The quiet town of New Canaan, Connecticut, is a serene pocket of New England scenery with a picture-perfect main street. It is also an unlikely mecca of modern art and design. Philip Johnson is mostly remembered for his architectural creations: the Seagram Building and the Transco Tower in Houston, Texas, to name two. But his real legacy is a 49-acre plot of land on the outskirts of New Canaan dedicated to showcasing the affective nature of art. The various sculptures and structures that dot the estate radiate from the property’s crown jewel, the Glass House, Johnson’s ethereal country getaway. Though Johnson designed the house in 1949 as his quiet residence, it came to represent his career and define the future of modern architecture.
A curving path guides visitors down the entrance on the hill, snaking around a low concrete cylinder sculpted by Donald Judd. Stepping inside, the house triggers a flurry of questions: Where are the curtains? Wouldn’t you feel so exposed? What if the glass breaks? But thoughts of impracticality melt away at the thought living in a space surrounded on all sides by the yellow and oranges of a perfect Connecticut fall. Johnson famously joked, “I have very expensive wallpaper.”
Johnson’s favorite spot was his back porch. His lawn furniture was sparse: two Harry Bertoia-designed chairs and a small table dot a patch of grass overlooking a wooded ravine. Off in the distance sits a pond, designed by Johnson and abutted by a white pavilion where guests were invited for picnics. A large, gleaming white tower lords over the ravine, dedicated to the poet Lincoln Kirstein. Described as a “precarious stairway to nowhere,” Johnson intended the piece to be an event, and visitors ascending the structure inadvertently perform a dance as they jump and climb the oddly shaped steps. As a reward, a quote is inscribed at the top of the sculpture, known only to those who make the journey.
In 1965 Johnson built a painting gallery on his land. Like a WWII artillery bunker, the gallery is buried deep into a hillside. The doors open into a low, short hallway permeated with an earthy smell. From there, the art barrack yawns into a tall, cavernous room with cream-colored walls. Johnson designed three large carousel systems, allowing for dozens of paintings to be hung, but only six could be viewed at once. Johnson argued that no one should view more than six artworks at once. Those who visited the gallery recount being literally blown away, as Johnson excitedly pushed the carousel walls, causing a strong breeze to whip at the viewers’ hair.
A tree-lined path near the art gallery leads to a multistoried, loft-like white brick building. Here Johnson displayed the work of sculptors. Completed in 1970, the gallery is a minimalist take on an ancient pyramid interior and has featured the works of Robert Rauschenberg, John Chamberlain and Bruce Nauman. Exiting the sculpture gallery, a horizontally-mounted large tree trunk lines the lefthand side of the path. Touch it, and your finger tips are shocked by cool metal, not wood; the creation of Julian Schnabel, the tree is completely cast from bronze, a work that mystifies sculptors today.
Johnson lived to be 99 years old. Just as he hoped, the Glass House today is open to the public. In some ways, Johnson was just a man who couldn’t stop working in his yard. As a result, the Glass House and its surroundings are a unique diary of 50 years worth of architecture and modern art.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.