When your home is a glass house, how can you have privacy? In her 1998 book “Women and the Making of the Modern House,” Alice Friedman offered the following perspective on the way this particular glass house was used.
Rather than actually enabling outsiders to satisfy their curiosity about what went on inside (…) the Glass House screened, distorted, and overtly denied visual access through the landscaping of the hilly site and by a series of architectural devices (…) This handling contributed to the irony of transparency and to a more acute representation of the double-sided nature of domestic life, particularly for gay men who were compelled to hide their private lives from outsiders (Friedman, 1998: 152).
How do you actually get any privacy in a glass house? By owning a large tract of land around the house, locating it in a suburban neighborhood, carefully landscaping and curating the land, filling it with numerous quirky buildings over the years. Finally, a guest house made of brick becomes a sanctuary for privacy, thereby keeping the actual glass house as a setting for public life and social gatherings.
Far from being just an individual structure, architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House, located in New Canaan, Connecticut, is actually a sprawling forty-seven acre complex that contains the Glass House/Guest brick House (1949), a Sculpture Gallery (1970), a Painting Gallery (1965), a Lake Pavilion (1962), among many other structures. The Glass House itself was inspired by the design of architect Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951), a glass house located in Plano, Illinois, and was conceived as a weekend country retreat for Johnson and his guests. Johnson used the house up until his death in 2005, and in 2007 the Glass House complex, now a National Trust Historic Site, opened to the public.
Inspired by Italian garden design, many of the structures in the complex, which Johnson called “events,” are actually follies: decorative buildings with an unusual shape, size and scale, designed to play with the viewer’s sense of perspective and make them seem farther away than they actually were. The scaled-down Lake Pavilion, where Johnson entertained friends for lunch, is an example of a folly with a practical purpose.
However, as is the case with many Modernist buildings, some of the Glass House structures present significant challenges for conservation and maintenance. The Glass House itself has already had its roof and the glass in the walls replaced. The Brick House has been closed to the public since 2008 due to high levels of moisture, which was affecting both the structure and its furnishings. The highly innovative and experimental nature of most Modernist buildings has also meant that many have not aged well, and often present significant flaws that have to do with their original design, the materials used, and their programming. The Farnsworth house, for instance, not only has problems with humidity and leaking, but due to its location in a floodplain and changes in the landscape it has been flooded several times, causing significant damage.
What are the challenges involved in the conservation of Modernist architecture, and what can we learn from them? Is it more important to preserve the original fabric and materials, or the design and layout?
Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources. The visit to the Glass House was made possible by GSD Travel.