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Glass House exhibit opens at Coral Gables Museum

Outside In (2012), a Robin Hill photo of the Glass House living room, with furniture by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Outside In (2012), a Robin Hill photo of the Glass House living room, with furniture by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
© 2013 George Leposky

Architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a masterpiece of modern architecture in harmony with nature, is the subject of an exhibit that opened September 6, 2013, at the Coral Gables Museum.

The Glass House, photographed at a distance through a New England woods by Robin Hill.
© 2013 George Leposky

The exhibit features over a dozen large photographs of the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, by Miami Beach-based architectural photographer Robin Hill. It also includes a 448-square-foot walk-in model of the Glass House, a copy of the Glass House construction plans, several documentary videos relating to Johnson and the Glass House, and a map of the estate.

Johnson (1906-2005) founded the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMa (the Museum of Modern Art) in New York City in 1930. His early architectural works reflect the stark modernist influences of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other Bauhaus School alumni, of which the Glass House (built in 1949) is his purest expression.

By 1982, when Johnson designed the Metro-Dade Cultural Center at 101 W. Flagler St. in downtown Miami, he had progressed to post-modernism – employing stylistic elements of the past in innovative and often humorous ways. Other structures on the Glass House estate, including a lakeside pavilion and a sculpture gallery, demonstrate different stages in the evolution of his architectural vernacular.

The photographs

Philip Johnson fancied himself a landscape architect and placed the Glass House and other buildings on his 50+-acre estate in the context of their surroundings, a second-growth New England woods in rolling terrain that includes a small lake.

Following Johnson’s death, the Glass House opened to the public under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which gave Robin Hill access to photograph it. Although many photographs of the Glass House focus solely on its sparse structure, Hill’s images systematically depict the Glass House within its natural setting. Thus it appears as Johnson intended, a “permanent camping trip” that blurs the division between the home and the outside world.

Some of the images on display at the Coral Gables Museum view the Glass House from various exterior perspectives; others show interior spaces complete with furnishings and the exterior views Johnson and his guests would have experienced.

The museum galleries

A quirk of the exhibition space provides yet another perspective. Many of the photos hang against the museum’s coral rock walls, adding an unrelated yet surprisingly congenial texture to the display, as though the walls form an impromptu frame for Hill’s images. This effect is particularly striking in Desk with a View (2006), a photo showing Johnson’s bedroom office and the landscape beyond.

Unfortunately, sunlight from the galleries’ windows penetrates the display space during the day and bounces glaringly off the high-gloss surface of the photos. To minimize this distraction, try viewing the photos from an angle.

The Glass House model, 28 feet long and 16 feet wide, occupies much of one gallery. Argentinian-born Thai artist RirkritTiravanija created it in 1997 to house children’s programs in the sculpture garden at MoMa. Now owned by Miami real-estate developer Craig Robins, it was reassembled in the museum surrounded by Hill’s photographs of the estate. When you stand inside the house and view these images through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls, you get a clear sense of what living in the Glass House must have been like.

The Glass House exhibit will be on display at the Coral Gables Museum through October 20, 2013. The museum is at 285 Aragon Avenue in downtown Coral Gables. It is open Tuesday through Sunday.

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