History Lives in Glass Houses


If you have the means to purchase a seven- or eight-figure piece of prime real estate, any number of elegant apartments designed by architects have the cachet of a luxury brand. But one residential building in Manhattan stands apart, because it's positioned to be a historical landmark when it's completed in 2006.

The Urban Glass House is the final project by the late Philip Johnson, who died in January at the age of 98. Located on a quiet block at 330 Spring Street, the graceful rectangle of a building has bold, geometric lines and a daring sense of transparency. Yet it's also intimate in scale, with only 40 units, ranging in price from $1.6 million to $12.5 million.

STARK AND SLEEK. "Mr. Johnson was the leader in bringing modernism to the U.S., and this is a departing legacy in his name," says Alan Ritchie, Johnson's partner in Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie Architects since 1974.

The Urban Glass House was "topped off" -- that's architectural slang for the installation of a building's tallest structural element -- on Nov. 9. That occurred only a day after luxury-homebuilder Toll Brothers (TOL) announced that it expects to construct fewer dwellings in 2006 because demand for high-end homes is declining. Some real estate analysts believe the Toll Brothers projection signifies the slowing of the robust housing market (see BW Online, 11/9/05, "Housing: Red Alert, or a Wake-Up Call?").

Nevertheless, 30% of the Urban Glass House's units were sold in the first two weeks they were available for purchase (in mid-October), suggesting that buyers are keenly interested in owning a part of Johnson's oeuvre. Widely considered one of the 20th century's most influential architects, Johnson collaborated with pioneer Mies van der Rohe on New York's Seagram Building, a stark, sleek monument of classic modernism. Johnson also designed iconic corporate edifices like the AT&T (T) Building, also in New York.

CLEAR INTERPRETATION. But the Urban Glass House's status as the coda to Johnson's legendary career isn't the only reason why the structure is noteworthy, or why it transcends the current fashion for dramatic -- and expensive -- condominiums bearing the signatures of architecture's current pantheon of stars. (Richard Meier and Santiago Calatrava, for example, associated with designing such architecturally innovative public institutions as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Milwaukee Art Museum, respectively, have recently done chic apartment buildings). The name of the Urban Glass House is a reference to Johnson's first residential project, the Glass House, which he completed in 1949 and occupied until his death.

The original Glass House is a single-family residence -- a one-story box -- located in New Canaan, Conn. Taking the original concept and translating it into its polar opposite posed a challenge to Johnson, Ritchie, and their collaborators. As Annabelle Selldorf, the architect hired to oversee the interiors of the Urban Glass House and its public spaces as well, asks: "How do you create an interpretation of something that has a precise precedent when the two things don't match?"

Selldorf decided to add details that echoed those in the first Glass House, including white-oak floors with a chevron pattern that evoke the brick floor in the Connecticut house, also laid-out in a chevron style. She says a key concern was to "make sure daylight is experienced in a similar way -- or at least exists in abundance -- to the way it was in the original Glass House."

URBAN CONTEXT. But some compromises had to be made. "We wanted to retain the sense of large expanses of glass," says Ritchie. "But each bay is made of three windows rather than one large one." Although Johnson and Ritchie would have preferred one big window, they were asked to use smaller, operable ones to accommodate easier window-washing.

"The bays are black, and the windows have light, white frames. So when you look at the building as a whole, you get the impression that the three windows at each bay are one long one stretching across from black column to black column," Ritchie explains.

Ritchie says an important moment occurred in the design process when he and Johnson's firm looked to Johnson's other work for inspiration, even toward examples that were radically different from the Glass House. "We thought: What else was Mr. Johnson doing in the 1950s that we could incorporate as a reference?" Ritchie says. "We decided to refer to the Seagram Building in terms of scale and urban context, and then fuse that idea with the simple clarity of the Glass House."

DESIGN 360. Initially, Johnson and Ritchie had no plans to create a city version of the Glass House. Their firm was hired by Antonio Vendome, a restaurateur, to design a residential building taller than 20 stories at 330 Spring Street. "Independently, we designed a very sculptural form that we called, in fact, 'the habitable sculpture,'" Ritchie says.

The original design was the antithesis of the Urban Glass House: Intended to be made of multicolored bricks, the proposed building was highly asymmetrical, with segments jutting out at odd angles. The building didn't match zoning requirements, however, and the design was dropped. Johnson was also starting to retire.

"We thought: Wouldn't it be fitting to end Johnson's career with a new Glass House? Mr. Vendome endorsed the idea," says Ritchie.

THRILLING VISION. In 2002, Vendome sold his interest in the residential project to developers Charles Blaichman, Scott Sabbagh, and Abram Shnay. The partners then hired Selldorf to complete the interiors and brought in SLCE Architects, the New York firm responsible for realizing the designs for the building.

In his 1979 acceptance speech for the inaugural Pritzker Prize, architecture's most coveted honor (parallel to a Nobel or Pulitzer), Philip Johnson said, "...what thrill can be as great as a design carried through, a building created in three dimensions, partaking of painting in color and detail, partaking of sculpture in shape and mass. A building for people, people other than oneself, who can rejoice together over the creation."

Although Johnson won't be alive to experience such a thrill upon completion of the Urban Glass House, his vision clearly lives on.

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