Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Three Modernists at Modern House Day

[Read 'Modern,' our new modern house blog, here.]

One of the great things about the Modern House Day tour and symposium, which was held Saturday in New Canaan, is that you get to hear and meet some of the real giants of modern architecture and design. This year John Johansen, one of the Harvard Five architects, and Jens Risom, the furniture designer, spoke at the symposium, and John Black Lee, served as the host at one of the houses on the tour, the Rogers House, which he designed.

Johansen is 91, slightly built but apparently still agile (he climbed over a folding chair in the auditorium to get from one row to the next) and has a thinning mane of white hair, swept back, and a well-trimmed white beard. Risom is also 91. Like Johansen he’s not tall but he is sturdily built, looks great in a suit, has a full head of white hair, and appears to be still vigorous. Lee is younger, though no spring chicken, and is less natty than Risom, preferring boat shoes (sometimes without socks), khakis and a fleece vest to a suit. All three basked happily in the attention and the lionization.

Logo for the Modern House Day Tour and Symposium in New Canaan, CT

I saw them at a cocktail party that was part of the festivities and talked for a minute with Risom, who is an old friend of my wife’s family, and Lee, who oversaw the construction of my wife’s parents house, back in 1949 and ’50 (although he did not design it). I didn’t talk to Johansen, mainly because I had no connection and couldn’t think of what to ask him but also because he was continually surrounded. But he and Risom had interesting things to say at the symposium, and Lee was equally interesting in impromptu remarks he made at the Rogers house.

Here’s a summary – it’s almost all direct quotes but my note-taking was harried so to be safe I’ll leave off the quotation marks except where I’m sure.

John Johansen: He said that Gropius was the Apollonian figure in modern architecture and he learned a great deal from him at Harvard (he also married Gropius’s daughter, Ati). But from Marcel Breuer (who was also at Harvard and was one the Harvard Five) he learned more not in school but at drinking parties in New Canaan, so if Gropius was the Apollonian figure, Breuer was the Bacchalonian figure.

When Johansen came of age, the influence of the Ecole des Beaux Arts was fading away; it was no longer able to deal with the problems of the modern world and no longer had the spirit to stir men’s blood. By contrast, at Harvard there was a fierce and joyous spirit, where they taught principles but not styles – a new way of thinking, a new way of feeling, a new way of design, and a new way of living.

In New Canaan they imparted this to a few of their first clients. Eliot Noyes was first. He represented the box, Johansen said – in other words, his house designs were based on a box-like structure. Breuer learned from Breuer, Philip Johnson learned from Mies van der Rohe, Landis Gores learned from Frank Lloyd Wright – (“His beautiful, beautiful house of his own still stands” in New Canaan, he said of Gores, who with Johnson and Noyes made up the remainder of the Harvard Five). Johansen said he found his way out of the box through symbolism, biomorphism, historicism and high technology.

He said that during the early modern house days, many of the houses weren’t finished and some leaked. He showed a slide of his own house, furnished with classic modern furniture, including a Corbusier chair, and then said that the architects would open up their houses for tours and exchange furniture with each other, to “give interior respectability.” He showed a slide of one of his structures and said that when two people passing by stopped to look at it, one asked, “What is it?” The other said, “I don’t know but let’s buy it and turn it into a house.”

Johansen said he built 27 houses, 8 of which have been lost, as he put it. How does he deal with having his creations torn down (by Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas, in one egregious example)?

“The reward is in the doing, the product doesn’t matter, I won already for having created it. And finally, a more forceful reference – forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jens Risom: There was no avoiding the obvious fact that the mid-century modernists are now old. Referring to Johansen by his nickname, Risom said, “I’m one month older than Jo. We meet each other and say, ‘My God! Are you still alive?’ “

He said he tries to create furniture that is pleasant to look at, not overwhelming, makes sense, and is comfortable or stores the things it was made to store. He likes to use wood because he considers it a bridge between the house and the human beings who live in the house.

He said, “In this town it’s amazing to me how so few people consider working with an architect. Respect for architecture is not good enough, respect for good design is not good enough. What we’ve seen around here as speculative, commercial housing is pretty bad.”

People tell him that modern furniture won’t go with their old, beautiful things. “I tell them, ‘First of all, your furniture is not old; second of all, it’s not beautiful.’ “

John Black Lee: Standing outside the Rogers house (which Lee designed for Ted Rogers, the producer of the Today Show), he talked about the symmetrical design and the glass walls in front and back, and then recalled a New Year’s Eve party there during a snowstorm, where everybody got plastered, as he put it, and went out and made snow angels.

We went inside and Lee asked us to come into the living room, “Sit down, get a sense of the scale and the relationship to outside.” He talked about the spirit of the house, how it serves the people who live in it. We looked out the south window across a lawn that rolled away to a split rail fence connecting two groves of trees, which were bending in the wind. He said, “Architects tell people how to live. I’m much more gratified when people come into a house, live in it, and show me how to live.”
He talked about Mies Ven der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, in Illinois. Edith Farnsworth was an interior decorator who went to college with Lee’s mother and who, as he put it, had the hots for Mies. That led him into a discussion of great houses. In his opinion, he said, there are five great houses in the United States: Fallingwater, the Glass House, a house Lee himself designed and Toshiko Mori updated, on Chichester Road in New Canaan (he called it Lee House number 2), Johnson’s Boissonnas house, and the Kaufman house, which Neutra designed, in Palm Springs.

I have other impressions and observations from Modern House Day that maybe I'll get to later. The event was a fund-raiser for the New Canaan Historical Society, which organized it with a lot of help from a group of volunteers. The William Raveis real estate agency was a prime sponsor, and their brokers served as docents at some of the houses (and made sure everyone knew that Johnson's Alice Ball House is again threatened with destruction -- it would be the first Johnson house to be torn down -- and is on the market, and that Edward Durell Stone's Celanese House, which was on the tour and has been spectacularly restored, will soon be on the market).

The Modern House Day logo was designed by Gina Federico Graphic Design.



Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks much for your notes, comments and links regarding MHD 2007. I was lucky enough to enjoy it in person, but you are by far a better note taker. Besides the Noyes house, which prompted my interest in MCM homes, I was most struck by the Rogers house, a most livable design. It was a joy to listen to John Lee, he really liked his parties.


12:39 PM  

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