The Next Monticello

Johnson's glass walls were revolutionary for 1949, but he had rather more Romantic ideas about nature, sitting his house at the top of a bluff so that it became a viewing machine for the landscape. Architects today still struggle with how to make a house in a beautiful place just disappear. Photo: James Welling

In 1949, Philip Johnson’s Glass House represented the next wave of architecture, albeit edited to a spartan 1,728 square feet. It was the first of a kind in America, an exemplar of European modernism transplanted to the heart of Colonial Connecticut. A collection of similarly transparent boxes soon sprang up in and around New Canaan, still one of the country’s greatest living museums of modernism. But Johnson himself preferred to move on, eventually adding or renovating fourteen structures on his 47-acre property (four of which are seen here). Next month, the compound, now a National Trust Historic Site, opens to the general public for the first time. Guided tours (limited to ten people) swiftly sold out through July, and the property will be officially inaugurated with a June 23 gala picnic that will feature a restaging of a 1967 site-specific Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance (information and tickets at

The property as a whole is a museum of the next big thing in architecture, permutations of modernism initiated and imitated by Johnson. Some are miniatures of larger projects, like the 1962 Lake Pavilion, the more charming daughter of the New York State Theater. The cloverleaf 1965 Painting Gallery, in which he buried his Stellas, Schnabels, and Warhols, looks forward to the willful, shiny shapes of his later skyscrapers.

Walking the green hills this summer—photographed here by James Welling, using film and digital cameras and a variety of filters held up in front of the lens at the moment the photo was taken—visitors might well wonder what the man would have seized upon next. An “All-Glass House,” akin to the Glass Pavilion designed by Sanaa for the Toledo Museum of Art, but with the unsatisfying brick bathroom of the original replaced with an iridescent cylinder? The ultimate green design, a “Grass House,” combining Johnson’s love of landscape and architecture in a single building? Johnson, like the rest of us, would have been wondering what happens A.G. (after Gehry)—to whom he paid homage pre-Bilbao with the 1984 chain-link Ghost House.

Photo: James Welling
The 1965 Painting Gallery is mostly underground, a burial mound for high art like Warhol's portrait of Johnson, all of it displayed on movable, petal-like walls that spin around three masts. Steven Holl just wowed Kansas City with a similarly anti-monumental addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Photo: James Welling
The 1970 Sculpture Gallery operates like a sundial, its glass roof sending stripes of sun around the Mediterranean-inspired rooms hour by hour. Johnson used this building to house works of the same period (this is George Segal's Lovers on a Bed II, 1970), moving his architecture and voracious collecting forward in tandem. Photo: James Welling
Seen here behind the main house is Johnson's bunkerlike Brick House, with pink Fortuny-fabric-upholstered walls and delicate arches. It is sometimes interpreted as the camp box in which he stored his homosexuality.Photo: James Welling
Scaled down, the 1962 Lake Pavilion makes the pond look bigger from the house, giving the illusion of a larger spread. The simplified arches demonstrate Johnson's movement toward historicism—as at Lincoln Center—that would eventually lead to the postmodern icon the AT&T tower. Photo: James Welling
Da Monsta (1995), a building intended as a visitor's center, shows Johnson warping and puncturing walls like the younger architects (Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind) he featured in the 1988 "Deconstructivist Architecture" show at MoMA.
Johnson kept the views from the house as pristine as possible, tucking the 1965 Paintings Gallery underground like some kind of minimalist earthwork.
The Next Monticello