North Reiss: It’s entirely symmetrical. Each of the four doors is in the middle of the walls. And in fact, that became his air conditioning. He would open up all the doors and you’d get the [00:29:00] cross breeze. the Farnsworth house floats above the ground and it’s asymmetrical. And both of those things are much more in the vein of Le Corbusier, Mies other work. Breuer, the European modernists, , who were interested in having a space that, that floated above the ground, the Farnsworth house is also white. It’s the beautiful object in the landscape and the glass house steel is painted black and it kind of disappears almost like a movie screen.

The view is everything. and as he continued to buy land. Around the original property, he would joke, Johnson would always joke that he had, he would say I have expensive wallpaper,

JWP: Now, I know the Farnsworth house is basically a giant sheet of glass, but the glass house has this little, you know, rail. Part way up. Can you talk about that?

Gwen North Reiss: the other thing about the two houses, And it’s just a tiny detail, but the glass house has a structure that has something that looks a [00:30:00] lot like a chair rail in the walls. And that chair rail makes you read the walls of the glass house as glass walls. At the Farnsworth House, that space between the floor plane and the ceiling plane reads as floating space. So beautiful.

And so they were doing different things there. Architect Peter Eisenman. always like to bring up that detail as a very telling one. , and something that really showed you, the difference between the two, even though Johnson was trying to do something similar to what Mies was doing. that’s always important. And we always try to mention that, the Farnsworth House is always front of mind at the Glass House.

Debt to Mies

JWP: So as the glass house was being completed Can you tell us a little bit about what Mies was doing around then? And can you tell us a little bit about how Mies and Johnson interacted?

Gwen North Reiss: He simply said, my debt to Mies is clear. know, he could go on forever, but that was, you know, that was, that was a strong statement

[00:31:00] he loved simple, pure geometric shapes. In fact, the whole site is rectangles, circles, triangles. You can find them everywhere. There’s a swimming pool that he added in 1955 that’s a perfect circle, as is the Donald Judd sculpture, which is on the other side of the brick house.

I’ve heard one architecture professor who came to visit say something about how, anybody could have done this just to build a simple rectangular structure, all glass, but Johnson did it. It was just a matter of, following through with such a pure idea. And he, did it.

Once you make that decision, you have to figure out, okay, how you’re going to do the structure. He put the steel I beams, they are the columns, the posts in the corner and the glass comes , right to them. They’re not pulled in.

Gwen North Reiss: The Farnsworth House, the structure is pulled in a little bit, which helps give you that [00:32:00] feeling of , the building floating above that river plain. The glass house, the steel posts are exactly at the edge. The whole structure is the exterior walls. With the help of a little cylindrical, piece in the middle that, encloses the bathroom, the one room where you really need to have some privacy, and the other side of that brick cylinder is a fireplace, , that he used all the time.

And sometimes when he was standing in front of it, he would say, well, when I stand in front of this fireplace that what I did here was I redesigned my grandfather’s farmhouse in New London, Ohio, because there was, in the center hall, there’s a big fireplace. And so that’s what he felt like he had done.

Why he did it

JWP: Love for you to help us understand why he designed the glass house as it was and some of the thinking behind it

Gwen North Reiss: And I think he just, he designed it. have everything he needed. He was a single gay man. He didn’t [00:33:00] have a family to worry about. David Whitney was part of his life starting in 1960. They were partners, um, until their deaths in, in 2005, that their deaths were unrelated, which just happened to be the same year.

you know, he designed just what. what he needed for himself. He had an apartment in New York, so it wasn’t like it was his only place, although it became his main house as he got older.

Early on, maybe in the fifties, there was a woman who, who said, well, I don’t know if I could live here. And, his answer was, Madam, I haven’t asked you. So it was really just what he needed. And I think more than half of the people who come through now, on our public tours, look around and are so delighted than they. They think maybe they could live, there and, it’s very expansive.

You know, most open plan places have, the living room furniture might be sort of sidled in next to the dining room furniture, [00:34:00] but there’s a huge space between that dining table and the Barcelona chairs. You could almost put another room in so that it seems very generous.

How to deal with this at glass house

JWP: earlier in this podcast, we went over Philip Johnson’s history of poor choices in the thirties and early forties. How do we deal with the glass house as an artifact? Along with all the other buildings on the site and that he designed later in life What sort of guidance can you give us to think about this? How does the National Trust Think about this.

Gwen North Reiss: How do we deal with this at the Glass House? , we talk about it. it’s the policy and just practice of the National Trust and everyone at the Glass House that these sites have to serve as places for learning and truth telling.

The Glass House engages in a frank dialogue about its history and Philip Johnson’s history and these are valuable things. We have a grant, [00:35:00] right now from the Martyr Vaughn Center for Historic Sites, and this grant program is specifically for National Trust sites, and it helps fund this wonderful teacher at New Canaan High School who’s both a lawyer and a historian, and she teaches history.

