Saturday, June 1, 2013

Modern Houses in New Caanan, Connecticut

The building of mid-century modern homes in New Caanan, Connecticut began after a group of architects associated with Harvard University began to settle in the area in the 1940s. “The Harvard Five [...included] John M. Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes. Marcel Breuer was an instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, while Gores, Johansen, Johnson and Noyes were students there. They were all influenced by Walter Gropius, a leader in the Bauhaus movement and the head of the architecture program at Harvard. The small town of New Canaan is nationally recognized for its many examples of modern architecture. Approximately 100 modern homes were built in town, including Johnson's Glass House and the Landis Gores House, and about 20 have been torn down. ...Other notable architects lived in New Canaan and designed residences for themselves and clients there, including John Black Lee, Hugh Smallen, Victor Christ-Janer, Alan Goldberg, and Carl Koch.” (

(All photos courtesy Michael Padwee unless otherwise noted)

It took us almost a year to obtain tickets to tour Philip Johnson’s Glass House (1945-49) in New Canaan, Connecticut, but it was well worth the wait. We were on the last tour of the day, and were allowed to take photos of all the buildings we visited because, on the last tour the guides did not have to keep to a strict schedule.

"The Glass House [completed 1949] is best understood as a pavilion for viewing the surrounding landscape. ...Each of the four exterior walls is punctuated by a centrally located glass door that opens onto the landscape. The iconic because of its innovative use of materials and its seemless integration into the landscape. ...Johnson...conceived of it as half a composition, completed by the neighboring Brick [Guest] House." (

As you walk through the front door, you face the “central cylinder” of the house. The central cylinder contains the fireplace and the bathroom with shower stall.

To the left of the central cylinder as you walk in the door is the free-standing, partially “concealed” kitchen.

The appliances were small and fit under the counters so they were hidden from the rest of the house. 

The kitchen from the living room area. The sculpture is by Elie Nadelman.
The dining area was placed in the corner nearest the kitchen. In this photo you can see some of the movable “curtains” that shade the interior and provide a measure of privacy.

The “living room” area utilizes a painting, "The Burial of Phocian", attributed to Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style, as a room divider.

A storage area is within the wood “wall” behind the painting, and the sleeping area is on the other side of that divider.

Johnson’s desk/work area is behind me as I’m taking this photo.

Although it doesn’t look like there’s any privacy from the public, the house is not contiguous to the road and is separated from it by a fence and land. Also, there are the movable window coverings on the inside of the house mentioned above.

Opposite the entrance to the Glass House is Johnson’s Brick/Guest House, 

"A grassy court links the [Glass and Brick Houses] conceived of as a single composition. ...The Brick House contains all the support systems necessary to the function of both buildings. As opposed to the transparency of the Glass House, brick almost completely encases the house." (

and, off to the right of this are “Da Monsta”, the Visitors Center, and Philip Johnson’s Library/Studio.

"Da Monsta" was the third of Johnson's designs for the Visitors' Pavilion (1986-1995). "Johnson...related this the first [on the estate]: the Glass House. Even though the Visitors Pavilion is largely composed of solid walls, its colors--red and black--resonate with the colors and tones Johnson used for the brick and bronze in the Glass House. The pavilion reads as a cave, the place from which human beings emerged to discover architecture... ." (Stover Jenkins and David Mohney, The Houses of Philip Johnson, Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 2001, pp. 262-263)

Da Monsta
"This building is the closest to Johnson's thinking about sculpture and form at the end of his life--what he called the 'structured warp.' This architectural direction using warped torqued forms is far from the rectilinear shapes of [his] International Style." (

Johnson built the Library as a studio for his own use. "[Its] most notable features are the volume of the studio and its scale. The interior is a single space; the exterior is dominated by two strong vertical elements: a rectangular chimney stack and a conical shape above a curved wall that protrudes from the main body of the studio. Both of these elements denote major features on the interior... . The fireplace under the chimney is a major feature along the west wall, while Johnson's work desk is located under the skylight at the top of the cone." (Stover Jenkins and David Mohney, The Houses of Philip Johnson, Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 2001, p. 256)

