It would be fair to say the Sculpture Gallery at the Glass House estate has always stood in the shadow of the main residence, Philip Johnson's most famous work and one of the country's pre-eminent modern homes. But a new restoration of the asymmetrical, white brick studio shows the intricately designed project, with a unique roof that creates an arresting display of light and shadow within, is worthy of its own spotlight. Johnson himself supposedly once expressed a desire to live in the Sculpture Gallery full time, eventually rejecting the idea of relocating with the question, "Where would I have put the sculpture?"
At 3,650-square-feet, the Sculpture Gallery is the largest of the 14 buildings on the 49-acre Glass House estate in New Canaan, Connecticut, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Designed in 1970 by the architect to house his growing art collection, it was meant to display work without distractions, but became a work of art itself. Johnson once called it "the best single room that I have ever designed." That self-assessment comes from the way the large room creates a space for contemplation. Inside, a series of white stairways set at 45-degree angles, inspired by the architecture and scenery of the Greek Isles, connect a set of staggered platforms. The interior landscape is heightened by by the light filtered by the tubular steel skeleton and roof, which supports a cold cathode lighting system. The precise row of lines created when the sunlight is sifted through the rafters forms a grid paper-pattern of shadows across the surface, an affect a New York Times critic compared to the shadows cast by tree branches in the wind. Restoring the integrity of the roof is the focus of the project, funded by the Historic Sites Fund and Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope, which will replace the entire skylight roof system of glass set in anodized aluminum extrusions, as well as swap out the cold-cathode lighting system and refurbish the electric heat units.
"Johnson was playing with angles, and it's just incredible the effects that he created," says Greg Sages, Interim Director of the Glass House.
Philip Johnson Alan Ritchie Architects and the prime contractor, Nicholson & Galloway, are currently two months into what's expected to be a 10-month job, which may require up to 60 workers during the height of the restoration. One of the many difficulties from the project comes from the lack of any final drawings from the original construction. To adhere to Johnson's original intent, the architects need to be diligent about the precise placement of every element on the roof, meaning they basically have to reverse engineer as they go along. They also have to contend with the sculptures, including a large Michael Heizer piece and a Frank Stella work called Raft of Medusa that had to be taken apart in five pieces. (Luckily, the restoration timed perfectly with a new retrospective at the Whitney, which is currently displaying the piece).
Ted Hathaway, Chief Executive of Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope, says it's an honor to be able to restore such an important structure.
"As a company that has played an important role in some of North America's most prominent architectural projects, we are delighted to support this restoration project, which furthers our mission to support cultural institutions and projects with imagination, ingenuity, and vision, creating environments conducive to innovation and thought leadership," he says. "The Glass House is a shining example of this."