To describe the Philip Johnson Glass House as merely that—a glass house—is more than an understatement. As the hub of the 47-acre grounds, the house encompasses much more than simply the minimalist, one room, glass-and-steel structure for which the site is named. The use of glass as a material underscores this broad acceptance of all that surrounds it, simultaneously revealing the interior to the outside (and vice-versa), while also reflecting its surroundings. In this way, Johnson didn't create a singular work of architecture in the Glass House, but a complex of structures that exist in balance with each other and the landscape.
Johnson built the home for himself and his partner of 45 years, David Whitney, an art collector and critic, and they both lived on the property as a weekend home and eventually permanent residence, from when the Glass House was built in 1949 until they passed away just months apart in 2005. As homeowners, especially creatives, are wont to do, over the years Johnson and Whitney continuously adapted and adjusted the property around the Glass House, building and collaborating on structures and elements of the landscape.
The property is now home to a collection of 13 additional structures, including the Brick House; an art gallery; a sculpture gallery; and a gate house. The Glass House sits shielded from public view by a waist-high stone wall, down the hill from a quiet road in lush New Canaan, CT. It is surrounded on three sides by a forested area that constitutes much of the 47 acres, overlooking the valley of the small Rippowam River.
Within the Glass House, and in the structures surrounding it, Johnson composed a series of "asymmetric sliding rectangles" and circles which balance and play off of one another. The Glass House (rectangle) is sited at the edge of a relatively flat, rectangular plane surrounded by hills and valleys. Several yards and directly across from it in the plane sits a round pool (circle). Next to and in alignment with the pool (but several yards away) sits the Brick House (rectangle), which, at 56’, is the same length, but half as wide (16’) as its glass counterpoint. And finally, next to and in alignment with the Brick House (but several yards away) sits a Donald Judd concrete installation (circle), Untitled, commissioned by Johnson in 1971.
Donald Judd's Untitled, 1971
Donald Judd and Philip Johnson were friends, which led to the commissioned piece at Johnson's home in 1971. For Johnson and Whitney, Judd created the site-specific piece, his first ever in concrete. The installation is a concrete ring, and in approaching the Glass House from the entrance road, it is the first element in Johnson's "asymmetric sliding planes" and circles that one encounters. Unfortunately, very little documentation exists on how much Judd and Johnson went back and forth on the development of the work.
Like much of Judd's work, Untitled is deceptively complex. Judd designed the piece to reflect and recognize the natural slope that occurred on the site. The consideration of the topography that Judd took into creating the piece is not evident until you spend time with it, noticing that the outer height adjusts with the site. The concrete ring, approx. 3–4’ high and 1–2’ wide, has straight sides, and a slanted top, creating an inner and outer ring. The sculpture's inside circumference is level, while the outside circumference runs parallel to the sloping ground plane, creating a beveled edge. The varying effect is slight, and seems at times to be merely a play on the eyes.
Conservation of Untitled
Since 2007, the property has been a National Trust Historic site, and is now upheld as "a canvas for experimentation and cultivation honoring the legacy of Johnson and Whitney." The Trust opened the property for public tours from May through November, as well as several events and a lecture series on topics related to the Glass House, concurrently with its mission to preserve and restore many of its aspects.
In early 2011, Glass House curator Irene Shum Allen began working with a team at Integrated Conservation Resources (ICR), based in New York, to conserve the Donald Judd work, which had been ravaged by moisture, dirt, cracks and even was serving as home to chipmunks in a large crack. The conservation efforts began in May and wrapped up in early December: the minimally invasive treatment involved cleaning, repairing of loss and cracks, and a light coat of protectant. The main goal of the conservation was to restore and preserve the original intent of the work.
Irene Allen began the process of conserving the piece in 2007 prior to the site's public opening. In securing funding, information gathering and research, the conservation took four years to get going. In 2007, the concrete of the sculpture was dark with moisture and debris, and several plants were growing in the center of the ring, some planted by Whitney, others not. Although Whitney had planted tall ferns in the center, self-seeded Virginia creeper vines had since overtaken the sculpture as well. In 2009, while trimming a tree that sits next to the Judd piece, a limb fell and broke a piece of concrete from the interior beveled edge. Allen believed this damage greatly impacted and compromised the artist's intent and the interpretation of the work, so efforts of conservation focused on restoring the leveled line of the sculpture.
As he often did, Judd used typical building materials for Untitled, his first work in concrete. However, Judd's knowledge of concrete and its properties was not yet extensive, and his inexperience with the material may have led to a few problematic elements discovered in the conservation process, namely large cracks. Cast-in-place concrete typically results in a surface that is highly susceptible to weathering because if its lack of aggregate. After 40 years of exposure to the elements, much of this layer on Untitled weathered away, leaving a more textured aggregate-rich surface.
Moreover, a more fundamental problem arose from how the concrete was poured, in two separate sessions into a wood mold with metal supports. The story, as told by the Glass House:According to Port Draper of the Louis E. Lee Company (the contractor of many of the structures on site at the Glass House), the sculpture required two truckloads of concrete. On the day of construction, the first truck arrived on schedule and poured its contents into the wood form-work. The second truck, unfortunately, got lost en route, and its delivery was postponed until the following day. By then, the first pour had already begun to cure. Although the sculpture appears to be a monolithic whole, the two pours may not have fully bonded together.
A cold-joint resulted from the mishap, and it is visible today in a line across the concrete sculpture. In a conservation effort such as this one, many different levels of alterations can be made to a sculpture to both resolve current issues and prevent future problems. But with a work of art, many considerations are at play, and the Trust, the ICR team, and the Judd Foundation all agreed to preserve and maintain Untitled in the most minimally invasive way possible. A key focus to these projects is Judd's original intent and outlook as an artist.
