Tag Archives: Philip Johnson

Seeing Spots

We met in the Catskills, and arranged to meet again a few days later, in New York City. I think we both knew that something very interesting was bubbling between us, and so quickly, too. (And now, together 35 years, it’s clear that we were pretty much right on the money about it.) We took a walk, a long one, all over the East Side of midtown (as deserted as Manhattan ever gets in the late-night hours), winding our way up and down the number streets, click-clacking through an eerily unpopulated Grand Central and onto Park Avenue, where we found a low wall to sit on in front of a tall building we didn’t pay much attention to. As water jets burbled and splashed into a wide pool behind us, and as we occasionally broke our gazes at each other to focus aimlessly at another meaningless tall building catercorner from us, we talked and talked, and talked some more, exchanging information and intimacies, sharing secrets to see if the other would be shocked by the revelations, and if they would be deal-breakers. We were testing the waters by throwing boulders into them. By night’s end, we had two things: a very real and certain relationship that’s more than we ever could have imagined … and we had a spot. “Our spot.” In our minds, the place where it all began for real – a low wall along a big street in the middle of New York.

For years afterwards, and periodically more recently, when we’ve been in New York we’ve stopped by “our spot,” for old times’ sake, to try to feel again that wonder of the first time. And we usually do. That’s what “spots” are for: to act as touchstones to our past, to encourage our hearts to re-experience a thrill or a defining time or that moment that changed a lot, or everything. Like a tune that becomes “our song,” a spot brings back a vivid “then,” even complete with the echoes of the sounds and the waftings of the smells, and the perhaps-idealized memory of the words spoken, and of that face. Sometimes your “spot” has become so iconic and totemic in your life, what happened there is, in your mind, a sort of tableau or stage set, and you have an out-of-body experience, seeing yourself, as from a distance, as part of the display, one of the mannequins, a member of the cast – you, but apart from yourself. Our “spots” have a placeness so thick, we continue to “see” what happened there even when the “spot” has been altered, even destroyed. In the art of living, it is a placeness that, once lived, never dies. It is as close to having an encounter with ghosts as one is likely to have. And these “spots” are so strong, so integral to the psychological infrastructure upon which who we are is built, that just to be at a “spot,” even a changed or missing one, can make us cry or laugh, regret, shiver … wonder.

It is an amazing thing about us humans: that we seem to have a need to imbue locations connected with seminal events with a kind of secular holiness to potent that we are moved to see visions, not of a god but of ourselves when we thought that we were gods, or others were devils. So immensely enthralling are these, our “spots,” that it is hard to believe that others walk past them or drive by them or even pause at them, yet do not perceive the power there, the emotion, and do not see the spectral remnants of us there, then, played in a loop for all time. How can they not see that? It’s there.

So – that low wall, on Park Avenue, on a warm night, with nary another soul in sight – “our spot.” But here’s the funny thing, the little kicker to this tale: Those few square feet of wall, and the polished-brass hydrants that stick out from it where our dangling feet rested – that is our shrine, the Mecca of our pilgrimages … and all the time we didn’t know or realize or care that, on that wall, at what would become “our spot,” our backs were turned to that tall building … which happened to be the Mies van der Rohe / Philip Johnson Seagram Building, one of the most significant in all of New York. The water feature and the wide plaza – among the most stunning and influential setbacks in all of New York architecture – should have been the giveaway. And that tall building across the wide, divided Park Avenue, catercorner from us – the one that we would flick a look at from time to time? Gordon Bunshaft’s equally important Lever House. Both buildings great and vital contributors to the Modernist movement, New York’s skyline treasures and the general 20th-century boogie-woogie.

But, you can have them – they can crumble and fall, or get a new skin, or bay windows, or ground-to-roof neon-advertising billboards. So what? In the history of architecture, they have a place. But they are nothing to “our spot.” Mere backdrops to it. When we see them, we see textbooks; when we see “our spot,” we see us. And that’s where true placeness lies.


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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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