Skip to content

Lessons from The Crass House, New Canaan: Philip Johnson, 1948


(Hopper Approved) Ed Driscoll’s You Heard It Here First responds to Miley Cyrus’ faux counter-culture mummery.  Driscoll quotes Camille Paglia:

The Cyrus fiasco, however, is symptomatic of the still heavy influence of Madonna, who sprang to world fame in the 1980s with sophisticated videos that were suffused with a daring European art-film eroticism and that were arguably among the best artworks of the decade. Madonna’s provocations were smolderingly sexy because she had a good Catholic girl’s keen sense of transgression. Subversion requires limits to violate.

(Please read the whole thing, as they say.) Driscoll places Miley’s debacle in context amongst other cultural rebels.  Infamous fascist Philip Johnson is payed a visit with a link to an essay concerning Johnson by Commentary’s Hilton Kramer in 1995.

Intriguing.  Johnson’s work is familiar to students of architecture everywhere, though often taken more as a warning than a cynosure.  What commanded your student’s attention is this passage from Kramer:

For Johnson, the Glass House of 1949 served a purpose far more important than domestic amenity. More than anything else he had done or would ever do, it established Philip Johnson the architect as a reputed master of the same modernist style upon which Philip Johnson the museum curator and author had conferred a renewed legitimacy and glamor. Whatever his doubts about the failings of the Miesian ideal, and despite the inevitable jokes about “Mies van der Johnson,” the Glass House was a brilliant gambit that completely succeeded in its purpose. To this day, it continues to be regarded as a classic of American modernist architecture, despite the fact that architects as eminent and as different as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies himself dismissed it with contempt.

Properly deserved contempt at that.  Mies and by Wright likely grasped at once that Johnson’s glass edifice is an allegory… to homosexual rape.  It is also an unwitting but honest self-portrait.

. . .

Shall we begin?  The year is 1985, the scene a worried look from the first year student of architecture.

“It isn’t working.  You’ve broken the Rules.”  The deep masculine voice was at once kind and pedagogical.


“Your parti has rules.  If you’re going to break rules, do so deliberately.”  Another look at the drawings revealed awkward mistakes.

Eyebrows risen, the student looked up at Denis Jesson, a brilliant teacher and extraordinarily talented architect.

Ah. More homework.”  Jesson chuckled.  (The student had admitted that he was rather in over his head – for the moment.)  He rose and moved on to his next student.

“[OK…  Rules.]”  Of course.  Somewhere in the dark a tiny light sputtered to life.

Perhaps one of the graduate students sharing the studio was the culprit who pointed out Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House.  It proved a gold mine and inspiration.

. . .



. . .


. . .

Classically-trained Mies had understood “Rules” and his Farnsworth House of 1945-51 is a superb example of making and breaking.  Farnsworth House proved to be disciplined and strong, and yet sensitive and light all simultaneously.  It doesn’t look at all like the Temple of Hephaestos – but on second glance, yes, it does!

For example:

The house is a composition of flat, opaque rectangular planes of set thickness and proportion, held aloft by columns creating a spatial ‘order’. The enclosing glass envelope is co-terminal with the roof and floor planes, appearing on the North, East and South faces.

This Rule, however, is broken at Entry, on the West; the entrance to the home is posited on an interior wall set back from the main horizontal planes’ limits.  This new glass plane yet follows another Rule; the East and West envelope walls are symmetrical on the column axes, displaced 5′ 7 5/8″.  Rule broken, Rule observed and Beauty given her due.

There was a story, too, about the relationship Mies had with his client, Dr. Farnsworth and the difficult back-and-forth as the building’s form crystalized.  She had been an elegant woman. Farnsworth House was something of a love-letter?

The student pored over its photos,  plans and elevations and made comparisons and contrasts to other buildings of the genre, including the very building where he studied.

One unfamiliar but dark little opus, tied directly to Farnsworth, was shown to him:  Philip Johnson’s  Glass House of 1949.

. . .


. . .


. . .

It was, as noted by Hilton Kramer, “…little more than a pastiche of the Miesian style.

Indeed.  Style, but not the substance.  It looked hurried.  The student observed Glass House’ “Rules” such as they were, but noted with care the circularity of the tall element – the one element that defiled the roof plane, and set forward so as to be seen on arrival.  “What is this about?”  It’s plumbing. No, more importantly, it’s the toilet.  And, it’s brick. “Why make the toilet so visually dominant?  Why bust through the roof?

A pattern flashed into clarity: The steel-and-glass cube was Mies; the brick cylinder was Johnson.

Hey! Philip Johnson.

“Yeah, what about him?”

Tell me – he fancies himself a wit and an intellectual?

“That’s him.”

He’s angry, yeah? He’s envious of talented architects.”

“He isn’t ‘original’.  He isn’t even good.  But the magazines love him.”

“Is he homosexual?

“Bachelor all his life, but that’s the rumor.  Why?”

New Canaan Glass House. If he is, then it’s his self portrait.”

. . .

Mies had warned: “G-d is in the details.”  Amen.

What bothered the student then, and bothers your writer to this day is contemporary Art’s abandonment of Aesthetics.  Whether it’s architecture, plays or films, sculpture, music – where today are the expressive arts demonstrating aesthetic passion?  Do artists care for that which is True or Beautiful?  Even Dada heroes like Duchamp could draw well.

In the visual arts we’re stuck with cynical, kitsch amateurs like Rem Koolhaas, Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Spielberg, Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid.  And now Miley Cyrus.  One is reminded more of Byzantium than of Rome. This while the Pagan Horde is knocking down our buildings.

(Right – and for the record, Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center was one of the better.)

It’s not all doom ‘n gloom out there, however. Beautiful wildflowers will spring atop garbage dumps; We shall, too, be careful observers of these.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Libertarian Advocate permalink
    2013/09/03 03:18

    I rather like the Glass House. Damn.

    Oh, yeah… Miley who?

    • 2013/09/03 12:49


      One of my architecture professors (Gustavo DaRoza) was a student assistant at an international meeting (1955?) where Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson, Alvar Aalto, Mies, Ian Pei? (if memory serves) and a small elite cadre of other famous international architects were gathered for study by psychologists. They were all given tests, one of them being a “creativity” examination where they were given multiple colored tiles to arrange and compose.

      As Gus was gathering the results, Johnson boasted “I used only the black and white tiles!” It was Saarinen, if I have it right, who overheard and said “I used only white ones.”

      Saarinen was rather an extraordinarily gifted architect. Two of his major works still hold up as inspirations: The TWA air terminal at JFK and Dulles air terminal. It was Dulles that set the prototype for air terminals that are built today.

      Gus went on to design one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever visited – the Winnipeg Art Gallery. It works on the interior as well. It’s beautiful; it’s functional. It’s architecture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s