Celebrating 75 Years

Brick and Paper at The Glass House

John Hill
20. May 2024
L: Brick House, Philip Johnson, 1949. R: Paper Log House, Shigeru Ban, 2024. (Photos: Michael Biondo)

From 1949’s Glass House and Brick House to 1995’s “Da Monsta,” Philip Johnson designed and constructed ten structures on his ever-growing, now 49-acre estate in New Canaan before his death in 2005. Even before realizing the last piece of what he called the “diary of an eccentric architect,” Johnson donated his estate, in 1986, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The National Trust started welcoming the public to what is now known collectively as The Glass House in 2007, two years after both Johnson and his longtime partner David Whitney died. Since then, the organization has been conducting public tours, holding events, maintaining the buildings and grounds, and using the property as a canvas for art installations. For 2024, the 75th anniversary of the titular building's completion, The Glass House is exhibiting Shigeru Ban's Paper Log House on the property and reopening the Brick House for public tours. World-Architects visited recently.

Brick House

The Brick House seen from the Glass House in 2024. (Photo: Michael Biondo)

Philip Johnson's Glass House from 1949 is one of the most famous modern 20th-century houses, often paired in architectural history books with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's equally famous Farnsworth House, which was completed in Plano, Illinois, two years later. Johnson was unashamedly inspired by Mies, having seen his design for the in-progress Farnsworth House when he curated the Mies van der Rohe exhibition at MoMA in 1947. Writing about his house in New Canaan for Architectural Review in 1950, Johnson explicitly stated that, “except for the cylinder” (housing the bathroom and fireplace), “the house is Miesian.” Furthermore, he wrote that the Brick House, then referred to as the guest house, “was derived from Mies' designs” of his earlier brick houses. Regardless of the shared references, it is safe to say that the Brick House is a historical footnote in the story of the Glass House, even though the two rectilinear buildings depend on each other, functionally and aesthetically.

Working on the Brick House's site drainage in November 2023. (Photo: Michael Biondo)

In his introduction to Philip Johnson: The Glass House, the 1993 book edited by David Whitney, his longtime partner, and Jeffrey Kipnis, Johnson explained the siting of the house: “When I first walked over the original five-acre section [of the now 49-acre property] I sited The Glass House where it is today. [… The] setting on the hill I picked in the first five minutes.” That ideal location was heightened in the ensuing years and decades by the creation of the pond at the bottom of the hill and the scattered locations of the other buildings and follies, but the eventual siting of the Brick House was problematic, one of the main culprits in its need for a major restoration this century. While an early scheme by Johnson placed the two rectilinear volumes next to each other, divided by a brick wall that extended into the landscape, and another separated the two houses apart but put them perpendicular and nearly tangent to each other, Johnson eventually moved the Brick House to its final location at a remove from the Glass House, at the base of a slope from the road above.

Bedroom in restored Brick House, 2024. (Photo: Michael Biondo)

The decades-long impact of the Brick House's siting, in which water shed down the slope toward the building, combined with failures of the flat roof and skylights to close the building to the public in 2008, not long after the National Trust started offering tours of the site. “For such a seemingly simple structure,” National Trust restoration architect Mark Stoner explained in a statement, “the work required to preserve, protect, and restore the Brick House was extensive. Damage caused by decades of water intrusion into the building from above and below took a serious toll on the building.” Mold growth, deteriorating plaster, and rusting mechanical systems — the same systems that also served the Glass House and literally tied the two buildings together — were just a few of the areas that required extensive restoration. A partial conservation effort was undertaken by Li/Saltzman in 2010, but a more thorough restoration was needed before the building could once again be part of the site's popular public tours. That day occurred a few weeks ago, on May 2, appropriately at the beginning of Historic Preservation Month. “Now that the project is complete,” Stoner said, “most visitors will be completely unaware of the vast amount of exterior and interior restoration efforts that went into this project.” 

Library in restored Brick House, 2024. (Photo: Michael Biondo)

Having toured the building ahead of its reopening, I can attest to the immaculate nature of the brick building and its interiors. Seeing the famous boudoir — with its wall panels and movable panels covered in Fortuny fabric, the Soane-inspired “double-domed skeleton of a room within a room” added by Johnson in 1953, and Ibram Lassaw's The Clouds of Magellan sculpture above the bed — was like stepping into a period photograph. The reading room, formerly painted a deep brown, now features the mint green walls that the room was coated in during the 1980s and 90s, while the marble bathroom retains its decor from the 1970s. These spaces show that, while the Glass House never veered from its idealized state, the Brick House shielded experimentations that Johnson carried out after its 1949 completion: experiments that informed some of the postmodern architecture he subsequently embraced.

