Modernism's Elder Statesman
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 3/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Philip Johnson's most famous interior was hardly an interior at all. Entering his Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut, Frank Lloyd Wright was said to have inquired, "Am I indoors or am I out? Do I take my hat off or keep it on?"
For Johnson, who died in January at 98, ambiguity and unpredictability were virtues. His 1958 design for New York's Four Seasons restaurant, with its travertine walls, French-walnut paneling, and metal drapes, gave the lush corporate modernism of mid-century America its highest expression. His Fort Worth Water Gardens, a collection of three dramatic fountains built in 1974, is one of the most exciting public spaces in the country. He organized the Museum of Modern Art's premier architecture exhibit in 1932 (when he was just 26) and in 1979 became the first recipient of the Pritzker Prize.
Although a handful of Johnson's works inspired controversy—New York University's Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, the AT&T Building in New York—his Glass House is an undisputed masterpiece. It stands directly across from the brick Guest House often inhabited by Johnson's longtime partner, David Whitney. In 1953, Johnson shrouded the brick building's windows in panels covered in Fortuny Egyptian cotton and inserted arched canopies reminiscent of a pasha's tent. Presaging Johnson's turn to postmodernism decades later, the interior was as opaque as the Glass House was transparent, and at least as brave.
Like his structures in New Canaan, Johnson could be light or dark. His own interior will never be completely understood—his flirtation with fascism in the 1930's was one sign of the demons that demanded more of him than architecture. But the rooms he designed will become better known now that he's gone. The Glass House, the Guest House, and the half dozen other buildings at his 40-acre estate will soon be open to the public. Wright's observation notwithstanding, we can all take our hats off to Philip Johnson.