How to avoid modernism

Project 1.4 How to avoid modernism

How to avoid modernism, 2005-08

DVD installation, 2.46 mins, looped


Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne, April 2008

Architect/Building referenced:

Philip Johnson, Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1949

Philip Johnson                                                                                                               Glenn Walls

Glass House                                                                                                                   How to decorate modernism

New Canaan, Connecticut, USA                                                                       Video installation

1949                                                                                                           2005–08

In 2005 l created a scale model of Philip Johnson’s Glass House (1949). As with Farnsworth House I was attracted to Johnson’s simple lines, geometrical forms and large floor-to-ceiling windows that opened up the interior to the outside world. It was not until 2008 that the thought of using the model for the work How to avoid modernism (2008) came to fruition and was exhibited at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces in April 2008. The original intention for this work was to create a queer space using objects and materials in the model making reference to Johnson’s homosexuality. However, in researching the building, Johnson’s personality, I found that his politics and the history that surrounds the structure began to dominate the work.

How to avoid Modernism (2008) consists of video of a lone male figure pouring blue- coloured water down the chimney of a scale model of Johnson’s Glass House. The model is constructed of masonite, cardboard, clear perspex and balsa wood for the internal kitchen bench. The video was filmed in my studio in Melbourne. Shot in one sequence, the video runs for less than a minute,[1] and was looped in Final Cut Pro to emphasise the constant flooding of the building.

In a 1950 article in the Architectural Review, Johnson listed Mies Farnsworth House as one of the inspiration for the Glass House. However, Peter Eisenman, in his introduction to Philip Johnson: Writings, claimed the house was not based on Mies at all but rather, as Johnson stated, ‘from a burnt wooden village I saw once where nothing was left but foundations and chimneys of bricks’ (Eisenman, cited in Friedman 2006). Eisenman claimed that the Glass House was a result of deep psychological conflict that Johnson had suffered due to his involvement with fascism during the Second World War. According to Friedman, ‘the Glass House is Johnson’s own monument to the horrors of war. It is at once a ruin and also an ideal model of a more perfect society’ (Friedman 2006, p. 151). Eisenman concluded ‘that the house was an expression of Johnson’s “personal atonement and rebirth as an individual”’ (Eisenman, cited in Friedman 2006). But all this seems to be Johnson’s way of deflecting issues relating to his sexuality. On his estate in New Canaan, Connecticut, Johnson presented the world with a public image of himself through the Glass House. His private self was kept closeted metres away in the windowless guest house.

The reasons Friedman and Eisenman give would be all well and good except for two major problems. Late 1940s New Canaan was suburban America, not war-torn Poland, and Johnson’s sexuality, as a gay man, is not referenced in the construction.  In the period after the war and into the 1960s, America fought an internal war ‘over who was not a “normal” American, a member of a family, living life in the “right” way’ (Friedman 2006, p. 151). To survive, many gays and lesbians created a ‘separate system of language, dress, and behaviour, which main- stream American society knew little about’ (Friedman 2006, p. 152). Although Johnson’s sexuality was known to close friends and colleagues, he would have been well versed in the creation of masks to divert mainstream attention away from his sexuality. The Glass House was no exception to this division.

Philip Johnson

Glass House (Interior of the guest house)

New Canaan, Connecticut


Johnson strategically located the Glass House in the landscape so that surrounding trees and shrubs would provide a natural screen from curious outsiders. He also built the guest house which unlike Farnsworth House provided him with utmost privacy. As Friedman states:

The Guest House appears to be a windowless bunker, a defensible space of intimacy as well as a ‘closet’ containing the unseen apparel of a gay man’s life. Like the nondescript gay bars of the        period, it turns its back on its surroundings, ‘passing’ behind its blank walls in a way that is diametrically opposed to the celebratory transparency of the Glass House. (Friedman 2006, p. 152)

However in a 1993 interview, Johnson, responding to the question that he only created the Glass House as a ‘form of exhibitionism’, stated:

Yes, needless to say a great number of them have said that. In fact, they went so far as publishing in a magazine, ‘people that live in glass houses should ball in the basement.’ But l don’t have a basement, so l don’t ball in the basement. But much more important than exhibitionism is the interface of architecture and the desire for all kinds of sexual experiments. Whether you want to close yourself in is Freudian in one way, but exposing yourself is Freudian in another way.

