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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

May 2005 Issue

House and Garden
Philip Johnson as landscape architect.

By Hilary Lewis

House and Garden
Richard Payne

The first time I visited the Glass House, I was ill prepared for what I saw. Despite having had lengthy conversations with the late Philip Johnson about his architecture and having seen numerous photographs of the famed property before I arrived in New Canaan, Connecticut, I had expected a property whose focus was the glass pavilion that shares its name with the grounds. I found instead a landscape best enjoyed from the vantage point of that well-known structure. The true focus is nature, not the cool forms of this modern, glass-and-steel construction that photographers usually capture. As Johnson put it, "The basic building block of the place is trees."

The architect's approach to the Glass House, which was Johnson's own home, was in keeping with his long-standing interest in the design of landscape, a fascination that, like his appreciation of architecture, spanned centuries and a wide variety of styles. While the Glass House speaks of 1920s Modernism, and while some of his work in landscape was clearly influenced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Johnson was not solely enamored of Modernism when it came to landscape. Quite the contrary, he was especially fond of eighteenth-century gardens, which often featured a combination of architectural pavilions and rolling hills, not unlike his composition at the Glass House. As Johnson often said, his tastes were "catholic"-the inclusion of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century models was just as valid to him as the talents of Modernists Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, or J. J. P. Oud.

Johnson's home was not only a place to live; it was an expression of his approach to architecture, which very much included landscape. When asked to compare architecture and landscape architecture, he said, "To me, it's one art." And he named names: "You think Le Nôtre wasn't an architect? And Capability Brown? I mean that's all architecture. I don't find the line drawn anywhere."

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