Saturday, November 6, 2010

Choate Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, Connecticut

Even for a well known prep school, Choate has an abundance of architectural gems, the centerpiece being the Paul Mellon Art Center (1972) designed by I.M. Pei. The older campus buildings are Georgian Revival in style, including Hill House (1911, Francis Waterman), the Andrew Mellon Library (1925, Edward Mellon), the Paul Mellon Humanities Center (1938, Charles Fuller), and Archbold (1928, Ralph Adams Cram). Built in brick (Flemish bond), many of the hipped roofs are pyramidal design. The stately buildings feature modillion cornices, doric columned porticos, gables, demi-lune windows, dormers, pedimented entrances with transoms, and an abundance of keystones over the windows.

PMAC is sited at 333 Christian St. and the isolated nature of the building does the I.M. Pei design justice. Pei also designed the Carl C. Icahn Center for Science (1989), so named as a result of a gift (2001). Pei is best known for his glass and steel Pyramid at the Louvre. Pei is also known for the construction problems with the Hancock Tower in Boston.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Landscape, Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut

First time visitors have to be impressed at the thought that went into the complete landscaping of the 47 acres. Everything is thought out in meticulous detail. One of the last additions was the 1995 Gate House, termed Da Monsta, a nod to hip hop and a tribute to Frank Gehry (see my September 22 post on MIT's Stata Center).

Everywhere one looks are the original stone walls that dotted the farm scape. Most of the tree growth is second growth forest. Note the curious geometry on the concrete circular sculpture (1971) by Donald Judd. The inner circle is horizontal at every point, yet the outer circle is a constant distance from the ground, resulting in a rim that spans many angles (see photo).

A clear shot of "Brick House", the Guest House shows the windowless brick facade facing Glass House, but 3 round windows facing away from the House.

There is a shallow swimming pool with a slab of granite acting as a seat.

In the distance is the man made pond with low-ceilinged miniature Lake Pavilion (1962) and Kirstein Tower (1985), a monument (30 ft tall). Johnson referred to such structures as his "follies" - their size or shape made them unusable. He liked to flirt with danger, the Kirstein Tower has steps to the top, but no rail.

Galleries, Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut

The Painting Gallery (1965) building is built underground with an entrance modeled on Agamemnon's Tomb in Mycenae, Greece. Paintings are displayed on a system of three revolving racks of carpeted panels. Johnson and Whitney acquired a large collection over the course of 40 years, but much of it was sold to support the trust after Johnson's death. The gallery still includes a portrait of Johnson by Andy Warhol as well as works by Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Julian Schnabel and Robert Rauschenberg. Julian Schnabel also did the brass sculpture resembling petrified wood adjacent to the Sculpture Gallery.

The Sculpture Gallery (1970) is a modernist design featuring a glass and steel girder ceiling that projects zebra-like dappled sunlight. A Frank Stella sculpture is shown.

Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut

Philip Johnson's iconic Glass House (1949) in New Canaan is now run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Johnson placed his 47 acres at 798-856 Ponus Ridge Rd. (near Wahackme Rd.) in a Trust in 1995. When he died in 2005, the NTHP administrated the property. Despite the tall stone walls, one can easily see the House and other outbuildings from the road, although the address is not publicised (as tours leave from Elm St. in downtown New Canaan). The Glass House is beautifully sited on a slight rise overlooking vast woods. Outbuildings include Da Monsta, a painting gallery, a sculpture gallery, and "Brick House", a guest house. These are in the other posts. Johnson lived at the weekend retreat for 58 years, and since 1960 with his longtime companion, David Whitney, an art critic and curator who helped design the landscaping and largely collected the art displayed there. New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in 2007 that Glass House was "once one of the most famous houses in the United States...Its celebrity may have done more to make Modernism palatable to the country’s social elites than any other structure of the 20th century."

The landscape surrounding the buildings was carefully designed by Johnson and Whitney, with manicured areas of gravel or grass, trees grouped in what Johnson called outdoor "vestibules", and with care taken in the shape of the slopes and curves of the ground. In part, the landscape was meant to reflect a painting of a landscape, Burial of Phocion by Nicholas Poussin (circa 1648) placed in the midst of a seating area of Glass House (see photo, although contrast is such that painting details are blackened). Chaise is by Mies van der Rohe. The human size papier mache sculpture is by Eli Nadelman - it has the odd effect of appearing that someone is occupying the house as one approaches (see photo from rear). The circular brick fireplace complements the rectangular Glass House. At least one blog claims that there is an underground tunnel from the bathroom to Brick House.

According to Nicolai Ouroussoff, Glass House itself is inferior to Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in "intellectual rigor" and exquisite detailing. For instance, he wrote, the steel I-beams at the corners of Johnson's building "are are clumsily detailed — especially disconcerting in a work of such purity." Our docent cracked that Johnson was not known for being able to "turn a corner." Nevertheless, the building is "a legitimate aesthetic triumph", with the glass walls beautifully layering silhouetted and reflected images layered on each other, the critic wrote. "The classical references alluded to by its thin brick base and the symmetrical proportions of its frame demonstrate the range of Johnson’s historical knowledge." Mies was extremely upset at the timing of the construction as it predated Farnsworth House, despite the fact that Johnson touted Mies as his principal influence in the design of Glass House.

Heralded as the godfather of modernism and dean of American architects at the time of his death at age 98, Johnson was the first director of the Dept. of Architecture at MOMA. He designed or collaborated on landmark buildings such as the AT&T headquarters, the Seagram Building and its Four Seasons Restaurant, and the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in New York; the Boston Public Library; and the Kline Science Center at Yale University.