Discover Philip Johnson’s Famous Glass House

Philip Johnson’s signature work The Glass House was built in 1949. Discover what makes the building so important and unique.

Nov 4, 2023By Isabel Droge, MSc Arts and Culture, BA Art History

philip johnson glass house


Philip Johnson (1906-2005) was a prominent American architect who became famous for both his modern and postmodern designs. After finishing his studies of philosophy and classics at Harvard, he first became a curator at the architecture department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After serving a few years in the army and fighting in the Second World War, Johnson returned to Harvard to attend a graduate program in architecture. The architect had a prolific seven-decade-long career and the Glass House is considered his signature design.


Philip Johnson and the Glass House 

Photograph of Philip Johnson, leaning against the Brick House, in front of the Glass House which was built in 1949, via The Glass House website


After returning from the war in 1946, Philip Johnson bought a five-acre plot in New Canaan, close to New York City. Soon after purchasing the land, Johnson started designing a residence for himself called The Glass House. Johnson had already been coming up with plans for a residence. Eventually, the Glass House was designed between 1946 and 1948, after which it was built and finally completed in 1949.


However, it would be wrong to suggest that the Glass House was fully completed once the building work was over. The design process of both the house’s interior and the landscape around it continued for quite a while after 1949. Johnson’s life partner, David Grainger Whitney, whom he met in 1960, would help Johnson with this part of the project. Whitney, who worked as a studio assistant to Jasper Johns, had a great eye for design. He played a crucial role in shaping the landscape and the art collection of the New Canaan property.


Photograph of the exterior of Philip Johnson’s Brick House, built in 1949, via Land Tech Consult


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While the Glass House had a lot of privacy thanks to the size of Johnson’s land, its transparency and the use of glass walls were not desirable at all times. Because of this, Johnson decided to build additional residences. The first one was the Brick House, which was also finished in 1949. The Brick house was the opposite of the Glass House since most of its walls were without any windows. Johnson added three round windows only in the back wall of the property.


Just like the Glass House, the Brick House consisted of an open space. As the Brick House mostly functioned as a place where Johnson’s guests could sleep over, it was also referred to as the Guest House. Besides the Brick House, the New Canaan plot featured a gallery space, library, studio,  lake pavilion called the Pavilion in the Pond, and several other buildings.


Photograph of the interior of Philip Johnson’s Brick House, built in 1949, via Phaidon


Rather than constructing a single house with multiple purposes, Johnson put several buildings on his plot, each with its own unique function. However, the Glass House, which is located in the center of the property, seems to have served as the main house. Although its decorations were simple, the house had a living area, a kitchenette, a bathroom, and a sleeping area. Johnson and Whitney would live in the Glass House from 1949. Even after Johnson had given his Glass House to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1986, the two men remained the property’s residents until their deaths in 2005.


The Design of The Glass House 

Photograph of the Glass House by Philip Johnson, via Dezeen


The overall structure of the Glass House consists of three main materials: glass, steel, and brick.  The outer walls were constructed of steel and glass, while the floor was made of brick. Apart from the floor, brick was also used for the construction of the circular bathroom and fireplace, which stands in the middle of the open space.


There are also materials that dominate furniture design. For example, wood is used for the kitchen cabinets, the bathroom door, and the closet behind the bed. Steel was used to make the chairs and the daybed, which were designed by Mies van der Rohe, as well as the coffee table. Overall, these materials help create a light, minimal, and natural-looking space that blends in well with its natural surroundings.


Photograph of the Mies van der Rohe pieces in the interior of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, via Ignant


As Johnson said himself, the land was the guiding principle for the location and design of the Glass House. The overall design of the New Canaan plot was a nod to the English parks of the 18th century which were known as English gardens. This was a landscape in which the design of the paths and buildings was centered around the already existing nature. In Johnson’s case, this meant that his designs were built around a knoll and an oak tree. The famous architect even said that the New Canaan plot was more of a landscape park than a work of architecture.


