The Glass House as Gay Space

Philip Johnson is, without a doubt, one of the most famous architects of the 20th century. He was also gay, a fact known to some in his intimate circle but certainly not to most in his field and absolutely not to the general public. His outward repression of his was most likely shrewd self-preservation–mainstream America did not smile upon non-traditional lifestyles at the time–but it ultimately manifested itself in fascinating ways through Johnson’s architecture. Perhaps most notably, Johnson’s celebrated Glass House can be subjected to a thorough queer analysis, particularly in terms of its stylistic suggestions and sly, satirical motifs. The Glass House’s glass walls represent for Johnson a parodic paradox of closeted life in the mid-twentieth century: anyone can see into the central space, into the living room which represents so many centuries of traditional family living, yet the goings-on inside the house are an utter inversion of the norm. The house’s visitors were often gay, but just as gay people hid in plain sight, so to did the visitors exhibit their within the Glass House while perpetually protected by the sheer barrier of the glass walls. In addition, the Glass House contains the visual pun of its own Guest House, located only yards away. While the Glass House’s walls are a transparent closet door, the totally enclosed Guest House represents the true closet, the repression of self, the claustrophobically enclosed space in which gay people are forced to relegate their hearts and souls. Taken as a whole, this piece of property provides magnificent insight into Johnson’s attitudes and beliefs, and it serves as a marvelous example of gay-influenced, gay-oriented 20th century architecture.

One of the most tantalizing and obviously meaningful aspects of the Glass House is in its name: the house is comprised of long sheets of completely transparent glass which allow anyone on the premises to gaze at the goings-on inside. On its face, this makes the Glass House an exercise in voyeurism; a visitor on the grounds could peer into the house and violate its privacy just as James Stewart would peer into the windows of unsuspecting tenants in Rear Window just a few years later. But the voyeurism of the Glass House penetrates a much deeper level than mere pedestrian voyeurism. In fact, Johnson’s work goes to far as to invert the expectations of voyeurism, to turn the tables on the expectations of the voyeur, who is, in this case, society. Though some have accused Johnson of “exhibitionism,” what his Glass House actually exhibited was a ruse: the home was used to entertain his gay friends, and also as a retreat for himself and his lifelong partner, though all of this was kept secret from the public. Thus, the secrets of Johnson’s were, in the Glass House, hidden in plain sight. Unsuspecting visitors could not know that this apparent monument to transparent living was a hotbed of activity behind locked windows.

The fact of Johnson’s was as previously mentioned hidden from the general public although it was known to “his friends and to a broad circle of colleagues and critics.” Still, his was “never openly acknowledged,” nor was it “publicly discussed in connection with his life and work.” Even after Johnson came out, few critics dared draw a connection between his work and his until a groundbreaking article by Alice T. Friedman on which some of this analysis is based.