All The Ideas Philip Johnson Stole For His Iconic Glass House

The laundry list of influences that shaped the Glass House could serve as a primer on architectural history.

Every year, thousands of people make a pilgrimage to the 47 dreamy acres of green hills and maple forest where Philip Johnson’s Glass House lives on as an iconic work by one of the 20th century’s most famous, and controversial, architects. In her new book The Philip Johnson Glass House: An Architect in the Garden, curator and art scholar Maureen Cassidy-Geiger delves into the history of the sprawling New Canaan, Connecticut, estate, chronicling the nearly 50 years it took to build–and the nearly countless influences that shaped its design.


Johnson was known for having an insatiable cultural appetite, and as Cassidy-Geiger notes in the book, the design of his famous estate is rife with historical and architectural references. From the classical Athenian Acropolis to the modernist forms of Le Corbusier, Johnson’s extensive list of influences could serve as a primer to the most famous works of architectural history.

© Arnold Newman/Liason Agency

For his part, Johnson wasn’t secretive about The Glass House’s architectural precedents. In a 1950 essay that he released with the debut of the property, Johnson cited them with precision. As Cassidy-Geiger writes in the book:

Johnson himself called the design and organization of his weekend estate “derivative,” pointedly namedropping the Acropolis, Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Glienicke Casino, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s Maison des Gardes Agricoles, Le Corbusier’s “Schéma du Village,” and Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus and the Farnsworth House as his primary architectural sources while signaling the influence of the canvases of Theo van Doesburg and Kazimir Malevich. His confident assimilation of these historically divergent organizational and architectural models resulted in the enduring experiential essay he left for posterity.

The final Glass House estate has 14 structures, but the earliest published plans show three: the Glass House, the Brick House (an enclosed guest house), and a rectangular platform that was meant for a sculpture by Mary Callery that was never realized (today, a pool stands in its place).

The layout of the buildings was influenced by the theory of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–who was Johnson’s friend and mentor–of organizing buildings in groups to create a specific sequence to lead visitors through a site. (Van der Rohe’s design of the IIT campus in Chicago is a great example of this idea.) At the Glass House, the arrangement of buildings was meant to approximate the experience of arriving at the Acropolis, with the positioning of the Brick House mirroring the Propylaea and the never-built statue, the Athena Promacho.

The pattern of the footpath between the two houses, meanwhile, was designed after the “spiderweb-like forms of Le Corbusier, who delicately runs his communications without regard for the axis of his buildings or seemingly any kind of pattern,” as Johnson wrote in a 1950 essay.

The domed ceiling of the guest house was derived from the domed breakfast room in the house of British neo-classical architect Sir John Soane. The concept of swinging wall storage in Johnson’s bunker-like painting gallery–which the architect buried it under a grassy mound so as not to draw attention away from the house–was also borrowed from Sir Soane and his home’s private gallery. Meanwhile, the fabulous pink and gold fabric on the guest house walls was inspired by the ladies’ room in the Four Seasons restaurant.


Though Johnson managed to bring all of these disparate allusions together into one stunning estate, not all of it was well-received by his sources. Mies van der Rohe allegedly stormed out in a huff when he first saw the Glass House. The design is widely known to be influenced by Mies’s Farnsworth House, which at that point had been designed but had not yet been built. As the old adage goes, good artists borrow, but great artists steal.

All Images: courtesy Rizzoli


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.