Although the pouring incident may create problems in the preservation and endurance of the work, the Judd Foundation supports the idea that Judd accepts fabrication's involvement in his resulting work. In a conversation around the conservation of the piece and the resulting cold-joint from the two pours, the artist's son Flavin Judd said:Clearly the fabrication of the piece was not optimal. This being the one of the first concrete pieces and using a regular construction company (not a company that had experience making art before) a hitch in the process isn't completely a surprise.
If this piece had been made later or after he had more experience with concrete, Don might have insisted on the cold joint being addressed. This piece being an early one, he simply accepted the cold joint as part of the fabrication. Don accepted quite a lot of things in the process from simple line drawings to completed and placed work; he said that he never knew exactly how the works would turn out. I think he was happy with the piece because it did what he wanted and he lived with the joint lines just as he lived with the fabrication marks on some of the metal pieces.
The Conservation Process
Every conservation project is unique, and although ICR had worked on similar projects in concrete (they typically do architectural restoration, and performed an analysis and repair to Frank Lloyd Wright's concrete Guggenheim building in New York as well). Senior Conservator Amanda Thomas Trienens and her team at ICR began by cleaning the work. In their analysis, they discovered primarily biological growth—mud, lichen, moss, etc. They used a pressure washer with water to start the cleaning, in order to remove as much material as possible without being too invasive, followed by Bioside, a non-invasive cleaner; a liquid marble cleaner; and finally an alkaline. Their main considerations in using the proper cleaning products were in preserving the nature of the material. Trienens said that a concern is that concrete is an acid-sensitive material, which will eat away at the binder maintaining its structure.
"It's always a delicate balance," Trienens said. "We never want to over-clean."
In order to develop an initial understanding of the specific concrete used for Judd's Untitled, Trienens and her team at ICR tested pieces of concrete from four different locations on the sculpture where repairs were needed. The locations included the interior edge chunk removed by the tree and a large crack. In their lab in New York City, they examined each piece, determining its substrate and form, including the amount of and structure of aggregate within. They found appreciable differences in each location, so the team had to create a different composite for each of the four main areas in order to repair each separate zone.
Using a method of acid digestion in their lab, ICR created a variety of patch materials and developed proper binders for the repair areas. For each material they encounter, they have a library of composites to help build matching, or close-to matching, fixes. For the Judd piece, Trienens consulted ICR's Sand Library, and worked with variations of binders to get the proper aggregate mixes. Then, to get color right, they mixed cement in grays and whites, sometimes having to add pigments to locate a match.
As an imperfect and natural material, concrete is rarely an even color or tone in any large swath of area. Judd's Untitled is a minimalist, precise and geometric form, but the material that composes it is different in color and composite in every square inch. In their conservation, Trienens said that ICR had to focus mainly on the specific areas to be patched and make their best efforts to create repairs that are solid and continuous, while remaining true to the natural state of the concrete. In order to do this, when patching areas, Trienens and her team were on site with several different mixtures. They used several different tools—backs of chipbrushes, mason's trowels, etc. to blend the patched elements and make them look random and organic.
"Conservators often have to employ tools from other industries for use in implementing treatments and repairs," Trienens said. "While there is the obvious use of masonry tools (trowels, floats, cold points, etc.), there is also an incorporation of the tools of dentistry and the physical sciences in our work."
All plants on the interior of Untitled were removed to begin conservation of the work. The creeper vines had attached themselves to the concrete, so Trienens and conservator Jennifer Schork had to delicately pluck the suctioned vines from the concrete using tweezers.
In addition to keeping with artist's original intent, this conservation was undertaken to preserve the work and prevent any further deterioration due to weathering and age.
"It was imperative to undertake the repairs to help prevent water ingress. Water contributes to the deterioration of concrete particularly because it solubilizes and mobilizes salts," Trienens said. "Removal of the biological growth was necessary due to the fact that it holds moisture to the sculpture, further increasing its rate of deterioration from factors such as freeze/thaw and carbonation."
After the cleaning and repairs, the conservation team applied final coats of a light protectant to Untitled, "applying a hydroxylating conversion treatment, which has a few benefits: strengthening of the concrete surface microstructure, increase in resistance of the concrete to acid rain, and the preparation of the concrete to accept a water repellent," said Trienens.
The sculpture is now generally much lighter in color than in pictures from pre-conservation. The cracks and damage have been repaired, and the interior beveled edge is a clean line, shown as Judd intended. Overall, it is a wonderful component to the Glass House and the "asymmetric sliding" geometries desired by Johnson. Curator Irene Allen, in discussing the conservation of the project said that this project, like all other conservations, are a constant dialogue. In this case, the conservation was a balance between the collector (The Glass House), the artist (The Judd and Chinati Foundations), the endurance of both legacies, and without much documentation, the perceived intent and desire of each.
In a conversation about the conservation on the Glass House website, Flavin Judd summed up the essence to the work and its importance best:I would say that here we have an example of an artist making a work for his friend, an architect who designed and built his own house. I think that this is a situation to be preserved and emulated. This is a rare case of two people dispensing with the industry, commerce and nonsense of the art world and getting together to make art. Art that is still around and accessible.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Philip Johnson Glass House have an amazing amount of information available on the work, the artist's intent, conversations with Flavin Judd, and the process of conservation up on their website. The Glass House property, in New Canaan, is open for public tours from May to November, and is an easy hour's train ride from New York City.