I recently had the opportunity to visit two iconic architectural works in the affluent town of New Canaan, Conn. The first is Philip Johnson's Glass House, constructed in 1949 on a sprawling site as a private weekend retreat for the architect. The second is the River Building at Grace Farms, designed by Japanese firm SANAA and completed in 2015 on 80 acres of a former equestrian farm. The projects are separated by 66 years of history but only an 11-minute drive. Their proximity makes for a convenient sightseeing pairing, especially for travelers embarking on a day trip from Manhattan. Based on the works' formal and programmatic differences, their adjacency may be their only common characteristic. And so it follows that a closer comparison reveals differences in architectural purpose as well as insights about society's evolving relationship with technology and nature.
Seeing Through the Glass House
Johnson's transparent residence created quite a buzz when it was completed, just a few years after World War II. During this heady period, American society witnessed the rapid growth of modern, material industries and residential development. To most audiences, the construction of a glass-and-steel house presented a shocking vision of a future domestic realm completely lacking in privacy—a physical format more commonly associated with Modern commercial buildings than the home. In 1949, Life magazine proclaimed that the residence "consists of just one big room completely surrounded by scenery," adding that Johnson "likes to build extremely modern houses and try them out on himself."
Although Johnson deserves credit for realizing such an audacious venture, the idea was far from original. Based in part on early-20th-century visions of glass architecture promoted by German author Paul Scheerbart and contemporaries like the Weimer-era architect Bruno Taut as well as the Bauhaus School founder Walter Gropius, the house bears a striking resemblance to Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, which the architect designed in 1945 and was constructed in 1951. Likeness aside, the Glass House arguably advances the causes of Scheerbart and van der Rohe to realize a more transparent physical environment and adopt the latest building technologies.
Even English architecture critic Reyner Banham's technical appraisal of the Glass House is generous, which is surprising given the building's lack of mechanical air conditioning and operable windows. In his 1969 text, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (University of Chicago Press), Banham explains: "The glazing is not doubled, so—from the point of view of heat, light, vision, and acoustics—this is the lightweight wall in extremis.” One can understand the author's appreciation for the incorporation of radiant coils in the floor and ceiling for winter heating, yet his un-tempered admiration for the house, despite its stifling condition in the summer, can only be justified by the building’s profound connection with the landscape.
Unknown to many, the Glass House is one of two buildings constructed simultaneously on the site, the other being a nearly windowless brick edifice aptly named the Brick House and located across the lawn from the Glass House's entrance. Intended as a guest house, the opaque structure became Johnson's choice residence after the Glass House became "too distracting," as my tour guide put it. Considered together, these architectural counterparts paint a more complete, albeit extreme, picture of Johnson's domestic reality. In both instances, the buildings remain objects in the landscape, each exhibiting one of two absolute approaches to their surroundings.
Following the River Building
In contrast, SANAA's River Building at Grace Farms is neither a house nor a one-room structure. The multi-functional building supports the Grace Farms Foundation's mission to promote the arts, justice, community, faith, and nature, purposefully combining a diversity of programs, vantage points, and means of access within a singular structure. The project gets its name from its resemblance to a meandering river (particularly in plan view), although it traces the peaks of the hilly contours as opposed to their valleys. Composed of white-painted steel, curvilinear glass walls, wood soffits, and an aluminum roof, the building is more open than closed, a generous veranda encompassing a collection of scattered conditioned spaces housing a sanctuary, library, restaurant, cafe, and basketball court.
Like the Glass House, the River Building defers to its bucolic setting, taking as much advantage of its sylvan surroundings as possible. The preponderance of glass curtainwall similarly borrows the landscape as its “wallpaper”—as Johnson once described the Glass House’s backdrop—and from certain vantage points the walls seem to disappear entirely. Yet while the Glass House rests indifferently upon a flat section of lawn, the River Building fully engages the contours of its site. Urbanist Sam Holleran likens the structure to “an ant farm—channeling through the earth, popping up from below, and dropping down into the folds of hillside.” This integrative approach is the most fundamental distinction between the two works.
Understanding the Legacy
The Glass House is no longer a private residence, and its owner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, offers regular tours of Johnson’s collection of artwork, sculpture, and architectural follies on the site. As a result, it has become more operationally similar to Grace Farms (although the Glass House charges for entry, whereas Grace Farms is free to visit). The Glass House’s function as a preserve is clear, whereas Grace Farms’ purpose is somewhat open-ended and it remains to be seen how future audiences will engage with it.
Nevertheless, from my brief experience at the latter, visitors and staff appear to intuit the River Building readily, traversing its meandering passages on their way to and from various functions, occasionally stopping to appreciate the view outside. SANAA’s design of a total environment is reminiscent of similar approaches employed by Japanese contemporaries such as Paramodern founder Shuhei Endo, in Osaka, Japan, and Hitoshi Abe of Atelier Hitoshi Abe in Sendai, Japan, and Los Angeles, who each construct seamless ribbons of space in an attempt to facilitate connections between programs and the adjacent context. This fluid architecture offers an experiential gradient, enabling users to shift between settings based on their preferences and in accordance with diurnal and seasonal fluctuations. In this way, Grace Farms is well-suited to a contemporary culture defined by the blurring of work and leisure, pervasive mobile technologies, and an infatuation with “the third place”—such as a coffee shop or park—as a desirable alternative to the home or office.
In comparison, Johnson’s weekend retreat is a collection of disparate, severe experiments. Were visitors to inhabit the site for longer than a single guided tour, they‘d be unlikely to experience a Goldilocks moment. Instead, they may be tempted to switch between the Glass and Brick structures—in addition to the Studio, Painting Gallery, Sculpture Gallery, and other singularly defined pavilions on the site—as much out of convenience as shifting interests. The Glass House property is emblematic of Johnson’s notorious impatience. As former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote of the site in 2007, “Its uneven collection of architectural follies is an expression of a man more notable for a restless imagination and insatiable cultural appetites than for his gifts as an architect.” Although future architects should long appreciate Johnson’s Glass House and the other intrepid structures on the site, such architectural works may forever be defined not so much as a contribution to an evolving public but by the image of a relentless tinkerer trying things out on himself.