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PRINT Summer 2008

ON SITE

the Glass House Conversations

PHILIP JOHNSON is welcoming houseguests again, if only as (g)host emeritus. Since last summer, the Glass House (1949)—Johnson’s master’s thesis and country home in New Canaan, Connecticut—has been opened to the great unwashed via guided tours, thanks to the efforts of director Christy MacLear and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Part of a larger project by the National Trust to “preserve the modern” as McMansions threaten midcentury masterworks coast to coast, the Glass House will serve as a flagship and think tank, offering fellowships and organizing programs such as the Glass House Conversations, begun this year.

Before downgrading guests to forbidden “nuisances” (and this after having dubbed them “fish” that “should only last three days at most”), Johnson and his partner, curator David Whitney, frequently played host to what architecture professor Vincent Scully once called “the longest-running salon in America,” inviting central figures in the arts and high society to enjoy leisurely lunches and overnight sleepovers in the adjacent Brick House (1949). The Glass House Conversations aim to re-create this vibe through curated discussion groups. The talks thus far have focused primarily on architecture and design, with participants debating issues such as the “viability of modernism in the twenty-first century,” the role of design in civic leadership, and “strategies for keeping great legacies vital.” I recently attended the third conversation, organized and moderated by Paul Holdengräber, program director of the New York Public Library, which centered on a wearily familiar topic: “Attention/Attention Span.”

“Just shut up and look around,” Johnson famously told his well-heeled visitors to the Glass House. Even without this imperative, however, the forty-seven-acre estate and its fourteen structures—which the architect donated to the National Trust in 1986—command one’s attention. Despite its obvious debt to Johnson’s hero and colleague, Mies van der Rohe, the Glass House works on its own terms—in beauty, function, and mystique. The play of views and reflections, the sparse, Mies-designed furniture, the cylindrical brick bathroom-cum-hearth, and the sole painting, Burial of Phocion, 1648, attributed to Nicolas Poussin—chosen by Johnson for its precise, idealized approach to landscape—combine to form a Zen koan of domestic design.

Of course, aesthetic echoes of Johnson’s 1930s detour as a Nazi sympathizer can nevertheless be seen in the Painting Gallery (1965), an underground bunker—straight out of a Dr. Strangelove wet dream— carved into the side of a knoll. Inside, three circular chambers house giant vertical rolodexes on which massive paintings, many by Frank Stella, can be spun around at will for viewing pleasure, untroubled by natural light, time, or nuclear fallout. Decades after the fact, Johnson said of his years-long infatuation with Nazism, amply documented in Franz Schulze’s 1994 biography Philip Johnson: Life and Work, “I have no excuse [for] such utter, unbelievable stupidity. . . . I don’t know how you expiate guilt.” (A more candid explanation was recalled by conversation participant Jorge Otero-Pailos, assistant professor of architecture at Columbia University in New York, who told us that when Johnson was asked why he fell under the sway of the Nazis, he replied, “Who could resist all that leather?”)

On the other side of the pond, beyond the Lake Pavilion (1962), a mock-Roman flourish and picnic site built at a reduced scale to appear farther away when viewed from the Glass House, Johnson’s “safe danger” concept is embodied by the Lincoln Kirstein Tower (1985), an Escheresque cinder-block climbing sculpture that rises thirty-six feet from the ground. The Library/Study (1980), a hobbit house as life-size Monopoly piece, fancifully shaped but free of ornament, remains—unlike some of the other posthumously renovated structures—as the architect left it, with stocked bookshelves and conical turret furnished with prototypes of Frank Gehry’s 1992 Cross Check armchairs. Near the Brick House, Donald Judd’s Untitled (Concrete Ring), 1971, rests sunken in the grass, nobly moldering. More works reside in the Sculpture Gallery (1970), a twelve-sided, multilevel concrete structure capped by a glass greenhouse ceiling, including Robert Morris’s Untitled, 1965–70, three giant gray Ls arranged in different postures; Bruce Nauman’s Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten Inch Intervals, 1966, which, absent Nauman’s body, appears as a loose, irregular neon rope ladder hung on a wall; and Andrew Lord’s 27 Pieces, Modelling, Silver and Bismuth, 1991–92, an array of large, ancient-looking pottery.

The three-hour conversation itself took place in the Glass House over lunch, with commanding views of the surrounding landscape—what Johnson described as “expensive wallpaper.” The subject of early chat was the architect’s extreme aesthetic control: He would sit outside the Glass House, on a crest overlooking his man-made pond, with a walkie-talkie, instructing distant workmen to fell offending vegetation to suit his rigorous sense of order. But the main quandary for discussion was whether our ever-accelerating, proliferating, and demanding communications media have deleterious effects on attention span as well as on the quality of attention paid to each discrete bit of information—Holdengräber used phrases like “age of distraction” and “attention-span crisis.”

Interactive-media booster Ze Frank strongly objected to the negative spin of Holdengräber’s premise and provocatively said that taking time to pay attention to nature was an “arrogant luxury”; this set off debates over elitism versus populism, nature versus technology, and nostalgia versus futurism that persisted throughout the discussion. Frank was countered by Maira Kalman, author, artist, and illustrator of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style; Nathaniel Kahn, director of My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003), a documentary about his father, Louis Kahn; and Pico Iyer, travel writer, world citizen, and author of a new book on the Dalai Lama. Iyer was most vociferous, maintaining that contemplation of nature and appreciation of subtle cultural forms and experiences were essential human needs threatened by the increasing onslaught of digital communications and electronic media.

Perspectives on the psychological underpinnings of attention and modern syndromes such as ADHD in children were offered by Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst and the author of On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (1993), and Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist who founded the National Institute for Play, a nonprofit organization “committed to bringing the unrealized knowledge, practices and benefits of play into public life.” Wolfgang Schivelbusch, author of The Railway Journey: The Industrialization and Perception of Time and Space (1987), drew compelling distinctions between libidinal (desire-driven) and militaristic (enforced) attention. In the most novel contribution of the day, Professor Otero-Pailos returned our attention to the site: Stressing the contrived aspects of architectural preservation, he passed around three vials of scents he had commissioned from an olfactory designer for our visit—of the house’s construction materials, of tobacco smoke, and of “gay men of the ’50s”—to remind us how the Glass House would have smelled both when it was new and during its heyday as Johnson and Whitney’s social salon.

The confinement of tobacco and gay men to tiny vials underlined the constrained nature of our own event. One imagines that the original salons were probably a great deal more freewheeling—after all, Johnson was the kind of man who said, “Effect before everything,” and Whitney chatted daily with Andy Warhol, probably about nothing. I’m sure luminaries such as Warhol, Merce Cunningham, Robert A. M. Stern, and assorted Rockefellers got absolutely loaded during their stays at the estate, gossiping as much as theorizing. Maybe “safe danger” had become too safe. Nevertheless, the National Trust should be applauded for opening the home of this problematic titan of twentieth-century architecture to both cultural “elites” and the general public alike. Now every citizen can feel like Kane, if only for an afternoon.

Andrew Hultkrans is the author of Forever Changes (Continuum 33 1⁄3, 2003). He is currently at work on a book about surveillance in America.