Cooper & Pratt House 2246
Mayor's House 2269
Ahmedabad Millowners' Association Building
Francesco Dal Co
The house of dreams and memories
Philip Johnson at New Canaan 1982
Maurice Blanchot has noted how, after Worringer, certain "German painters directed plastic art towards the study of a field without any privileged points and which presents no possibility of orientation, developed
through motions in which every point possesses the same value. Subsequently, Klee dreamed of a space in which the total omission of the centre would simultaneously suppress every trace of the vague and irresolute."
An analogous procedure, which we can imagine as a tendency towards "release from the centre", appears in the "pavilion system" which Philip Johnson has been constructing for his own home in New Canaan, Connecticut. The first phase of this set of buildings goes back to 1949 and was the famous Glass House. It was followed by the guest house, the pond, a gazebo on the pond and two galleries for Johnson's private collection, and, more recently, the library.
The New Canaan complex has all the features appropriate to the dwelling of a collector - even if, in this case, it happens to be a somewhat special collector; one whose character has one element in common with that "prototype" of the contemporary collector, Eduard Fuchs, whom Benjamin immortalized in his portrait of this remarkable "collector and historian".
Johnson, too, in his home in New Canaan, combines collecting and "historicism", even though this "historicism" takes an eminently autobiographical turn. Johnson's art-collecting is united with architectural collecting. But it is, precisely, an encounter between different tendencies. In cataloguing his own architectural works, Johnson distances himself from them in order to "appraise" them, setting them in what is virtually a historical perspective. With critical detachment, he proceeds in this way to the construction of his own architectural biography. This operation presupposes an outward projection, a "division" of the self. This is a split which the collector mends by creating his own collection of works of art. In the latter case the "historian" no longer intervenes; the object studied is no longer represented by autobiography. Satisfying one's taste is different: it requires a work of self-identification. This empathy cannot serve a person who instead narrates his own work: to do this it is advisable to attempt to place oneself outside one's investigation and order the results with the eye of the "historian".
This detachment is illustrated by the sequence of buildings on the New Canaan estate. The process they define is that traced by the split which separates them from the author of their story. They represent the account of a process leading to the accentuated contestation of the centre from which the collector started. The conquest of a space without a centre links certain aspects of modern art with the aspirations of the collector. The latter partly shares the tension that Blanchot mentions; he cultivates temptations to expansion of possession which is achieved in the extreme detail of the forms through which possession itself is fulfilled.
This "progress beyond the centre" is another essential aspect of the buildings conceived by Philip Johnson for himself at New Canaan. They trace out a series, from the Glass House to the very recent library. This building knows the secret of surprise, evidence of indubitable intellectual vitality. That this evolution should be interpreted as a demonstration of the Ichspaltung to which the person who started the movement has to be subjected is confirmed precisely by his autobiographical vocation.
The Glass House is both a tribute and a farewell. Johnson himself has fully clarified its autobiographical character, displaying its intellectual "history" in ways similar to those which a chemist might use in describing the phases of a process of synthesis or distillation. This does not contradict the fact that the Glass House is an act of homage and farewell. Johnson produced this refined "glass box" in the years when, as he has recounted himself, his name might as well have been Mies van der Johnson. . .
Generally in his writings Johnson keeps strictly to the rules of fair play. He carefully clarifies the sense of his studies, rejecting any attempt at mimicry--yet mimicry is one of the keys to his architecture. Is the little gazebo by the pond puzzling? Does it provoke the moralism of critics? Narcissistic nonsense perhaps? The answer is simple. It comes from Johnson himself. To complete the Glass House--and there are no other apparent reasons--first a pond was needed, and then, to enrich the pond, the gazebo was needed. . . As can be seen, what counts is always "the need for completeness": autobiography and collecting require continual expansion. In architectural terms, this leads to a progressive obscuring of the centre, from which the whole of the composition originates. In being completed, the Glass House becomes encircled. It is no longer a "centre", but just the initial item in a collection which will have to be continuously enriched. Says Johnson: "I had a pond-- two years ago the place needed a pond -- which looked rather empty. Something interesting to look at from the house was necessary. Contrarywise, some place to walk to from the house--from which to look at the house--was also necessary."
From this--from this yearning for "completeness" by which to appease every nascent "necessity"--is derived the progressive effacement of the original order established with the layout of the Glass House. The "disorder" of the inner composition is accentuated, as the detachment from the glassy fixity of the first "box" appears as an architectural route through autobiography. With this, the dialectic between order and disorder, between centre and periphery, between certainty and uncertainty, becomes the key of the architectural tale Johnson is offering us. From this emerges the labyrinthine character which the entire system ends up by acquiring.
