A Walk In the Country
In Search of Modern
Copyright Vladimir Kagan, December 2, 2015
A few weeks ago, I lauded my friend Zaha Hadid.
This time I sing my praise to two Japanese architects, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the firm SANAA. Both Zaha Hadid and SANAA have won the Pritzker Award; both are at the peak of their success; both compete for the same projects.
There is a tug-of-was between the deconstructionism of Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry vs. the esthetic understatement of Mssrs. Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Both styles are important statements of the 21st centuries. One is explosive, a tribute to modern technology; the other a return to the drawing board. Neither could achieve their masterpieces without the 21st Century’s new technology.
I had recently received an invitation to a luncheon at Philip Johnson’s ‘Glass House’ in New Canaan Connecticut and used this occasion to explore the newly opened ‘Grace Farms’ near by.
This is a Blog in Two Parts for you to enjoy both properties
Though the weather started grey and raining, it was a beautiful fall day in Connecticut. The trees were in full color and the ground covered in glistening golden leaves like a carpet.
Our destination was New Canaan long known for its iconic mid-century modern architecture spearheaded by The Harvard Five, a young architectural cooperative back in 1949: Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes and my old skiing and sailing buddy, John Black Lee. They were affordable modern houses; some two stories others ranch, nestled into the woods, often precariously cantilevered on jagged granite boulders protruding out of the ground. My son-in-law’s mother lives in one of them - A little gem perched on top of one of these boulders.
Early 50's houses in New Canaan designed by The Harvard Five Architectural Group
Too many of these gems were demolished by enterprising builders and replaced with hideous “McMansions” and clapboard houses that now dot the neighborhoods - all too readily visible behind the historic stonewalls so ubiquitous in this part of Connecticut. Mercifully, the town fathers of New Canaan finally came to their senses and put a stop to this destruction. Today, what’s left of these examples of mid-century modern is landmarked!
Our destination was the Philip Johnson Glass House. A return to a landmark I had written about a few years ago in one of my earlier Blogs. The centerpiece of the property is the Glass House. Its primary purpose was for entertaining. However, behind a partition wall was a beautiful bedroom open to the sky and the prowling deer; it was for show only or the occasional privileged guest. The bathroom has a secret tunnel that leads to the real sleeping quarters some hundred feet away!
The Philip Johnson Glass House was a tribute to his friend Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
The occasion of our visit was a private viewing of the paintings by Enoc Perez; huge wall to wall, floor to ceiling paintings of Philip Johnson’s pink granite office tower nicknamed the ‘Lipstick’. The event was a discreet fundraiser sponsored by Peter Brand and his lovely wife Stephanie Seymour Brant, both great patrons of the arts. My friend Amy Lau managed to get us invitations for this event.
Enrico Perez with Scott Dreving, Deputy Director of the Glass House and Amy Lau and myself
(photo Patrick McMullan)
The Philip Johnson Compound was built in the 50’s on 49 acres of hilly wooded land. The property is a celebration in opulence; money well spent on the indulgence of beauty. Each structure is a tribute to Philip Johnson’s fertile and whimsical mind. All the buildings on the rambling property are accessible by footpath only. It is a sybaritic treat.
Age has its privilege - I was comfortably transported in a golf cart from building to building
Tucked into the landscape discreetly away from the other buildings is a window-less fortress constructed entirely of bricks. Intimate on the inside with a fireplace, it has a huge elliptical opening in the ceiling that emits a glow of indirect lighting. This quite sanctuary houses Mr. Johnson library.
The library is a foreboding windowless structure (though hidden from view is a nice window into the woods)
Mr. Johnson's library was a place for peace and solitude
In a dell near the entrance to the woods is the ‘Ghost House’, designed by Johnson with his friend Frank Gehry as a sanctuary for growing Lilies. The two architects gleefully thought they had outwitted the ever-prowling deer on the property. Of course the deer outsmarted them and enjoyed munching on the succulent deer-candy flowers. All that remained of the flowers were stems. The very ethereal look of this building gave it its name ‘Ghost House’!
The Ghost House was conceived as an outdoor shelter for growing lilies. It is tucked into the woods and is virtually invisible with its thin wire construction
A visit to the property would not be complete without venturing down the winding path through the woods to the Lincoln Kirstein tower and beyond that the bucolic pond with a miniature ‘floating’ pavilion that was Mr. Johnsons little ‘Folly”. He loved sitting there and contemplate the world.The Lincoln Kirstein Tower is an imposing sculpture, strategically placed at the edge of the woods overlooking the floating Pavilion.(it is interesting to note that Lincoln Kirstein was a good friend of my father and had Dad restore all the wooden sculpture of Eli Nadelman for a show at MOMA.)
Unfortunately, the beautiful White Sculpture Gallery with its subterranean caves was closed for repair. It houses Mr. Johnson’s diverse taste in sculpture from Greek Marbles to Frank Stella’s abstract constructions.
A view of the interior of the Sculpture House
At the top of the hill, near the ‘entrance to the property, is ‘The Monster’, an avant-garde building, created under the influence of Frank Gehry. It was the newest building on the property. Today, it serves as the welcome center for the complex.
The Monster guards the compound at the entrance - it is the most modernistic building on the property.
(photo Patrick McMullan)
Almost invisible from sight with only a grass mount as a hint of something happening, is an underground bunker, reminiscent of a World War II airplane hanger. If the doors weren’t open, you’d pass it by completely. This is the treasure trove that houses Mr. Johnson’s phenomenal collection of modern art. – Three enormous carrousels of rotating panels conceal dozens, maybe hundreds of paintings to be viewed leisurely by rotating panel after panel.
The Gallery was set up for our little private luncheon
(photo Patrick McMullan)
Lunch was a casual tête-à-tête with a group major art collectors and an interesting introduction to the works of Enoc Perez given by the host, Peter Brand. The luncheon was so hi-toned that only champagne or tea was served. I had no idea how addicted I was to my little dram of decaf coffee, and so a stop at the nearest Starbuck afterwards provided the right fix.
TO BE CONTINUED