The Houses of Philip Johnson

Topics: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Modernism, Modern architecture Pages: 6 (1966 words) Published: September 7, 2006
Philip Johnson's Glass House: Beyond Mies and the Modern Movement

Philip Johnson (b. 1906) began his career in the 1930s as a critic and curator. In 1932, during his time at The Museum of Modern Art, he oversaw an exhibition he titled The International Style, which featured the work of the avant-garde architects, designers and theorists of Europe led by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and his mentor, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It was Johnson and this exhibition that helped to define and articulate for the American public the main characteristics of the new Modern Movement know as the International Style.

After turning himself to the practice of architecture in the mid-1940s, Philip Johnson became, among other things, a leader in the postwar institutionalization of modern design in American domestic life. His "Glass House" of 1949, one of the most famous houses of the 20th century, is in many ways a tribute to Mies and to the high modernism and elegant minimalism of the International Style, characterized by flexible internal space and minimal applied decoration. Yet, despite the epoch, the cultural influences and the governing architectural principles of the time, the Glass House registers in many ways as the antithesis of the Modern Movement: it is a cozy nook vs. a "machine for living."

The Modern Movement originated in Europe and marked a total aversion to "the florid excess of Art Nouveau and the ‘precious' interiors of "Wiener Werkstatte." Mass production was established as the means of manufacturing consumer goods, and the Modern Movement was inspired by the concepts of rationalization and standardization. New materials and building techniques led to lighter, more spacious and functional interior environments that stripped away unnecessary ornament and gave a material and structural basis to the abstract idea of pure geometry.

In the new International Style "modernist" language, Le Corbusier defined the purpose of a house as "a shelter against heat, cold, rain, thieves and the inquisitive. A receptacle for light and sun. A certain number of cells appropriated to cooking, work, and personal life." For Le Corbusier, if it does not fulfill those functional requirements, it is not possible that factors of harmony and beauty should enter in. This new stripped-down approach to building interiors used an equally stripped-down language, rid of the florid speech that often described domestic structures. Modernism was boiled down to five key words: ‘space', ‘form', ‘design', ‘structure', and ‘order'.

Interestingly, in the U.S., the International Style was being accepted at the same time that pre- and post-war suburbanization was taking hold of the country. The boom in domestic architecture attracted the most serious attention from modern architects and the "domesticization of the International Style" ensued.

European professors like Gropius and Marcel Breuer, who came to America to head schools of architecture, used their own houses to introduce their modernist ideas, and Johnson followed suit with his "thesis" house on Ash Street in Cambridge, MA. This Mies-influenced space was criticized as being almost totally unlivable for an average U.S. family because of the complete formality of the basic design in which "few people would be at ease in so disciplined a background for every day living." His first "International Style"-house may have been too much "machine" and not enough "living" for America. But his next house, his own Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, became the paramount example of Johnson's translation of International Style modernism. Perhaps the acceptance of this house, based on the same glass-pavilion as Ash Street, was more palatable because it offered a surprisingly warm interpretation of materials, simplicity, transparency and nature that reach beyond the cold modernist language of ‘space', ‘form', ‘design', ‘structure', and ‘order'.

In his own introduction of the...

Bibliography: Forty, Adrian. Words and Buildings, A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture. Thames & Hudson Inc, New York 2000.
Heyer, Paul. Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America. Walker Publishing Group, New York, 1966.
Jenkins, Stover and Mahoney, David. The Houses of Philip Johnson. Abbeville Press, New York, 2001.
Johnson, Philip. "House at New Canaan, Connecticut. Philip Johnson: Architect," Architectural Review, 108 (September 1950).
Levine, Neil. Philip Johnson 's Glass House: When Modernism Became History. Abbeville Press, New York, 2001.
Massey, Anne. Interior Design of the 20th Century. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 2001.
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