Housing the Muse, Part Two
by Wendy Richmond
In 2007, Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, opened to the public. The guided tour covers a portion of the 47 acres and 14 structures on the estate, including the Glass House itself. The tour allows small groups, and is only available during a few months of the year. When I finally got a reservation, it was on a cool autumn day, and the trees were starting to thin out, exposing more of the landscape.
I had come, like most visitors, to be inside the Glass House. I wanted to experience what I had always heard about: a building where the distinction between interior and exterior disappears; walls do not exist, and you can see everything, inside and outside, all at once.
Instead, from the moment we entered the estate, the guide emphasized Johnson's ever-present concept of “hide and reveal.” She pointed out the ways that Johnson designed what he called “events on the landscape,” and then quoted from an essay by Dorothy Dunn, the former director of Visitor Experience and Fellowships: “The experience of the Glass House is a sequence of choreographed moments, shaped by design, that engage your senses as you move through and between architecture and the landscape.” Johnson referred to the estate as his “fifty-year diary;” everything from the Glass House to the pathways, the sculpture, the pool, the Brick House, the Painting Gallery, the Library Study—even the pruning of the trees—was considered by Johnson to be part of his “organization of procession.”
In my previous column “Housing the Muse, Part One,” I wrote about the feeling of inspiration that architecture can elicit; how the interior spaces of, for example, grand libraries and museums have been designed to remove us from the day-to-day, clearing the mind so that it is open and receptive, “readying it for what the muses have to offer.” On my train ride home from the Glass House tour, I thought about why I felt inspired. Throughout the afternoon, I had been engaged in a sort of active loop, repeatedly clearing my mind and then filling it with what the muse, i.e., Philip Johnson, had to offer. But there was something else: I kept coming back to the notion of “hide and reveal,” and I realized that I was moved by mystery.
In their book Cognition and Environment, research psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan described the factors that affect how we feel about landscapes. They wrote about the positive value of mystery: “The more preferred scenes are very likely to give the impression that one could acquire new information if one were to travel deeper into the scene. Mystery involves the inference that one could learn more through locomotion and exploration.”
Moving through the Glass House estate, whether I was eagerly walking on the curved path for my first glimpse of the Glass House, or coming upon the shocking-blue swimming pool, I was constantly receiving new information. I had entered a rhythm of anticipation, confident that beyond each hill, or behind each structure, or past each stone wall, there would be yet another “event” in Johnson’s procession. Each element plays two roles: hiding and revealing. A hill hides and then reveals the Library, which in turn hides and then reveals the Ghost House, and so on. Inside the Painting Gallery, paintings are mounted on rotating panels, so that you see each one by itself, while knowing that there is another one behind it. In the landscape as well as inside the buildings, it is just as exciting to experience the “hide” as it is to experience the “reveal.”
There is a park near my home that was designed in 1867 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the architects of New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park. The day after my visit to the Glass House, I went to the park, reciting the mantra of “hide and reveal” as I came upon each new vista. I realized that whenever I walk in this park, I look forward to each “unveiling”—the city’s skyline, the staircase to the monument at the top of the hill, an outdoor yoga class. Later, I stopped at the local bookstore and read an interview with Robert Twombly, author of Frederick Law Olmsted, Essential Texts. Twombly said, “Olmsted didn’t think a park should reveal itself in totality from any given place. He thought the park should unfold itself constantly as you walk through it. So there’s always a surprise, there’s always something new.”
Philip Johnson has stated, “Architecture exists only in time. The beauty consists in how you move into the space.” It is no surprise that Johnson called Central Park his favorite work of architecture in New York City. CA
© 2010 W. Richmond
Editor’s note: Wendy’s book Art Without Compromise* is published by Allworth Press.