If the history of the decline and fall of architecture ever gets written, it’ll mean we finally cared enough to learn from it, perhaps even restore it to being a noble activity. In that history, the name of Philip Johnson will feature prominently for introducing into architecture now-standard practices such as equating celebrity with worth and detaching publicity from truth. Johnson didn’t invent these practices but he did show architects how to use them. He was awarded the first Pritzker Prize in 1979.
Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House was never going to be a house as the rest of us might imagine one to be. There’s a kitchen, but it’s not part of the architecture. There’s stairs, but to where we don’t know. It’s another Johnsonian salon, this time for Blanchette Rockefeller to show art and groom guests to become MoMA patrons. It was she who called it her Guest House. A certain type of extremely wealthy person understands how the display of very little can be both opulent and understated at the same time. Blanchette Rockefeller was one of those persons, as shown by her pearls and simple neckline in this 1996 photograph by Bill Cunningham.
Rockefeller Guest House has an existence as architecture yet there’s zero evidence of its ever having been designed, documented or constructed as a building. I’ve never seen an upper floor plan, let alone a basement plan or a section. Even the building volume lacks conventional justification. Philip Johnson claimed the second floor was only added to give the house more presence from the street, thereby indicating to everyone his sensitivity to aesthetic problems and his ability to solve them regardless of cost. Money well spent is the message.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission report of 2000 repeats Johnson’s claim and, although it gives it equal importance, does provide some new information .
Even the Landmarks Preservation Committee has no interest in the second floor. I assume the street facade of that second floor does interest them otherwise we’d have the curious situation of a landmark without presence. Anyway, those unheated bedrooms face the interior courtyard across a flat and inaccessible roof. In this next photograph is all you and I are ever going to see of them.
The image shows the stairs leading up to the first floor corridor spanning the width of the building immediately behind those curtains. Opening off that corridor are either three doors – one for each bedroom and one for the bathroom – or, alternatively, there is one central door leading to a lobby with three more doors. This would mean that going to the bathroom doesn’t involve a nocturnal walk along E52nd should anyone ever open those inner curtains and not draw them again. But how any upper floor bathroom might drain is a mystery. Any internal drain would be visible and the ground floor walls of painted brick of course naturally show no chases.
Behind the front door is the kitchen. Panels conceal it when it’s not being used and, when it is, they fold out to screen it and the caterers from guests being greeted at the entrance. When the house was in party mode, guests must have thought this crude screen charmingly bohemian. It encapsulates Philip Johnson’s all-too-influential concept of what architecture is and does, as illustrated by this next photograph with a cooker and kitchen fan representing the workers and services on one side, and a sculpture and plinth representing wealth and culture on the other. My money’s on the sculpture being a Gaston Lachaise – the sculptor of the friezes on the Rockefeller Centre. At least that was public art.
Where the kitchen fan could exhaust to is a mystery as it’s not directly to the front of the house.
What I find curious about this house is the disjunction between how important it’s supposed to be in terms of fallback contexts such as the first example of Modernist architecture in New York, Philip Johnson’s only residential work in New York and so on, yet we never get shown the upper floor plan let alone the basement, the existence of which is only obvious from the break line across the staircase.
If the upper floor plan wasn’t necessary for programmatic reasons, then why not just have a double height space with a thick window rail as implied by the elevation? In other words, why not just build at the outset what one wants to show, rather than fake it with curtains?
Johnson knew people would believe anything he said. He could have answered “but the proportions would have been all wrong!” but this would’ve sounded like Mies. That Mies didn’t do double-height spaces was reason enough, though Mies was probably more annoyed Corbusier – Wright, actually – did them first rather than any distaste for their inherent wastefulness. Mies also didn’t do basements – most conspicuously for Edith – so neither did Johnson – at least not in public. Locating the basement servicing Glass House beneath Brick House eliminates the need for a tacky trapdoor.
The preservation report I mentioned earlier, refers to Rockefeller Guest House as having the same volumetric configuration as the previous 1870 house, and that it had a full basement. The kitchen fan might then be ducted down and into the basement and then out through the non-historic metal grate in the footpath.
Perhaps the original basement had a coal chute opening onto the street where the non-historic metal grate now is. We must remember that the term non-historic, in this case, means anything that’s not a part of the house being considered by the Landmarks Preservation Committee and, perversely, not anything that might have been there before.
The report also mentions that the drawings for Rockefeller Guest House were submitted for approval as alterations to the 1870 house and this is an interesting for it means the Rockefeller Guest House would have had to retain those original building volumes. Submitting plans for approval as alterations is a clever call for various practical reasons but it does change how we view those volumes. We now know why Rockefeller Guest House has a basement, a second floor, and an internal courtyard.
One works with what one has. The space between the building and the outhouse (where the bathroom still is) was made to appear as if it were a consciously-contrived design feature. The presence of the basement and any unpleasant associations to Old World architecture and/or utilitarian concerns was simply denied. And rather than admit the history of the building and that what we saw was less than 100% original design, Philip Johnson invented a disingenuous and self-serving reason for the existence of the second floor. Merely ensuring a building has bedrooms and bathrooms does nothing in the way of personal or architectural myth making.
Philip Cortleyou Johnson lied about the second floor being there to create a presence on the street. He never looked back.
The primary purpose of Rockefeller Guest House was to facilitate soirées for future MoMA patrons. Original drawings may yet show an upper floor with multiple powder rooms, and a basement having capacious cloakrooms for minks and a full caterers’ kitchen for churning out trayloads of canapés and brandy alexanders. If the history of how the architectural media failed architecture ever gets written, it will conclude that the internet only exacerbated what was already accepted practice.
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[This post was expanded from a contribution to OfHouses 18/01/2016–07/02/2016.]
16 Oct 2016: My friend Curtis tells me it looks like the first floor floor has sufficient thickness to conceal a 4″ waste pipe until it reaches the side wall where it would invariably be chased into the wall, brought down, and then led back to the location of the site’s sewer connection indicated by the position of this vent.
Also, this is the only photograph I’ve ever seen with the curtains opened. We can tell now that the glass is frosted, that the corridor is about 1 metre wide, and that the leftmost third of it appears to belong to a room, although we still can’t say if it is the original layout.
Also noticeable is the safety railing. I’m surprised it’s there as it doesn’t appear to be an historic safety railing. It’s still there though. That black box now on the roof suggests those upper bedrooms are now heated.
18 Oct. 2016: My friend Jonathan tells me (in the comments to this post) that there is, or was, a clause in the NYC building code that allowed any building work to any building to be classed an alteration if the 1st (ground) floor was retained. This allowed significant advantage particularly with respect to planning requirements particularly into relation to site coverage, the provision of rear yards and so on. Although I suspect Mr Johnson was able to work comfortably with the municipal employees to resolve particular points of disagreement. What work might have been submitted to the Building Department in 1950 is probably of little value, if anything ever was.
The volumetric equality between previous and present is more likely to have been a furphy. Estranged Australian me googled furphy to find it was
Australian slang for an erroneous or improbable story that is claimed to be factual. Furphies are supposedly ‘heard’ from reputable sources, sometimes secondhand or thirdhand, and widely believed until discounted. Wikipedia