As a good Puritan Unitarian, it did not come to mind, but there are other ways of having it come to mind. I mean the idea of a glass house, where somebody just might be looking – naturally, you don’t want them to be looking. But what about it? That little edge of danger in being caught. (Johnston, cited in Friedman 2006)

As much as Johnson claimed years later that his Glass House was a mechanism for viewing and for being viewed, his meticulously laid mask’s in the form of trees and the guest house ensured that the privacy relating to his sexuality and domestic life was kept well away from public view. His structure has little to do with Farnsworth House apart from the obvious physical similarities, where Edith Farnsworth had to deal with living in one space that was open to the outside world.

Johnson’s sexual identity as a gay male is important in defining the work How to avoid modernism, as it is a reaction against Johnson himself and his masks. Johnson’s structure has more to do with maintaining his status quo of secrecy while providing a structure that was heterosexual and adhered to his perception of American family values of that period. As a queer artist I am aware that during the thirties, forties and fifties Johnson’s mechanism for survival was to mask his sexuality. Nevertheless, Johnson had worked on masking the realities of his life to an unacceptable level. Johnson’s connections to right-wing politics, the setting up of a short-lived political party based on Hitler’s National Socialists and his work as a journalist in the 1930s for the far-right American magazine Social Justice where his ‘reports on the invasion of Poland included comments on the malevolent presence of Jews on the streets’ (Philip Johnson 2005) indicated that Johnson had learnt to ‘play the game’. Although years later he said of those days ‘I lost my mind’ (Philip Johnson 2005), it would seem that he had transferred his ability to create a different mask for a ‘different situation’ into the plans for the Glass House.

I viewed the Glass House as Johnson attempt to ‘play it straight’ to the wider public. As Christopher Reed states in his article ‘Imminent domain: Queer Space in the Built Environment’, queers refrain from demonstrating their differences in the suburbs for the fear of coming ‘under homophobic attack’ (Reed 1996). As mentioned, Johnson created the guest house to bury his queer self in. Betsky comments on this added structure on Johnson’s estate:

Once again, he went to extremes: he buried the bedroom completely, so that it became a queering of the cave into a vaulted chamber covered with raw silk that turned this ultimate Sadean pleasure palace into a shimmering space of closely matched textures, colours, and light. (Betsky 1997, p. 115)

The Glass House was a structure whose glass walls were to exhibit all, but in reality revealed very little.

The pouring of water down the brick chimney, itself an ‘ironic reference to the architecture of the traditional family home and to the sentimentalised view of domesticity that had gained widespread currency since the late nineteenth century’ (Friedman 2006, p. 152) was to indicate the washing away of the various masks Johnson had used throughout his life to survive as a gay man. To link Johnson’s right-wing politics to the work, the male figure pouring the water down the chimney is wearing a pink T-shirt. This is in reference to the pink triangle that the Nazis placed on male prisoners’ jackets in concentration camps in 1933-45 in order to categorise them as homosexual and is now used by the gay movement as a symbol of pride. Unlike Mies who failed to repress Farnsworth’s sexuality and identity in Farnsworth House, Johnson has enforced a self-imposed repression of his sexuality in the Glass House, despite him claiming that the glass façade enabled him to live on that ‘little edge of danger in being caught’ (Johnston, cited in Friedman 2006).

The work also highlights the public structure clashing with the natural landscape in which it is placed. The idea was that if you could see the natural world and be part of it but be protected from the elements via the glass wall of the structure, then what would happen if that protection were removed? The concept was that of the natural world taking over the logical, rational world of the structure. The viewer of the work would then be seeing the private world of the interior clashing with the public world of the environment. The idea was that the glass wall had the ability to turn the threatening world outside into a comforting image. But this was not always the case. Farnsworth House was repeatedly flooded over the decades from rising waters from the nearby Fox River. The idea behind my works was to show that no matter how hard we try to control our built environment both man and nature have an ability to enter this controlled minimalist space and alter it.

The logic, cleanliness, order and masculinity evident in these buildings formed sites in which I was able to insert layers of queer sexuality. With large picture windows and the open floor plan these buildings did not guarantee a right to privacy. By inserting human figures and objects into minimal interiors I was able queer these spaces that reconfigured the architect’s original intention to design quiet reflective space for the pursuit of rational, ordered living. Nevertheless when these human figures left the structure and the objects were removed the space is returned back to masculine/heterosexual space.

[1] A version of this video can be viewed at

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