People in Glass Houses

In a May 31, 2010, New Yorker piece about the writer Somerset Maugham, in a section discussing his novel “The Moon and Sixpence,” Ruth Franklin writes: “If genius is originality, then the narrator knows that he lacks it; his art is something that he chooses to do, rather than a passion that has chosen him.” The narrator’s opposite number in the tale, Charles Strickland, is, to the contrary, compelled, propelled to paint, at any cost; his passion hasn’t “chosen him,” he is a slave to it.

It is this classic, uber-romanticized wannabe/has-to-be dichotomy that is also at or near the heart of June Finfer’s play “The Glass House” (concluding its New York run of a Resonance Ensemble production on June 5), which looks at the difference in approach and character between architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, and by so doing offers up a historical-cultural analysis of their respective glass houses and their drive to realize them.

Finfer’s intelligent, studiously researched and slyly complex fact-based drama at its base has to do with the search by Dr. Edith Farnsworth for the Mr. Right to design a place – on some acres of land that she owns in Plano, Illinois – where she can spend weekends away from her practice and research in Chicago. It is to be, she states, a work of art that she can escape to. She is sent, on Johnson’s recommendation, to the Chicago-based Mies, and there the game of power plays, seductions and pilferings – of hearts, of thoughts, of dreams – begins. Mies wants to do Farnsworth’s house because he could use the commission but also because he’s been working on a concept of a place with placeness that would appear nearly unplaced, practically invisible – a palpable “thereness” constructed to emulate “nothingness” as much as modern architecture can.

Farnsworth wants her place of art, but, maybe too, her place in art, as she wants input into the project. Johnson wants to be kingmaker, and then king, by seeming the jester; but, all the while, this “magpie,” as Finfer has Mies call Johnson, “steals” the glass-house concept in order to build his own and to do it before Mies can get his off the ground, literally and figuratively. But, the play implies, Johnson is but the narrator to Mies’ Charles Strickland. Yet Mies‘ passion is a cool one, a manipulative one, a selfish one, and even in his conquests (of Farnsworth, of artist Lora Marx) he is merely working out ideas, and observing his own reflection in the structural glass.

Still, when it comes down to it, the play is not about conflicts and soap operas, the artist vs. patron relationship, the pure vs. the second-rate, original vs. copy, understanding as opposed to imitating, or the deadly position of being caught in the crossfire of egos –  it is about all those things but not essentially about them.

What the play is about – and who the central, most charismatic, most powerful character is – is the house. The people are merely moths drawn to the light of the idea of it. And everybody gets their wings singed: Mies by getting fired off the job before its completion, and then sued; Farnsworth by so dreading the place that she ultimately leaves it for an Old World villa in Tuscany made of stone; and Johnson, by erecting his “homage” first but having, perhaps knowingly, the inferior model.

In our wide-ranging arslocii quest, we have had the privilege of visiting both glass houses, first the one in Plano and later the version in New Canaan, Connecticut, both of which we have discussed on the website that this blog accompanies. Viewing them, being in them, and contemplating and comparing them is a lesson in differences and intent, presentation and impact, and of less being more.

Briefly: The Farnsworth House, in the middle of nowhere, is found after a stop at an extremely modest shed of a visitors center and then a stroll along a wooded path to a clearing, where it levitates, light and bright, presumably but in actuality unsuccessfully above the Fox River’s flood line. The house is unassuming in its power – like the Vanna Venturi House, in a way, it not only hides its light beneath a bushel, it literally hides. Not shy, but secure enough to not need to draw attention to itself. Placeness abounds with deceptive ease; it is its nature. If not bought and preserved by Lord Palumbo (who also saved Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob), this house could easily have been damaged by water, swallowed by forest growth and left to rot, found a century later by archeologists or lost to memory, or known only by reputation and loss, like Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion. The Farnsworth House projects both the casual and the formal, the friendly and the reserved, the object and the theory.

To lay eyes on Johnson’s glass house – and one can do only that; photo-taking is prohibited – one must first purchase tickets well in advance (and there are various levels of access, with prices to match), then arrive at an impressive, design-y in-town visitors center, which offers to those waiting for their tour a multimedia wall featuring moments in the life of Philip Johnson (from near-birth on), famous people talking about Philip Johnson, photos and film of his projects, and more. It is not so much a diversion as a campaign, as is much that has to do with the house and Johnson’s legacy. A small tour bus then rides you from the center through green and ritzy New Canaan to the Johnson estate, through monumental gates, to where you disembark. When you walk down the hill and finally spy the glass house (read a more detailed description of the total experience here), you can only contrast its earthbound proclivities to the Mies house’s airy lightness and clarity. And you puzzle, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the heavy hype and near reverence that goes along with it all, at the general paucity of placeness there. The house has presence, but you cannot feel its breath; you stand within it, but you cannot hear it think.

And, after seeing Finfer’s play, and considering both glass houses, one recalls a particularly terrific scene near the show’s end, when, chatting over cigars, Mies calls Johnson a “whore” and “a barbarian,” slaps him with the criticism, “Your ideas are not ideas, they are guesses,” and, finally, skewers him with, “You only copy form, you don’t understand what I do.”

Bottom line: Both glass houses are architecturally, aesthetically and historically intriguing and important. It is just that one seems to have been born, the child of gifted parents, and the other cloned to be raised by friends of theirs. We and Finfer agree on which is which, and which one has the placeness we wish to ponder, wrap ourselves in and let its genius choose us.

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