The construction of the "home" as labyrinth--once Johnson complained of the lack of attention shown by contemporary architects for the ancient art of gardens, and of course one of the typical expressions of this art was the designing of mazes--embraces the entire metaphor of the biography narrated in architectural terms. The labyrinth is derived from, among other things, its own peculiarity of the simultaneous presence of the enigma and the keys to solve it. This is a mechanism which one also comes across in his autobiography. The solution of the biographical enigmas requires a continual probing of information, an ever-widercollation of facts, a broadening of perspective--but in every case it relates to a possible “solution”.
The extension of facts and informations is what is represented by Johnson in the buildings constructed at New Canaan. They are conceived as a succession of different architectural episodes, recomposed only conceptually in the proper order as metaphors of an equivalent number of phases in the sphere of autobiography. This sequence starts from a separation in the form of a tribute. The Glass House marks the departure from the language of Mies, from a truly demanding "tradition". Few contemporaries have been so involved in the decline of the tradition of the modern as Philip Johnson. Few have felt the burden of the "Miesian" past as much as Johnson has, or had the courage to pursue that course to the point where they glimpse the last bridge with its broken arches. The Glass House looks onto this break in the old highway and reacts to it with an almost imperceptible yet decisive difference. It is at this point that there begins an experience that is the reverse of that Johnson had lived through until the 1950s. A new relation with tradition is established. This was heralded with the presence, in the heart of the rarified geometry of the Glass House, of a cylinder of masonry, appearing in that context as an anti-Miesian heresy. From this heresy there stems a new dialogue with the languages of the modern past. It is a relationship that now begins to develop in prevalently destructuring terms. Deconstruction, from this point on, will strive to dismantle and break up even the most solid idioms which contemporary architectural languages had succeeded in fashioning.
Deconstruction implies a continuous decodification. Johnson is aware of this to the point of applying it to his own works, attaining the form of the autobiographical essay through the accumulation of "relics" at New Canaan. This need to decodify is combined in Johnson's. work with the eclectic experimentalism of his formal research, with the autobiographical narcissism which is one with the innate penchant for collecting.
It is no accident that the metaphor of the labyrinth should have been favoured. In this form there appears to co-exist the tendency towards expansion peculiar to the collector and his yearning for decipherment: possession becomes necessary for the solution of the enigma, but this already presupposes the presence of him who will succeed in violating it. In the case of the New Canaan estate, this ideal picture proves complicated and completed by its autobiographical implication inherent in the architectural plot. This relates to that "historicist attitude" which is always typical of the collector. This web means that the constructions of New Canaan are always subject to continuous expansion. By reproducing them, the architect sublimates the coherency of his own research, the integrity of his intellectual experiences, the redemption of his lost freedom - freedom pushed to the frontiers of autobiography. But each further chapter in this tale confirms its labyrinthine nature. Each new project renews an interplay of reflections; it enriches the plot with further complications requiring new solutions.
This strategy of sublimation is, however, exposed to a twofold contradiction. The "reality" is in fact excluded from the labyrinth, whose centre remains the enigma. If this were not enough, the now known succession of Johnson's buildings constructed at New Canaan could bear witness to it--the early tributes to Mies, and then the pond, the interplay of false scales expressed through the gazebo and the two antithetic galleries: one need only take a look at the latest buildings, the white library, a felicitous intuition which hovers elegantly between elementarist allusions and impressions from Le Corbusier's formal poetry, and this will be confirmed. The library once more covers his traces. It is a passage that seems related to the forgotten origins of the journey. An episode that seems to seek a remedy for the inadequacies of the earliest "chapters" of the autobiography, but, at the same time, on the purely architectural plane, it is a fertile insight; almost seeming to express that while it may be advisable to enter into conflict with the modern, this by no means excludes the need to recognize the breadth of this past, its richness, the ignored challenges which are still concealed in it.
With the construction of the library, finally, the whole complex at New Canaan acquires a mature bodily fullness--even though the work of the collector is probably not at an end. At this point, however, the "home" which Johnson desired for himself appears sufficiently detailed. But herein lies the confirmation of the contradiction we have spoken of. This "home", in fact, represents the apotheosis of the interior. The interieur, in Benjamin's sense, appears in it as the direct product of the need that drives the architect to widen his collector's avidity to the point where it is satisfied even by an autobiographical narrative. The traces which Johnson hides in his home are the same signs as those that segment his autobiography. This induces him to devote himself to the primacy of the interior. His strategy can only be opposed to that which Benjamin takes over from Brecht when he warns the "inhabitant of the big city" of the need to go systematically about cancelling his traces.
