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Philip Johnson’s Glass House Essay

The Glass House is a canonical example of high modernist architecture and interior design. The walls are made of plate glass, enclosing the structure while retaining a complete 360-degree view of the property outside. From the outside, one gets a free view into the interior as well. The interior itself is sparsely but carefully furnished in the characteristic high modernist mode.

Johnson’s Glass House captured a great deal of attention when first built. It is still widely hailed as a high modernist masterpiece and is regularly included in surveys of modern architecture. At the same time that Johnson’s house is celebrated as great architecture, it is sneered at for being unlivable. Despite its art-historical significance, the Glass House is thought by most to be unlivable not necessarily because it is aesthetically displeasing, but because it subordinates all other goals to this aesthetic pleasure.

It may think of the interior of the Glass House as ugly, it is perhaps because the attractiveness of an interior depends on not just on visual spectacle but also perceived livability. The Glass House lacks what we judge today as livability: comfort, casualness, and a certain degree of dowdy familiarity. The building serves more to make an aesthetic point or an art-historical splash, and these motivations turn out here to be separate from the more mundane pleasures of domestic life.

At first glance, the Glass House seems to be very much a work of environmental art. Surrounded by glass walls, the occupant is immersed in, though not physically subject to, the shifting atmospheric conditions of the outdoors. Perhaps no other house allows the occupant a more intimate sense of its natural surroundings. But is this what is meant by an environmental aesthetic of domestic space? A basic precept of any introductory interior design course is that the role of interior design is to provide artistically satisfying and practically effective solutions to the organization of the environments in which we must do particular things, like cooking, entertaining, sleeping, bathing, and lounging.

The art of domestic practice while at the same time making the environment worthy of aesthetic attention and admiration. In this view, the Glass House fails as full-fledged interior design (that is, an environmental art) because it never recedes into the background, never becomes an environment for practices of everyday life. The glass walls render the occupant perpetually self-conscious of being watched; the sparseness of the furnishings and the extreme orderliness of the house, where even table-top bric-a-brac are discreetly marked with indications of their correct location, mean that one can never feel truly at home.

The Glass House contradicts the long-standing Western association of dwelling with enclosure, privacy, and relaxation. As these tendencies are deeply entrenched, one can never get used to the Glass House and so can never truly inhabit it. But what a revealing failure it is! It is my contention that to genuinely understand what it takes to live in the Glass House will bring us a long way in understanding how it is that the ordinary process of inhabiting our homes is an artistic practice, a kind of environmental art.

On the conventional view of interior design sketched above, to truly in habit the Glass House would require that one “fix” it by adding some rooms off the back, walling in some of the plate glass, and introducing more furniture and clutter. But then, the building would no longer be the Glass House, the work of art designed by Philip Johnson. In order to live in a work art, one must respect it as a designed product, that is, one must live according to its rules.

This means not moving the furniture or adding objects, lest the composition be destroyed. It also means making sure that mess and clutter do not take over such that we can no longer see the original artistic creation. The respectful occupant must be a curator of sorts, preserving the house while living in it. This is clearly a difficult way to live! Nonetheless, it is possible to inhabit the Glass House, but obviously one must be a special sort of person that I shall term a “radical aesthetic.”

It is revealing that Johnson did not propose the house as a universal model of “true living.” As he famously retorted to one visitor who expressed her aversion to living in it, Johnson did not design the house for anyone but himself. Johnson seem to embody this radical aestheticism: he gives to the search for aesthetic pleasure more importance than most people and is perfectly satisfied to live in ways that others perceive as dreadfully uncomfortable, even inhuman.

In another of his famous quips, Johnson says that “comfort is a function of whether you think a chair is good-looking or not. Thus, we can assume that Johnson does not experience the Glass House as uncomfortable. Rather, we should believe that Johnson inhabits the house in perfect harmony with its severe rules, which, after all, are presumably his own. Johnson never feels compelled to drag in a bookcase or a dumpy chair found at a tag sale, leave his clothes on the floor or let dishes pile up in the kitchen sink for days.

But perhaps Johnson does not really live in the Glass House as most people live in their houses. After all, the Glass House is not his primary residence. It has always been more of a weekend retreat from New York. There are numerous outbuildings on the property, probably serving to capture the predictable overflow of “stuff” from the architectural masterpiece. Perhaps Johnson only pretended to love in the Glass House in order to make an aesthetic point or to promote himself as an architect.

On this view, the Glass House remains half stage set, half hotel room. Was this an accurate representation of his intentions, Johnson’s aestheticism would be posturing. For my purposes, it scarcely matters whether Johnson is really the radical aesthetic that he makes himself out to be. It is possible to imagine how he would have to live were he to live in the house as it was supposed to be lived in, that is, to live in it in a way that respects it as art. We can still sketch out the domestic practice of this special person – a limiting case of sorts – to help explain how living in a house on a daily basis can be seen as an environmental art.

Perhaps the Glass House is unlivable as a domestic space; but as a work of fine art, the Glass House does exactly what it is supposed to do, namely, to refine and intensify experiences already available to us in everyday life. Though the severity of the Glass House will strike many as perverse, I will argue that it is only an extremely refined version of what any sensitive homemaker creates.

The Glass House helps us to see what I term the art of domesticity. The art of domesticity means not just that the house is art, but that the very way of living in it is also an art, made and remade on a daily basis. As we shall see, these two arts, making and living, are connected. Along with the important care-work that often characterizes domestic responsibilities, this is what I take to be the genuine meaning of the term homemaking.

The successful occupant of the Glass House or any other pristine, severe, and hyper organized environment lives in the house in perfect harmony with its formal configuration and artistic meaning. On a daily basis, one achieves this harmony by developing a repertoire of habits that simultaneously achieves two things: first, it allows one to do everything one normally does in a home: second, our habits ensure that we always do these things in a way that respects and reflects the artistic integrity of the space.

Reference:

Berleant, A., & Carlson, A. (2007). The Aesthetics of Human Environments. New York: Broadview Press.

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