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ON SITE

Fujiko Nakaya at the Glass House

Fujiko Nakaya, Veil, 2014, fog. Installation view, Philip Johnson Glass House, New Canaan, CT. Photo: Richard Barnes.

A BUILDING is a stubbornly material thing, a physical construction that exists only by virtue of its resistance to gravity and to a host of other forces. Yet we experience architecture not as a tangible solid but as a spatial void, less an object in itself than an expanse through which we pass. No doubt this fundamental paradox goes a long way toward explaining architects’ enduring fascination with the notion of dematerialization—the fantasy that a building might be as ephemeral and insubstantial as the space it encloses. Perhaps the most powerful manifestation of this vision to date is the Glass House that architect and curator Philip Johnson built for himself in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1949. An icon of modernism, the dwelling was a polemical statement about the transparency and lightness that could be achieved with new building technology; here the architect abandoned traditional bricks and mortar for state-of-the-art glass and steel (a contrast Johnson emphasized by pairing the Glass House with a largely windowless, bunker-like masonry guesthouse he constructed across the lawn). But if steel held the house up, its glass captured Johnson’s imagination, as well as those of his fellow architects and his critics. Johnson himself was fond of remarking that “the building floats,” while the eminent architectural historian Vincent Scully simply marveled, “There’s nothing there.” Arthur Drexler wrote that the house seems “to disappear in a reflected mobile of foliage and clouds.”

At first, then, there might seem to be something oddly redundant about the artist Fujiko Nakaya’s Veil, 2014, which, for the past six months, for approximately ten to fifteen minutes every hour, has enveloped the Glass House in a dense shroud of fog. Why obscure a building that is, by all accounts, already hiding in plain sight? But Veil is not the kind of project that can be understood in a single glance, and it is too complex and capricious to be locked into the kind of reductive opposition that Johnson established between the Glass House and its brick guest residence. As Nakaya’s fog floats around the house, it carries out a series of strange inversions, emerging as a surprisingly physical medium in its own right while revealing the house’s profound disconnection from the material realities of architecture.

Part of Veil’s allure is its fluid instability and infinite variation. Yet it is remarkably consistent, too: Even as the fog drifts in the wind, rises in response to warming air, or sinks into hollows in the landscape, the swirling vortex of mist always seems to keep the Glass House near its center. This is the result of exhaustive planning by the artist—a study of a decade of New Canaan’s meterological data and a year of on-site research into the microclimates created by the local terrain. Nakaya’s research dictated everything from the placement and positioning of the fog-producing nozzles to the pressure of the water they spray, allowing her to carefully calibrate Veil’s negotiation of environmental conditions such as wind, temperature, humidity, and topography. The fog may be formless, in other words, but it is far from immaterial. As the artist points out, “The fog is reading its own environment and making it visible. It’s very physical.” Indeed, Nakaya’s cloud offers a material index of those qualities that are understood as intangible—the caress of a shifting breeze, say, or the chill creeping into a cool summer evening—even though they have much to do with our physical experience of a place.

Ironically, these are the very qualities of the site that Johnson ignored. Although the Glass House is often discussed in terms of its openness and sensitivity to its environment, the building’s design and construction belie this. For Johnson, the surrounding landscape was less a ground for the building than a series of picturesque perspectives framed by the house. (He famously called these views his “very expensive wallpaper.”) The glass itself was less a material than a visual effect, a means of achieving transparency and invisibility. But at the microscale, glass is not so different from fog; it is dynamic and responsive stuff that swells, shifts, or contracts in response to even minute changes in temperature or air pressure. The critical point in any glass architecture, therefore, is the joint between the glass and the rest of the structure: Glass must be protected from direct contact with more rigid materials, as its greater rate of flex and different coefficient of expansion will cause stress concentrations that can lead to cracking and breakage. In contemporary structures, compressive gaskets (typically made of foam or rubber) are usually used to join glass to hard materials such as metal or concrete, while in older buildings, wooden window frames served a similar purpose. Yet at the climactic architectural moment in Johnson’s house—the joint between the glass and steel, where invisibility meets gravity, and his cherished visual effect runs into the solid support required to sustain it—Johnson simply butted the glass sheets directly against the steel structure, using two bars to hold them in place. The result is that any significant environmental shift (a hot summer day, a violent rainstorm) has the potential to shatter the glass—which has happened repeatedly in the past sixty-five years, to the point where none of the original panes remain. The glass is indeed immaterial, insofar as Johnson refused to acknowledge certain raw facts of existence.

But the fog and the glass are not just alternate approaches to the problem of materiality; they represent two different attitudes about the relationship between a work and its environment. Nakaya has embraced the inherent responsiveness and mutability of her medium to create a piece that defers to the complexity of its surroundings; Johnson sought to suppress the materiality of building and landscape in an effort to bring them equally, and totally, under his control. He understood physical reality as too messy, too contingent—as a threat to the perfect composition of his views or the pure conception of his design. Architecture is notoriously effective as a mechanism of control, and Johnson, with his avowed fascist tendencies, seems to have had a particular weakness for displays of power. Nakaya’s roots, by contrast, are in the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s, and her project is one of self-proclaimed “democratic idealism.” The Glass House, with its rigidly enforced immateriality, reminds us that architecture succumbs most completely to authority when it is reduced to an image. Veil, in its paradoxical and uncontainable tangibility, suggests that the best response to an architecture of control may not be to make it disappear, but rather to push it toward a more intimate connection with the world.

Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.