The Library
Along with the separate Library and Da Monsta buildings, there were other structures on the Johnson property. The “Folly” in the lake was one, as was "Frank Gehry’s Ghost House”

The Water/Lake Pavilion or "Folly" on the lake was made more as an adult playhouse than a full-size structure.
"The Water Pavilion [built in 1962] consists of four orthogonal arched structures, two square and two double-square, with an open square at the center of a loose pinwheel arrangement. ...The most remarkable feature of the Water Pavilion, however, is not so much its form as its scale: it has been miniaturized to the point that one must duck one's head to move through the arches... ." (Stover Jenkins and David Mohney, The Houses of Philip Johnson, Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 2001, p. 246)

"Frank Gehry's Ghost House"
Johnson built the Gehry Ghost House in honor of his friendship with Frank Gehry. The Ghost House was built on the foundation of an old barn and utilized chain link fencing, which Gehry used in a number of his projects to great effect. (Stover Jenkins and David Mohney, The Houses of Philip Johnson, Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 2001, p. 258)

Entrance to the Art Gallery.

There were also two buildings that housed the art and sculpture collections.  Johnson’s collection contains many works by Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and John Chamberlain, among others.

Entrance to the Sculpture Center. The tree to the right is Julian Schnabel’s cast bronze sculpture, "Ozymandias", 1986-1989.

Frank Stella

John Chamberlain

Andy Warhol's "Philip Johnson"

"Johnson's continual investigation into architecture on his estate is noteworthy... .  [...We] are privileged to glimpse the workings of his private laboratory, in which the pavilion projects were experiments for his new investigations into form and material." (Stover Jenkins and David Mohney, The Houses of Philip Johnson, Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 2001, p. 263)

The Alice Ball House

One of Philip Johnson’s residential commissions in New Caanan was the Alice Ball House (1953), 523 Oenoke Ridge. “In the tradition of Mies van de Rohe's courtyard homes, Philip Johnson designed the Ball House as a modest one-story, two-bedroom home with an offset axial plan, a flat roof, symmetrically arranged terraces with slate paving, and pink stucco wall surfaces relieved by linearly grouped and symmetrically arranged painted entrance ensembles. The entrance ensembles included fixed plate glass windows, glazed narrow-stile doors, fixed or operable transom windows, and screen doors with bronze rails. Skylights above the hall and kitchen provided additional light to interior spaces. A stucco finish chimney projected approximately 3' from the east end of the north facade.” (

The Alice Ball House (1953)
"[...The] Ball House is asymmetrical, but balanced compositionally through its volume, chimney, garden wall, and glazing. This massing, along with its siting, gives the house the feeling of a romantic garden villa... . Contrasting with its diminutive size, the public space opens out to the landscape on opposing sides, allowing a continuity of space through that portion of the house. ...The living area, surrounded by glass on three sides, [] one the impression of being in a little pavilion in the woods." (Stover Jenkins and David Mohney, The Houses of Philip Johnson, Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 2001, p. 130)

Fenella Pearson of the Norwalk Daily Voice describes her visit to the Alice Ball House: “ When you get out of the car it’s not immediately clear where you’re supposed to go. Where’s the front door? I liked having to figure it out. I found the path and ended up at a huge double glass door flanked by large windows, which led straight into an open living room with stone floors.  A fireplace was off to the left and a partial wall to the right, hiding (sort of) the kitchen. But the most stunning thing was that as you walked into the living room, you still felt as if you were outside, because the rear wall of the house is all glass, and the stone floors continue outdoors as the patio.” ( 

John Black Lee

“Born in Chicago in 1924, John Black Lee enrolled at Brown University in 1942… . After serving in the Navy on the Pacific front during World War II, he resumed his studies at Brown University and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1947. In 1948, Walter Gropius (1883-1954) advised Lee to serve as an apprentice rather than enroll in graduate school, so he moved to Chicago to work as a carpenter. His carpentry work caught the eye of Paul Schweikher (1903-1997), the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, who invited Lee to learn architecture and drafting at his firm, Schweikher & Elting… . After leaving Chicago, Lee worked with architects Oskar Stonorov (1905-1970) and Eliot Noyes (1910-1977). ...In 1954, Lee established his own practice in New Canaan, Connecticut. He worked on designing more affordable houses by utilizing his background in engineering to execute costly steel construction techniques in wood.” (

