As an Architecture student way back in the 80s in Buffalo, one’s introduction to contemporary Architecture had two threads. First, the late 19th and early 20th century’s seminal works, many of which were in our back yard thanks to Buffalo’s incredible treasures of Wright, Richardson, Sullivan, and Burnham. The second thread covered the next generation of the modern movement, then gasping under the weight of post-modernism. And one of the centers of this work, and the related discourse, emanated from New Haven and specifically Yale, where many of the next generation practiced, and taught. I had never been to New Haven, and while on a visit back East from my California home, I had booked an “extended tour’ of the Philip Johnson’s glass house. I also was making time to stop in New Haven, tour the city, and specifically check out the newly restored Yale Center for British Art.
As students, we were asked to immerse ourselves in the writings of, in particular, Vince Scully. The first time I heard his name, I remember thinking how incredible that the Dodgers play-by-play man had time for such pursuits.
I soon realized that this cheery fellow was not THAT Vince Scully, it was this VINCENT Scully. And boy did he look worried about the future.
But he wrote very eloquently ,championing the work of many of this new generation. And he was very much at the heart of this new wave at Yale .
After visiting several other important buildings of this era, I walked through the stunning gothic campus.
While my visit in New Haven in fact was centered on seeing the Art Gallery , as I approached , there was another very familiar building- Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building.
In school, our studies went beyond looking at buildings and reading about the work, we were sometimes asked to reproduce the exquisite drawings of these masters. The graphics end of the school was taught by a disciple of Louis Kahn, and we were asked to reproduce these drawings in ink on board- a grueling labor akin to reproducing bibles. I often chose the same Paul Rudolph for his compelling brutalist sections. Seemed appropriate.
And so, here I was, in front of his masterwork.
There is so much to take in with the Art and Architecture Building, this building. It’s relationship to the street leaves one wanting, but at the same time, it possesses great power set against some of its splendid gothic neighbors above, really holding its own. It was a seminal building at the time, but soon regarded as a failure because of many poor functioning interior spaces, and as an Architecture building, this only intensified the critique. It became a lightning rod. Its brutalism, expressed in the collision of horizontal and vertical, seemed to capture all of this, the strife in the Department, as well as the 60’s, the decade in which it was hatched.
Across the street from these buildings is Louis Kahn’s Yale Center For British Art. Its facade understated , even more so on this grey day. Stark contrast to Rudolph. I went inside.
One enters in a compressed space, and then is released into a spectacular soaring atrium space. I found the space soothing, save the bludgeoning occurring in marble below. Its grid of smooth concrete structure with wood inlays a perfect foil for the art. Kahn a master of simple compositions of the square, subdivided, gridded, with other geometries, particularly the circle, laid in. The detailing simple, elegant.
The building is organized around 2 of these atriums, with the second housing the main stair. A circle in the square. I found this space, with its large paintings and daylight, just exquisite.
The atriums organize the building, providing filtered light into the galleries, places for pause, and glimpses of what is to come, ethereal winged beings in the distance.
A salon style gallery with generous concrete skylights :
As mentioned, studying under the guise of several Kahn disciples, he fostered a devotional attitude towards the practice of architecture (hence the referenced exercises we undertook). He was an artist first and foremost, it seems devoted completely to his craft, and as it turns out , with some messy side effects. He maintained 3 separate families- one marriage and two mistresses, one child with each. He died broke- face down in bathroom at Penn Station, not to be identified for several days. This building would be his last built work, finished after his death.
But what a building.
From New Haven, I made my way to nearby New Canaan, to take in the Glass House compound by a contemporary; Philip Johnson. This represented a counterpart to the compelling urban work of New Haven- the large modernist residential retreats located on spacious rolling lots in southwest Connecticut and nearby New York. Again, up in Buffalo, we labored over reproductions of these modernist spreads in Site Plan, which with their many many buildings and site features , lent themselves to handsome drawings . This is an unbuilt project by Richard Meier .
To see the Glass House, one must reserve a tour. You are shepherded up the hill to the 49 acre spread, set amongst palatial estates. The tour was a diverse group- myself, a travel writer from the Houston Chronicle, two young Japanese architecture students, and Edmund Morris , Ronald Reagan’s official biographer, the author of “Dutch”. We were led by an all-business taskmaster , who had one point sternly reprimanded each of us for one offense or another. (“Do not touch the counter, I won’t tell you again, or you will be removed from the property!”).
