The architect Philip Johnson spent most of his life on an estate in New Canaan, Connecticut, surrounded by buildings he’d built himself – most famously, a glass house. He built the rectangular one-room structure on his 50-acre New Canaan estate in 1949. Although Johnson’s skyscrapers shape the skylines of Manhattan, Pittsburgh and Madrid, the Glass House remains his most famous work.
Psychoanalyst Adele Tutter has written a book about the house and what it reveals about Johnson’s life. WSHU’s Davis Dunavin recently sat down with Tutter to discuss the book. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Tutter: It was the first glass house built in America, and was scandalous at the time, and now it has obtained the status of a modernist icon.
Scandalous because there’s a level of exhibition here, is that what people were reacting to?
Scandalous because there’s an evident lack of privacy whatsoever. You know, glass walls, no curtains. You could see anything.
The Glass House is just one of several houses on this property, each with their own story, each with their own use in his life. What role did he see them playing?
The Glass House was a place to entertain and to socialize. The Brick House was a place to sleep and relax. The study was a place to work, the pavilion was a place to play, and the painting and sculpture galleries were places to exhibit art, to look at art, and to bring people to look at art.
Tutter says she took a tour of the estate a few years back and she was fascinated, so she decided to take a deeper look at Johnson’s art and architecture.
I came to understand that what I was witnessing was a kind of autobiographical expression of its architect.
Autobiographical is such an interesting word to use to describe architecture. What do you mean when you say that – this house told the story of his life, in a sense?
You could view the Glass House as a series of superimposed transparencies, each of which depicts a landscape that was important to Johnson. For example, it recapitulates the scene of his childhood farm, where he spent his summers. Another landscape it recapitulates is the scene of ancient Mycenae, in Greece, which he visited as a young man, and it was at that time that he decided to become an architect.
Tutter says Johnson told a more painful story through the paintings and sculptures he collected. She says he used them to confront the horrible mistake he made when he wrote in sympathy of Nazi fascism as a young man before World War II.
So inside the Glass House is a painting by the old master Nicolas Poussin, which emphasizes themes of exile and redemption. There’s a sculpture that sits outside the sculpture gallery which is called Ozymandias, which references the inability to remain immortal through great works, another theme that Johnson was acutely aware of. A lot of themes of deposed nobility, strivings of power, countered by feelings of exile and inadequacy.
And these related directly to his own life, right?
That’s right, yes. He was certainly exiled when he was a graduate student of architecture at Harvard, and his history of Nazi sympathizing was exposed by William Shirer in his “Berlin Diary.” And that led to his disgrace. Students, his teachers wouldn’t talk to him. He was socially disgraced, essentially. The Glass House was his redemption, the Glass House was his return to dignity.
It’s so interesting that we can use psychoanalysis to learn about these figures – Philip Johnson never sat down on a couch in your office – but we can study them in so many ways, including looking at their art and their architecture.
People talk about the Glass House as being literally and figuratively transparent. It’s glass – it’s a show of provocation, it’s a show of exhibitionism. But if you look through the glass and you look at the things inside, you begin to see that Johnson left these things in plain view. For example, that painting by Poussin really tells us Johnson identified with its hero, who was a deposed Athenian general, who was tried and convicted of treason for appeasing a foreign dictator, which is exactly what Johnson did.
Tutter says there’s no simple explanation for why Johnson supported the Nazis. But after the war he asked forgiveness, and he even designed a synagogue in Port Chester, New York. Tutter says his life was full of contradictions – he was also gay and closeted for most of his life.
As I learned more about him and I began to understand him, all of this began to make a whole lot of sense for me, and I began to have an extraordinary sympathy for him – for being homosexual at a time when this was really not accepted, to be scorned by his colleagues, to have made such a disastrous mistake to follow fascism, and the disgrace that he endured after that. I actually grew very fond of him.
Johnson died in 2005. His house, the Glass House, is a National Historic Landmark. It offers tours, and visitors can take a firsthand look at Johnson’s art collection, with its themes of exile and redemption.