There are dandelions on Philip Johnson’s lawn. It is thick and green, mown on a diagonal following the gravel paths between the Glass House and the Brick House in New Canaan, Conn. But still, dandelions! Interlopers into this realm of single-material planes. I can’t help but imagine Johnson pointing a bony finger at the yellow flowers, leading to their immediate beheading.
I’m here to see a different kind of interloper: the first site-specific artwork to engage Johnson’s iconic 1949 house. Unlike the dandelions, it’s the perfect modernist houseguest. No muss, no fuss, no smell. Fujiko Nakaya’s “Veil” manages the difficult trick of creating a new frame for a familiar architectural monument (think of James Turrell at the Guggenheim Museum, on a much larger scale), while leaving only a spatter of raindrops on the landmark. “It alters it greatly but only momentarily,” says Glass House Director Henry Urbach.
“Veil” starts with a hiss, a burst of white curling up from under the stone parapet edging the bluff on which the Glass House sits. Long metal tubes fitted with 600 nozzles have been installed under the parapet – if you weren’t looking, you wouldn’t know they were there. Water, held in a tank at the top of the hill, is pumped through the tubes at high volume. Each “performance” takes on a different character, based on wind, rain, humidity. At my viewing, the mist began at first to drift sideways, from kitchen to bedroom, across the front of the house, wisping across the lawn and then thickening, mounting house-high on the far side. Though it never seemed to grow in volume, excess fog floated down into the deep valley, so that some of the landscape was also veiled. The view from the house of the pond pavilion disappeared.
Inside the house “Veil” felt more like weather, a sudden storm. As Urbach pointed out, it can make the house more conventional, giving the glass box opaque, if ephemeral, walls. The mist goes on for 10 minutes every hour, enough time to see it from afar, as from the path to the Painting Gallery, or looking up from down by that pond. You have to go up close, too: It was so white, so fulsome, that I went up to try to touch it. The spray didn’t even feel wet, just like a coolness on my skin.
And then, at the stroke of the digital clock, it was gone. The moment the jets stopped, the mist dispersed, and there was the Glass House in the sun, looking like it has for the past 65 years. What remained was a new question: Was the fog the theater curtain, or the main event? Figure, or ground? “Veil” stands in for all of the other buildings on the 47-acre property that typically act as the supporting cast for the Glass House, and even for the landscape itself, carefully sculpted, dotted with sculpture, lit to create outdoor rooms. The fog seems to be in particular dialogue with the lighting of Richard Kelly which, if you are on site after dark, makes the open fields feel like containers for the small buildings. As the mist fills up the verge between the Glass House and the parapet, it forces you to consider the dimensions of that space in a way you probably hadn’t before.
Urbach says the foundation is planning other site-specific installations after the success of “Veil” and last year’s SNAP!, conceived by E.V. Day for the building known as Da Monsta. He mentions, tantalizingly, something in the landscape. After Day’s net and Nakaya’s mist, I’m looking forward to the next metaphor.
Alexandra Lange is the architecture critic for Curbed and the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. She was a 2014 Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Read more of her work at alexandralange.net.