But if it is the interieur that has to be saved, the destiny of the home proves to be determined by this fact. It can no longer appear as a monument in the strict sense; instead of being a house it will therefore be a celebration of the story and the autobiographical memory which animate the interior. But together with this the interior exacts a sacrifice. It imposes the adoption of solid protection against the exterior, while by its architectural nature it exposes itself to a destiny which tends to reverse the sense of its autobiographical sublimation. The protection of the interior which Johnson pursues is secured in two complementary ways. On the one hand, this is achieved by accentuating the "processional" character that distinguishes the modes of relationship between the buildings constructed within the estate and the external environment. This tendency appears even in the arrangement of the Glass House: it is the formal nature of the glass box, as Philip Johnson himself explains, that imposes a distorted, "oblique", "detached" approach. In the second place, the interior which contains the "tracks", which is treated as a "monument" architecturally indicating its diversity from the context, lends itself (precisely by means of this twofold order of reasons: interior and monument are two expressions of the collector's mode of being) to being fundamentally a museum.
Ernst Jünger has grasped the affinity which "exists between the realm of the museum and the great cult of the dead and of graves, and in this regard the museum confesses itself the legitimate child of the monument. In technical language, all these things are 'monuments'. . .and their staff are 'keepers': a name which suggests the relation between the museum and the process of mummification." The traces which the vocation for autobiography disseminates throughout the interiors of New Canaan, in pursuit of its own expository clarity, are exposed to this same danger. The traces of the collector here tend to become mute relics. In this way they confirm the closeness of their link with the interieur, with the "home" understood as a private shelter in live, with this ultimate expression into which modern investigation of the sense of the monument seems destined to withdraw. This radicalizes the separation of the exterior that the architectural treatment anticipates in its rejection of the context. From this there stems a taxonomic organization of settings forming the "home" in New Canaan. The "protective strategy" which Johnson intended to adopt in building his dwelling for life finds its conclusive expression in this arrangement.
Like the guests in New Canaan, housed in a special building detached from the original Glass House, the other architectural episodes are also scattered about the rest of the estate, following their own formal inclinations. Just as the Guest House is intended to safeguard the integrity of the Glass House, so the subterranean picture gallery and the pavilion of sculptures arrange in sequence the various experiences that the "home" can offer, taking good care to present them separately. The fruit of Philip Johnson's vocation as a collector, the two galleries have not only the function of explicitly introducing into the home the character which the interior has been implicitly acquiring (that of the museum), but also perform the function of preserving the interior from the danger that the outer world might interfere with these "tiny oases of marble and gold", while evoking their presence in the ironical or disconsolate sublimations of pop-art kept in the galleries. Only as art, uniquely adopted within this aura, is "life" permitted to violate the interior of New Canaan; but at the same time, "life" can only be represented in a fashion suited to these interieurs: adopted by collecting, it is sublimated as art and set below underground domes.
There may be various different keys to explain this story. Many approaches appear for an understanding of the superimposition of levels on which this singular autobiographical tale is developed. But one of them is, perhaps, the way by which to free oneself from the feeling of egocentric narcissism which, to a superficial impression, is emanated by what Johnson has constructed for himself in New Canaan.
In one of his finest writings, Johnson has declared: "Now we know that we cannot 'solve' anything. The only principle that I can conceive of believing in is the Principle of Uncertainty." True, this is not an original statement ... but it is original to hear it from a designer like Johnson. New Canaan is the "museum" of his uncertainties. It is no accident that the Glass House, with the passing of time, has been losing its value as the centre of the composition that Johnson has imposed on the taxonomy of his interior. This is the "museum" of what might have been but wasn't. It is the place where the collector protects his own difference, keeps the fruits of his curiosity, "studies the world" (both the "external world" and the world animated by the forms of his imagination as architect), allowing it to filter strictly through the barriers protecting his "historian's" workshop--the "historian" of himself first of all--. . ., and hence the symbolic significance of his last building, the library.
A completely private world, New Canaan does not admit basic explanations apart from the autobiographical purpose which Johnson has poured so liberally into these buildings. What emerges is a remarkable museum of architecture. True, this is an architecture represented in keeping with the tastes of a single collector and conceived by a single designer--but in this "museum" the uncertainties, the rules violated, the baseless games, the extra-territorial nature of contemporary architectural languages, are ruthlessly listed, memorized and catalogued.
As a great admirer of Jünger, Hans Slemayer, states: "The world, for which the museum is becoming the most sacred theme, is already, by its essence, a world which sees everything in a historical perspective." Philip Johnson probably belongs to this world as well. For this reason he possesses a trait in common with Georg Fuchs. His collector's spirit reaches New Canaan, where it narrates synchronically the story of contemporary architectural uncertainties, arranging in the museum they give shape to, the traces of the interior of his own life as well.