Lee House 2 (1956)
“Lee House 2 was designed by John Black Lee for his family after they had outgrown their first house on Laurel Road. ...This lot was part of the twenty acres on Chichester Road that Lee and Hugh Smallen had purchased in 1954 to be subdivided into six parcels with the provision that the new houses built on the lots were of Modern design. ...The house was built by Ernest Rau [in 1956]. The landscape was designed by Paschall Campbell, who lived in the Campbell House designed by John Johansen (1952, largely demolished and rebuilt as the Goldberg House). Lee House 2 had a rectangular footprint with a veranda extending around the perimeter of the house. The upper roof extended over the veranda and was supported on wood columns. The plan of the house was very symmetrical.” (

“The current owners...bought the property from Lee in 1990. Soon afterwards they commissioned New York City–based Toshiko Mori to renovate the house. Mori...made subtle but significant alterations that included raising the central roof by about 18 inches, thereby enlarging the clerestory, and replacing deteriorated wood columns with stainless steel. [After a tree fell on the house during a storm in 2006, the owners had Kengo] Kuma design...a transparent, L-shaped addition that sits just to the west of the original. The interior is almost entirely open, with very few walls. Instead, stainless steel mesh screens differentiate circulation space from other parts of the program. The structure is composed of steel columns only 3 inches wide and 6 inches deep, with equally minimal steel beams, and a roof supported by exposed glue-laminated spruce joists. The project also entailed modifications to the existing house, such as the replacement of one section of solid exterior wall near the addition with glass, in order to provide more of a visual connection between new and old structures.”  (

Hugh Smallen

Hugh Smallen was “part of the second wave of modernist architects to live and practice in New Canaan. Smallen received his architecture degree at Yale and also trained the Institute of Design in Brooklyn. A brief stint at the renowned firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in New York convinced him that he was a country boy at heart, so he and wife, Kathryn, picked up and moved to New Canaan where he opened his architectural practice… .” (

Smallen House (1957)

”The Smallen House[, 160 Chichester Road,] was designed by architect Hugh Smallen for his family and completed in 1957. ...The builder for the project was Borglum & Meek. ...Geometric in its design, the shed-roofed house is sited to provide one floor of fenestration at its lowest pitch, and two floors of fenestration at its highest pitch. The main entrance is at the slope of the roof and consists of a flush door flanked by fixed sidelights and an irregularly shaped transom that follows the line of the low-pitched shed roof. The entrance is accessed by a wood deck anchored at one end by a mortared stone wall that bridges the slope at the front of the house.” (

Hugh Smallen also designed the Becker House on Chichester Road.

Front view of the Becker House
“The Becker House is set on a hillside overlooking a pond and stream. The street-facing facade of the house is sheltered by a high fieldstone wall. The main entrance is through a narrow opening in the fieldstone wall which leads to a secluded courtyard with a pergola roof. ...The main part of the house is rectangular in plan. At the lower level of the hill, the house is two stories high; this rear wall is heavily glazed. A wood deck extends across the back of the house. The house is clad in flush vertical wood siding, which contrasts with the heavy stone wall and stone base of the building.” (

Side and rear views of the Becker House

Harrison DeSilver

In 1961 John Black Lee and Harrison DeSilver designed the “System House” off Chichester Road.