As suggested in the drawing above, the choreography of the site, the sequence that takes you from street, to building, inside, with views back out, is the core of the experience at these spreads. And this turned out to be the ultimate strength of these 49 acres , moreso than the details of the execution. And that in part was what began to intrigue me about my unintentional pairing of these two architects on this day- Kahn and Johnson. A study in contrasts, representing in many ways opposite ends of the profession. More on that in a bit, because I was dawdling, and the tour guide needed me to catch up.
You arrive at the Glass House at an angle , to maximize the effect. You do not walk on the grass. It was a shame it was such a gray day, but there it was.
Like the museum, it too a composition of the rectilinear and the circular. The brick circle contains a bathroom and fireplace, the only enclosure in the building. Circle in the square. It helps define space , most of the space to the left living, the smaller space to the right sleeping.
A series of low height cabinets further define a sleeping area, and you can see the Kitchen to one side. Philip Johnson once remarked he had very expensive wall paper- i.e.- the landscape that surrounds the open walls. So again, in contrast to the inward focus of the museum, here the space expands infinite. It is a stunning effect.
It is a museum piece, and very hard imagining anyone living in it. The bed was tiny, the Kitchen not one that you could imaging doing much cooking in. But that wasn’t the point. It was a stage set. I got in a brief argument with the tour guide about this. I sensed tension between us.
The house actually has a companion, a solid brick house that housed additonal sleeping quarters, storage, furnace and water heater, so it was actually designed as an ensemble. Over the years, a separate painting gallery, a charming little studio, sculpture gallery, and separate house for his partner were all added! 14 structures in all. All were, effectively, the real house.
Philip Johnson was criticized for ripping off a Mies van der Rohe design for this house (who famously left in a huff when he saw it- criticizing, among other things, its poor craftsmanship). It does lack some of that crispness in its shell that you would see with van der Rohe, particularly at the perimeter columns. It functioned poorly in the climate without ac, and it appears to be leaking. It needs some work, and the brick house was completely off limits, as it is currently in disrepair due to water intrusion.
The interest for me however was the lovely site, and the buildings’ siting. My favorite was actually a small 3/4 scale folly on a pond below the house. This reveals itself when exiting out the back.
The work coincides with his romantic modern phase, culminating in his Lincoln Center in the early 60s. You get a sense of the small scale by the people standing nearby. Here, the folly sits as a foil to an art installation by Yayoi Kusama, 1,300 mirrored spheres.
The site contained many plays on rectangles and circles, and so the site shared this with Kahn’s work. There was the circle in the glass house, circular portals on the rectangular brick structure, a spherical pond, and now, its mirrored balls. The installation is spectacular.
By now the tour was unraveling bit. The Japanese girls were engaged what appeared to be model shoot, the travel writer was needing a lot of these unpronounceable Connecticut names spelled out for his article, (its Wannebuctucuticut) , and Reagan’s biographer had a lot of questions. And I may have cut my hand on the edge of our last stop, the edge of Johnson’s last addition, his rather disappointing take on a deconstructivist folly. I tried to discreetly halt the bleeding.
As we vanned back to the visitor center, I pondered the similarities and contrasts. Two East Coast architects, working close by, but they hardly knew one another. Both worked in the modern idiom, sharing an affection for simple geometries, their interplay, and a deep knowledge of history. But Kahn’s simpler vision seemed to allow the execution to be taken to its minute end, whereas Johnson’s work, particularly later on, seemed more one-liners.
And such contrasts as men. Kahn had a very messy personal life, 3 families simultaneously, with not enough time from work for one. Johnson , who was gay , met a student 31 years his junior, and they were together for the next 45 years. Johnson came from rich a WASP family, and had the means to finance his career. Kahn , who was Jewish, struggled much of his life financially. Johnson had fame early on, curating the famous Modern Architecture show at MOMA, Kahn would not see notoriety til past 50.
Finally, Johnson died in his beloved glass house, on a hospital bed facing his grounds, his legacy secured with the Glass House endowed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Kahn died on the bathroom floor at Penn Station, broke.
In the profession of Architecture, one needs aspects of both. The mix is different in each of us, the elephantine patience to see something through to the end, set against the need for quick on the spot decisions. At times, trying to coax poetry from bricks, other times, trying to sell new cars, or at least tarted up used ones. And of course, at least I believe, gravity, as well as humor. Important to not take one too seriously.
The long drive home that night left me with much to ponder, the yin and yang of the day, and this calling. Later that night, I found two quotes:
“The nature of space reflects what it wants to be.”- Louis Kahn
“Architecture is the art of how to waste space”.- Philip Johnson
One impenetrable, one catty. Perfect.