Bathroom in restored Brick House, 2024. (Photo: Michael Biondo)

Paper Log House

View of Shigeru Ban’s Paper Log House in proximity to the iconic Glass House. (Photo: Michael Biondo)

It has been a full ten years since Shigeru Ban was named the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate. The official announcement in 2014 acknowledged how the then-56-year-old architect used “the same inventive and resourceful design approach for his extensive humanitarian efforts” as he did in his work for private clients. Fittingly, when Ban was featured in the requisite flurry of articles following his win, most news outlets focused on the disaster relief shelters he made through the Voluntary Architects' Network (VAN), many of which were built with paper tubes and therefore were novel to lay readers. The importance of Ban's prize is evident in that none of the preceding laureates tackled such humanitarian work but, in the ensuing years, “architecture's Nobel” has occasionally gone to architects with a similarly strong element of social responsibility in their practice, including Alejandro Aravena in 2016, Balkrishna Doshi in 2018, and Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal in 2021.

Paper Log House: Students slot preassembled sections of paper tube walls into crenelated base panels along the perimeter of the floor. (Photo: Still from video by Hudson Lines)

Given that Ban has created shelters for people impacted by tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, or other natural disasters, and for refugees fleeing violence, many of the people who have read about the work of Ban and VAN have not experienced the emergency shelters firsthand. This situation is something people should feel fortunate about, for sure, but experiencing the Paper Log House at The Glass House should help people appreciate the design, materials, and execution of the shelter; they can better grasp its size, the quality of its space, and how well it works, especially in terms of keeping its occupants dry and cool. The Paper Log House in New Canaan is a slight variation on the first Paper Log House, which was built for victims of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake and was the first of Ban's VAN projects — 56 completed and in-progress projects made with cardboard tubes and other lightweight, “temporary” materials, plus a permanent building made from mass timber: a new wing for a hospital in Lviv, Ukraine, now under construction.

Front view of Paper Log House. (Photo: Michael Biondo)

Similar to the 1995 “original,” the Paper Log House on view at The Glass House is square in plan, about 4 meters (13 feet) per side, with 2 m (6-½') high walls made from paper tubes 4 mm thick and 10.6 cm (4") in diameter. The walls sit on a plywood floor that is lifted above the compacted gravel base by 39 milk crates filled with sand bags. Overhead, the overhanging roof is made from a roofing membrane tied to a paper-tube structure that is further stabilized through cables connected to the floor structure. A wood door, highlighted by a pleat in the roof, provides access to the interior, while the other three sides feature small square windows with awning shutters and interior screens. The Paper Log House was built by students from the The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union, the alma mater of Ban and Dean Maltz, the New York architect who has long served as executive architect on Ban's projects in the United States.

Looking from inside the Paper Log House to the Glass House. (Photo: Michael Biondo)

Not long after it opened in mid-April, Maltz gave World-Architects a tour through Shigeru Ban: The Paper Log House, the two-part exhibition that consists of the full-size Paper Log House and a display of VAN's projects inside Da Monsta, the Frank Stella-inspired pavilion that Philip Johnson added to his property in 1995; the latter is also accompanied by a video of the shelter's fabrication and erection by Cooper Union students. Among other things, Maltz pointed out how he pitched the idea of building the Paper Log House to coincide with the Glass House's 75th anniversary to Kirsten Reoch, executive director of The Glass House, and how the Paper Log House was sited in the landscape below the Glass House: it is built upon an expanded compacted gravel base from a site-specific artwork from the previous year. With paper added to the property's palette of glass and brick for 2024, and with Ban's house tucked into the landscape down the hill from the Glass House, time and place find a fortuitous synergy with the display of the Paper Log House and the reopening of the carefully restored Brick House 75 years after it was built.

Interior of the Paper Log House. (Photo: Michael Biondo)

Shigeru Ban: The Paper Log House is on display at The Glass House from April 15 to December 14, 2024. All tours now include access to the newly renovated Brick House — advance reservations are recommended.

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