by Gwen North Reiss
Before the beginning of the Conversations in Context Program on July 21 as our mid-summer heat wave settled in, Theo Prudon (Architect and President of Docomomo US) and Shashi Caan (Director of the International Federation of Interior Designers) sat on the promontory for a brief videotaped interview led by Hunter Palmer, Director of Programs and Visitors’ Experience.
“I’m a child of the sixties,” said Prudon, to introduce himself, “I grew up when modern architecture and preservation were emerging.” Of the Glass House site, he asked “Is it a Colonial farm? A sculpture park? A Colonial house blown apart? Is it a playground? In preservation we have rules for things, but how do they apply here?” It was the beginning of an evening of questions that centered on the philosophical, spatial, and personal aspects of Johnson’s estate.
“This is pretty unique,” said Shashi Caan. “That is not debatable. For me what is especially interesting in this site is that this is an interesting psychological challenge. Who was Philip Johnson? Why did he take all the rooms in a normal living situation and make them different buildings?” When she thinks about house design, Caan likes to consider “morning coffee, the drink at the end of the day. The Pavilion on the pond is his deck. It’s not for everyone…. The buildings in and of themselves feel like experiments. I don’t even think of them as buildings. The corridors are external.”
In the nineteen teens and twenties, Prudon responded, “physical health had to do with the outside. There’s something to this idea of Philip as an open-air crusader.” “The recognition of nature is very important,” Caan added, “the constant joy of change.”
Prudon, who has taught in graduate programs for preservation and who is the author of Preservation of Modern Architecture, emphasized that landscape plays an enormous role in any kind of architecture. However, when it comes to building materials and preservation, “something that grows is totally in the face of that.” Speaking again of the Glass House in particular, he said “It’s 47 acres and what is it called? We call it the Glass House. Nature is the ever-changing painting.”
“Landscape is the extension of the room,” said Caan. “Discovery, delight through scale—he was a master of making rooms. I’m looking out and I want to go explore it. He does that—he’s a wonderful interior architect. It’s so theoretical. Who lives like that?”
Like Lincoln’s Log Cabin, said Prudon, “It’s about the person in the context of the time. It’s about more than the physical building. It’s about spirit, about what we want to accomplish.”
“I would agree in different terms,” answered Caan, “Less about art, more about the artist…. Truly this is about the individual. Perhaps, she added, “none of this is architecture, or it’s a very porous architecture.”
The evening’s program took its cue from many of the questions and comments offered by Prudon and Caan. Among the guests for the evening were Andrew Dolkart, Director of Columbia’s Preservation Program, Columbia’s Kazys Varnelis and Jennifer Bell, recent New York Chapter AIA President Sherida Paulsen, Ennius Bergsma, former senior director at McKinsey, DWR’s Kristian Lazzaro, Lara Funderburk of Ted Moudis Associates, the New Haven Register’s Sunday Editor Mike Foley and his wife Jennifer.
After the group entered the Glass House and looked around for a while, Andrew Dolkart turned and looked at the rest of the group and said: “It’s the most neoclassic house in the country!”