The fireplace in Philip Johnson’s Glass House, finished in 1949, via Ignant


While the landscape guided the design, there were also other reasons why Johnson designed an open-plan glass house in the first place. He thought it would be nice to have a place in which you could swivel around and see everything all at once, including the outdoors. Besides this, he also loved the idea that the Glass House would be the only place in the world where one could simultaneously watch the sunset and the moonrise.


Photograph of the bathroom placed inside of the round brick wall in the Glass House, via Reddit


Stylistically, the Glass House was inspired by the works of Mies van der Rohe. This is seen in the use of an open plan in which several planes and blocks separate one area from another. The open plan, as well as the absence of any unnecessary decorations, were important features of modernist architecture. As a result of applying an open plan, architects often worked with so-called planes and blocks.


The image below, which consists of a model of the Glass House, shows Johnson’s adaptation of these modernist ideas. For example, the closet behind the bed separates the sleeping area from the rest of the house, while the same thing happens in the kitchen thanks to the incorporation of the L-shaped cabinets. The dining area, the living area, and the study area are all a part of the open space of The Glass House.


Model of Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House, via Atlas of Interiors


There are also hints of Mies’ aesthetic in the subtle asymmetry of the interior. During the 1920s, when Mies van der Rohe’s designs first helped define modernist architecture, the architect came up with the concept of asymmetry. Twenty years later, Johnson implemented this idea into his Glass House by using the round bathroom building. However, in Mies’ designs, the asymmetry could be found in both the interior and exterior, but Johnson only used it inside the building. Johnson thought that the symmetrical outside made the whole house look calm and organized. When one stepped inside, however, he or she would encounter a wild world of asymmetrical planes and volumes.


Johnson said he was also inspired by the artist and father of Suprematism known as Kazimir Malevich as well as Constructivism. In both Suprematism and Constructivism, the artists focussed on geometrical shapes. While Suprematism was one of the first art movements where the artists made abstract art, Constructivist artists produced a language made of geometry, using scraps and shards of industrial material. The interior of Johnson’s house looks like a compilation of geometrical scraps, with a circle and several rectangles and squares.


Photograph of the bedroom section of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, finished in 1949, via Ignant


The Glass House is seen as Johnson’s most important design, not only because it was a prime example of modernist design principles, but also because it had a profound effect on the history of architecture. It inspired generations of architects and designers to explore new ways of conceptualizing space and challenging traditional design principles. Its minimalist aesthetic, the fully open plan, and innovative use of glass as a building material have also become defining features of modern architecture. The New York Times called the house the world’s most famous transparent box. Johnson himself, on the other hand, called it a simple cube. The Glass House being a simple cube might be exactly what makes it so special.


Comparing Philip Johnson’s Glass House with Mies’ Edith Farnsworth House

Photograph of the exterior of the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe, finished in 1951, via AIA


Johnson said that he and Mies discussed ways in which one could build a glass house. Subsequently, both of them built their own version of it. Johnson designed the Glass House, and Mies designed a weekend home for Doctor Edith Farnsworth, called the Edith Farnsworth House (formerly known as the Farnsworth House). Despite the fact that the Glass House and the Edith Farnsworth House show some stylistic similarities, the two architects had different approaches. Johnson himself said that in contrast to Mies, his Glass House was strongly influenced by historical styles. Apart from Mies, the English garden, and Malevich, the house and its direct surroundings were also influenced by the Parthenon, the whole Romantic Movement, and the asymmetry seen in the works of the late nineteenth century.

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By Isabel DrogeMSc Arts and Culture, BA Art HistoryIsabel is an art historian and writer from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She holds a MSc in Arts and Culture Studies and a BA in Art History, both from the University of Amsterdam. Isabel’s biggest passion lies with European art from the fin de siècle period. Within this field, her main focuses have been the Art Nouveau and Vienna Secession, the decorative arts, as well as the reception of marginalized artists. Currently, she finds herself very interested in art from the early and mid-twentieth century. When Isabel is not busy writing, she loves traveling, photography, web design, and being in nature.