The Glass House -- New Canaan's internationally known architectural attraction -- is much more. According to its curator, the entire campus constitutes a veritable fragmentation of a historic house, a creative concept and a fascinating life in art.
Henry Urbach, who became director of the Glass House two years ago, made his first public speaking appearance Sunday at the New Canaan Library, where he gave a detailed presentation on the unique story of architect Philip Johnson and his groundbreaking modernist creation.
"I actually just completed a speaking tour about the Glass House in Europe," said Urbach, a former gallery owner who also served as curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "It's nice to come home at the end of this tour to New Canaan."
"The Glass House is simultaneously rooted here in New Canaan ... and at the same time it's a site of national and international significance," he said. "It's really a very special site in that it has this extraordinary reach."
"Philip spoke about the Glass House as a kind of diary, really a kind of sketchbook, a place to tinker with ideas, that he would then take out in the world in working with other clients," Urbach said of the 49-acre estate that Johnson -- and later his life partner David Whitney -- accumulated and re-created throughout the second half of the 20th century. The grounds contain a wide variety of unique structures that Johnson designed using a range of styles and references.
"The Glass House is the center. ... In a way, the Glass House and Brick House can be thought of as one house split in two ... and really the entire campus can be thought of as one house that's been fragmented ... and kind of adds up to what this place is and means," Urbach said.
In the mid-1940s, Johnson, a Harvard-educated architect originally from Cleveland, designed two separate structures that served to accent one another in their proximity and qualities -- one a transparent building mostly of glass, and the other a completely opaque building made of brick.
"These two buildings were completed at about the same time and are really thought of as a pair -- one completely opaque, one transparent. ... The Brick House sheltering the more private aspects -- one house split in two," Urbach said.
"The two really worked as complementary parts of a whole," he said, noting that the hope is to eventually restore the Brick House so it can be opened for the public.
Through an hourlong program of slides and stories, Urbach took a packed house of more than 200 people on a detailed tour of the site, which is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He shared details and anecdotes about the famous friends and visitors to the location, including Johnson's frequent guest Andy Warhol, and iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom Urbach said Johnson had a contentious relationship.
"There are some famous exchanges that took place," he said. "Wright asked whether he should keep his hat on or off when he entered" the Glass House.
Urbach also emphasized that the facility is attempting ongoing restoration projects and always is in need of support.
Also, as part of his work as director, the facility continues to expand itself to not just be a historic destination, but also a campus for new and innovative art projects.
"One of the things that I've done since arriving is really try to activate the legacy of the Glass House, to infuse it with new life ... activating the site and allowing it to live as a place of experimentation and a place where new ideas and art can be," he said.
He noted that it always was an artistic center, serving as a busy salon, especially in the 1960s and '70s.
Urbach said several upcoming artistic exhibitions are planned, including a work by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya called "Veil," which will shroud the Glass House in mist for 10 minutes every hour, beginning May 1.
Meanwhile, Urbach said, there are still some spots available to visit the site May 7, which is the annual Community Day.
Jarret Liotta is a freelance writer.