Legendary American architect Philip Johnson was not a writer. But he did construct an autobiography unlike any other. It just may not be in the form you expect.
"The Glass House, to me, is one of the rare works in the history of architecture that is actually an autobiography," Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, said. "So it actually asks the really interesting question if a work of architecture can be a biography or an autobiography."
Bergdoll was the guest speaker during the final segment of "Conversations in Context" at the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan Nov. 17. It was one of the last major events at the center before it closes for the season.
"Conversations in Context" allow visitors to engage with some of the leading minds in the fields of new art, architecture, design, landscape and preservation. The chief guests visit the Glass House and other sites on the 47 acres of Johnson's estate alongside visitors to provide a different perspective on the iconic work of Philip Johnson.
For Bergdoll, the Glass House is clearly more interesting than just an example of pristine modern architecture. He said it speaks to him on many different levels.
"It's many, many other things as well, as you can see. It's a landscape park and a synoptic history of the stylistic debates of American architecture," he explained. "It's also an outdoor museum because Philip Johnson was a curator. He was the founder of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art."
Yet the most intriguing aspect of all his work still remains how they all speak to each other to form his life story, going back to the autobiography concept.
"It's really interesting to see a place that was created by someone who was simultaneously a historian, architect, curator, and wondering if you could write your own life history through buildings and landscape and collections in the way that they were brought together."
Johnson came to New Canaan in the late 1940s to create his masterpiece. One of the reasons he chose New Canaan was because it was halfway between New York and New Haven, which suited his professional activities.
"If you can imagine this, real estate in New Canaan was very inexpensive at that time. Quite to the contrary today," Marianne Denniston, one of the guides, said.
Johnson did not come alone, however. He came as one of the famous Harvard Five. John M. Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores and Eliot Noyes all arrived in New Canaan from Harvard at around the same time to develop their work. Lucky for them, some of the officials in town supported their efforts, Denniston said.
"At the time, the building inspector in New Canaan was very sympathetic to these young architects and one professor. He said we really don't want to thwart progress," Denniston said. "So none of them had to contend with getting permits or zoning, or any of the things architects have to deal with today."
But not everyone in town loved the Harvard Five. "It's not that everybody (in New Canaan) liked them so well," Denniston said. "Many of the old timers in New Canaan referred to them as (men who were) littering the countryside with filing cabinets and clapboard boxes."
Yet even though some of the residents thought he was using nature irresponsibly, Bergdoll believed Johnson was really highlighting nature as best as he could with his work. Looking at the glass house, the trees are limbed up well above the house, forming a makeshift roof of sorts, and Johnson famously said he has "very expensive wallpaper" referring to the majestic look of trees and forest around him through the glass walls of the house.
"The real genius of Johnson at this point and something that in many ways was not something that would be expected in the late '40s from a modernist, was to understand the absolute symbiosis between the buildings as objects and the landscape," Bergdoll said.
For more information, visit philipjohnsonglasshouse.org.