So she’s doing a unit on fascism. And she’s having the kids dive deep into Philip Johnson’s life. And she’s having them at the end of the semester answer questions like, okay, what did we do with Philip Johnson? Do we cancel him? You know, what do we do with great people who have contributed so much culturally, but who are flawed? And who, in Johnson’s case, it was something that happened when he was younger that he, turned away from completely.

It was not a youthful error that, yeah, no, that’s, I mean, if you’re, if you’re 17, that’s one thing. and he was also a very smart 28 year old.

He was drawn to, he wanted to be influential. And he was, he was in many arenas, [00:36:00] but I think that that may be one of the things that pushed him into the political world, and he wasn’t looking at it in depth enough. I think that, when you try to grapple with this, it helps to understand European history from the 1930s. That’s where you could maybe begin to understand how this happened. You know, he, he never made any excuses for it.

Here’s the thing, what’s good about discussing the truth about these historic sites and the people who built them or owned them is, fascism is on the horizon again. it’s there. And so it’s very valuable to look at these things and see where things went wrong.

JWP: here’s historian Nora Wendl again.

Nora Wendl: When you tell a more complete history, that’s real, you get away from the sort of characterizing of people and you tell the story of these people as human beings who were complicated, made terrible decisions.

Had very problematic [00:37:00] worldviews and also made these structures. And so if you tell that complete history, and think more completely and complexly about, the past and it’s, and it’s implications in the present. I think that’s why it’s so important to tell the complete story as much as you can. It’s a reminder that these evils don’t actually go away. They continue to be repeated over and over and over until we can somehow learn our lesson or we can stand against, people in positions of power who are perpetrating absolute horrors.

JWP: Now other organizations besides MoMA and the Glass House and the National Trust are dealing with Philip Johnson’s legacy. Some of them are choosing to remove his name. This happened at Harvard. where they renamed the house that Philip Johnson built for his graduate thesis. It was originally named the Philip Johnson Thesis House and they recently renamed it to Nye and Ash Street.

How has the Glass House and the National [00:38:00] Trust thought about both naming, about glorifying, and commemorating this person.

Gwen North Reiss: It’s not that simple for us. I understand taking the names. off a name is an honor. So to have a name on a room or a building is an honor. And of course, that person is always part of your history. But at the Glass House, this is his home. Everything is about him. and David Whitney, his partner, who was a curator. I mean, I shouldn’t say it’s just about him because actually we talk about David Whitney quite a lot and his, influence in the modern art world. foR Johnson, , we just have to spell it out and. tell, the full story and truth telling. And it’s more interesting. It’s interesting that way.

Gwen North Reiss: I’m Gwen North Reese, and, I’m talking to you from New Canaan, Connecticut, where I work at the Glass House as an educator. I’m a writer and poet.

Outro

JWP: I really want to thank Gwen North [00:39:00] Reiss for her time and helping us both visualize the house and give us context around Johnson’s life. I want to thank the Johnson study group for pushing us to think in a different way about Philip Johnson. I want to thank Nora Wendl who is giving us and asking us to see the whole story.

And I really want to thank the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Now, the National Trust has both made people available for interview for both the Farnsworth House and the Glass House episodes, but also they’ve openly said, we want you to tell the whole complicated story. And I want to give them kudos because this is an incredibly hard thing to deal with You have these amazing artifacts created by somebody who really made not great decisions. I think Philip Johnson made some really bad choices and I think he got away with a lot of those choices.

And I think part of that has to do with his connections, with his [00:40:00] wealth. And I think a lot of people chose to ignore his history, which even in the late eighties was pretty well known. They either ignored it. Because they wanted to, or they had no other choice. So this isn’t about canceling Philip Johnson. The man is no longer here. You can’t cancel him. But I think we can reappraise him and recontextualize his actions who he supported. Because it’s important to understand how someone with such wealth, intellect, connections, and really just everything was going right in his life.

He chose fascism. He chose to run around with people who are deeply anti semitic. It’s confounding. It’s confounding because I live in New York. I see his work all over the place. I want to thank you for listening because we have to have this context We have to continue to understand where this came from because Philip Johnson’s legacy continues with us today Not only in the artifacts throughout the world, but [00:41:00] in the writings the curatorial choices He made in the organizations that he was part of. I find it encouraging that the National Trust for Historic Preservation doesn’t hide Philip Johnson’s past, and uses it as an educational tool To look at the past as a way to guard against the rise of contemporary fascism and contemporary anti semitic movements that we see today.

This is super important stuff. It’s just not buildings. It’s just not some guy. These things are alive and we have to challenge them. This is Journey with Purpose. I’m your host, Randy Plemel. The views from me, from the guests are of their own. They do not reflect the views of our employers, but you knew that.

Please go listen to the other episode about the Dr. Edith Farnsworth House by Mies. Please go on jwp.news to buy some [00:42:00] pamphlets to listen to more podcast episodes. We really appreciate all your support. Liking, sharing, funding, all these things are important as an artistic endeavor. We thank you.

And I will see you on the internets.