A Sense of Place

A Sense of Place

Maureen Cassidy-Geiger ’78

The Philip Johnson Glass House:
An Architect in the Garden

Skira Rizzoli Publications
222 pages, $55

What an elegant book Maureen Cassidy-Geiger ’78 has written and Skira Rizzoli Publications has produced! The midnight blue canvas spine both binds and frames principal photographer Peter Aaron’s superb image of the Glass House, beckoning the reader to explore within. From there, Cassidy-Geiger’s text, together with the book’s layout, are beautifully choreographed with full-page, full-color photo spreads that alternate between historic and contemporary images, plans, sketches, and memorabilia. Fascinating captions augment the text. With a subject as weighty as architect Philip Johnson’s life and legacy, the book’s layout needed to be carefully crafted, and it is.

Johnson’s 47 acres in southern Connecticut contain 11 of his follies that date from 1949 to 1995, each one more idiosyncratic than the last. While much has been written on his famous Glass House, this work looks at the entire landscape and also delves into the life of David Whitney, Johnson’s longtime life partner. New research, extensively quoted by Cassidy-Geiger, shows Whitney’s influence as a plantsman and co-creator of the Glass House landscape. Cassidy-Geiger explains, “If Whitney was the quintessential gardener and Johnson the landscape architect, both men were confident in the other’s realm and ‘architected’ the proto-modernist landscape as fairly equal partners, albeit with Johnson the official spokesman.”

Cassidy-Geiger organizes the book around the development of the property over time and catalogues the creation of its many site features, including buildings, follies, and sculptures that occupied the rolling hills, fields, and forests of this beautiful piece of land. She also quotes extensively from Whitney’s handwritten Moleskine notebooks that enumerate the plants and gardens he cultivated on the property over 25 years, little of which remains today.

The experience of reading this book was deeply satisfying, yet this reviewer hungered for even more—more about how things felt rather than what they actually were. What was Johnson and Whitney’s relationship like? How did their place affect those who visited? What did Johnson think about as he dreamed up his buildings and directed their placement on the land?

As a designer myself, it had always been my intention to visit the Glass House; Cassidy-Geiger’s book spurred me to finally experience it in person. I discovered that not only is each of Johnson’s follies a satisfying design experience on its own, but the choreography of the visitor’s journey through the landscape is both masterful and remarkably moving.

Since there is no substitute for actually setting foot in a place, go to New Canaan and see the Glass House for yourself. Now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the property is open to the public for guided tours of different durations. Just make sure to read Cassidy-Geiger’s book before you go—you will be well prepared and ready to experience its genius loci with fresh eyes.

Messervy is the designer of the award-winning Toronto Music Garden and numerous public and private landscapes. She is the author of seven books on landscape design, including Landscaping Ideas That Work and Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love.

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