The System House
”The System House is set on a terraced site with the house placed at a lower grade than the driveway and outbuildings. ...The house has a square-shaped footprint and is very symmetrical. The roof of the building extends beyond the wall plane on all four sides, creating a deep overhang… . The outer edge of the roof is supported on thin piers. The house has a bi-level plan: the main entrance opens onto a stairway that leads upstairs to the bedrooms and downstairs to the public living spaces. ...The house was built to show that good design and construction could be completed at a reasonable price by building on a modular system, in this case, a 6" module. The System was devised to use stock materials to keep costs down. The exterior wood panels were prefabricated in two designs: a solid wall panel and a panel designed for fenestration. To cut down on expensive finishing costs, structural elements were designed to be exposed. ...The windows and doors were replaced in 2006. It appears that no other major alterations have been made to the exterior of the house since its construction." (

“Harrison DeSilver was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1914. He received his degree in architecture from Columbia University in 1953. DeSilver moved to New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1960 after being inspired by his experience on one of the town's famous Modern house tours. After arriving in town, he formed a partnership with architect John Black Lee (1924-) to produce custom Modern homes at a reasonable cost.” (

These are, of course, only a very few of New Caanan’s “Modern Houses”. For information about all of New Caanan’s houses and architects, see the town’s “Modern Homes Survey”.

I would like to thank Beverly and Al Cardone for the Glass House and Modern Homes tours.

A Soviet Constructivist House in Danger

"Designed by the Russian avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov and completed in 1929, the well-known and highly praised Melnikov House [10 Krivoarbatsky Lane, Moscow] currently finds itself in imminent danger." Built for his family, the house is in danger of being damaged by the construction of new buildings on neighboring sites, by years of neglect, and by the illegal use of the Melnikov land for construction purposes. Neither the government of the City of Moscow nor the Russian Federal Government seem interested in preventing damage to this house/museum or in enforcing existing laws that would help to protect it. "The physical deterioration of the house has been exacerbated as a result of August 2012 heavy-handed demolition of neighboring buildings (Arbat 39-41), a scandalous affair on its own. And now there are undeniable (but unrecognized) effects from the construction work, which is going on full speed ahead despite complaints by neighbors and fines against the construction company. Due to this construction work, the building is in serious danger of collapsing." (

Melnikov House, front facade. Part of the second, connected cylinder can be seen at the rear.  (
"Konstantin Stepanovich Melnikov (Russian: Константин Степанович Мельников; August 3 [O.S. July 22] 1890 - November 28, 1974) was a Russian architect and painter. His architectural work, compressed into a single decade (1923–1933), placed Melnikov on the front end of 1920s avant-garde architecture. Although associated with the Constructivists, Melnikov was an independent artist, not bound by the rules of a particular style or artistic group. In [the] 1930s, Melnikov refused to conform with the rising stalinist architecture, withdrew from practice and worked as a portrait painter and teacher until the end of his life. ...The finest existing specimen of Melnikov's work is his own Krivoarbatsky Lane residence in Moscow, completed in 1927-1929, which consists of two intersecting cylindrical towers decorated with a pattern of hexagonal windows. ...Melnikov developed the concept of intersecting cylinders in 1925-1926 for his Zuev Workers' Club draft (he lost the contest to Ilya Golosov). T[he t]win cylinder floorplan was approved by the city in June, 1927 and was revised during construction. The towers, top to bottom, are a honeycomb lattice made of brickwork. 60 of more than 200 cells were glazed with windows (of three different frame designs), the rest filled with clay and scrap. This unorthodox design was a direct consequence of material rationing by the state - Melnikov was limited to brick and wood, and even these were in short supply. The wooden ceilings have no supporting columns, nor horizontal girders. They were formed by a rectangular grid of flat planks, in a sort of orthotropic deck. The largest room, a 50 square meter workshop on the third floor, is lit with 38 hexagonal windows; [the] equally large living room has a single wide window above the main entrance." (

"The 1917 Russian Revolution gave way to a burst of artistic creativity with the Constructivist movement at the forefront. Artists set about to create a new society and nowhere is this more clear than in the avant-garde architecture that was designed in the 1920s and 1930s." ( This house was part of this movement: "These structures were not just reformist in a materials and design sense, they were also socially progressive. They are indicative of a fleeting period in Russia’s history, fabricated to mimic the ideas of the new Socialist Republic. The architecture was intended to be ephemeral, to represent anti-monumentality against the previous monumentality of the Tsarist regime." (

For more photos and information about Soviet Constructivist architecture, see:, and the main site:

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