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Philip Johnson: A Glass House Opens

2007.07.02. 15:54 AdSafari

Designers, get in line.

Some folks may covet scalper-worthy Broadway shows or ride-the-redial rock concerts, but the ticket that has architects, artists, curators, photographers and related pros worldwide salivating with anticipation is a tour of Philip Johnson’s Glass House estate, one of the greatest landmarks of Modernist American architecture.

The storied site in New Canaan, Connecticut, is opening to the public for the first time in its 50-year history, and tickets are virtually sold out for the entire inaugural year. Talk about queuing up: As project manager Dorothy Dunn puts it, “In the professional design community, people have been waiting their entire careers for access to this site.”

Glass House Visitors Center media wall.

Glass House Visitors Center media wall.

The much-desired Glass House opening is the result of two generous gestures. Johnson, who died in 2005 at age 98, bequeathed his entire property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, while his longtime partner, renowned art collector and curator David Whitney, who died in 2006, left a behest to support programming and ongoing preservation at the estate. Their legacy takes the house public on June 23.

A Survey of Late 20th Century Design

The Glass House site includes 14 structures, an important collection of contemporary art and meticulous grounds; together the property constitutes a stunning survey of the architecture, art and landscape design of the second half of the twentieth century.

Lucky Johnson admirers who snag a ticket (most likely in 2008 or later) will take a three-quarter-mile walking tour of the 47-acre estate, including the Glass House, Brick House, Painting Gallery, Sculpture Gallery and Da Monsta, Johnson’s final edifice there. (Those who can’t get tickets or travel to Connecticut will be able to tour portions of the property online via the Glass House website.)

To ensure an intimate experience, tours are limited to just ten people. Each group begins and ends at the 2,000 square foot Visitor Center, where a tech-savvy exhibition makes artful use of Apple hardware and software to convey the broad scope of Johnson’s achievements. Comments Dunn, “We’re grateful for the leadership role Apple plays in forwarding great design.”

Catalyst For Young Talent

The Visitor Center both anchors and amplifies the Glass House experience, and every aspect of its execution was carefully conceived. “The mission of the Glass House is to be a catalyst for Modern preservation and to continue to foster innovation and talent,” explains executive director Christy MacLear, “so it only seemed appropriate to rethink the exhibition for visitors in this space.”

Think they did: in many directions at once. “One challenge,” continues MacLear, “was how to convey the complexity of Philip Johnson’s art and life. It doesn’t fit comfortably into a linear narrative. Johnson and Whitney had their hands in so many things. Whitney shaped their art collection — he was friends with Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg. And the landscape was shaped by both of them. So we wanted to show people the multi-discipline-ness of the site.”

Future-Forward Multimedia

Early in the concept phase MacLear’s team decided to showcase the estate and personalities of Johnson and Whitney via a kaleidoscopic, non-narrative multimedia exhibit. To select thematic content they considered the trove of visual assets at their disposal, including video, photography, archival documents and the actual buildings, spaces and art of the site itself.

From these materials the team was determined to create a “future forward” exhibit. As MacLear puts it, “We did not want to do a retrospective on Johnson’s art. This site is not a memorial.”

In that vein, don’t look for replicas of Johnson’s work in the gift shop. Instead, says MacLear, “We’ve commissioned young designers to create new art and artifacts inspired by what Philip and David left. You could say we’re leveraging the historic assets to continue to go forward.”

No Clutter

Most importantly, the Visitor Center itself had to reflect Johnson’s aesthetic. “We knew we didn’t want it to be your typical historic house, cluttered with signage and displays,” says Dunn. “We saw it doing something different — even reshaping the way historic house museums are viewed.”

MacLear, Dunn and their team lit on the idea of multiple media loops simultaneously running on a wall-sized installation of 24 Mac minis. The media loops would effectively convey the complexity of Johnson’s career; be easily updatable (the Historic Trust periodically will commission young artists to create new ones); and supply content for the Glass House website.

Taking this approach, says MacLear, “allows us to offer a much broader scope of knowledge than a traditional museum exhibit. And in any case,” she says, “Johnson wouldn’t have wanted a traditional approach.”

Visual Poems

Although he lived for nearly a century, most of it well before the computer age, Philip Johnson was ever, well, modern. “He embraced change,” says Dunn with frank admiration. “There were two constants with Johnson: beauty, and change. He was always exploring, always interested in the cutting edge, always looking for new and innovative ideas about architecture and design.”

For that reason alone, the Visitor Center media wall seems a fitting paean to the designer’s continuing quest. Each of the 24 Mac minis runs a media loop centered on a theme and a quote from Johnson, Whitney, friends or colleagues.

MacLear compares the Visitor Center exhibit to a gallery with constantly moving screens, where viewers can focus on one monitor or scan the entire wall. The loops are unique — the screens don’t tile and their content is not related — and range from two to 20 minutes in length. Gazing at the media wall, guests gain a dynamic sense of the designer’s complex oeuvre. “This project was just tons of fun,” says Dunn. “In effect, we were producing these visual poems.”

Seamless Digital Workflow

Pentagram Architecture was hired as project manager; filming, editing and post was subcontracted to RBH Multimedia. The installation’s design dictated the shooting style. “Pentagram was very clear,” says Steve Brosnahan of RBH, “that we weren’t creating TV, but rather a slow visual procession. We wanted to make sure the 24-screen composition didn’t become visually overwhelming.”

Philip Johnson in his Manhattan office in 1982. Photo by Steve Brosnahan

Philip Johnson in his Manhattan office in 1982. Photo by Steve Brosnahan

RBH shot in 1080p digital video using a Panasonic HVX-200 HD camera. “After filming,” notes Brosnahan, “we’d pop the P2 card into a laptop and download the video on location via Final Cut Pro or QuickTime. Later, we’d load the files into our Macs and G-RAID drives for editing and post with Final Cut Pro and After Effects. There was no tape — it was a seamless digital workflow.”

QuickTime Pro and the Mac minis were critical to the project’s success. Says Brosnahan, “We love the Mac minis — they have so much capability built into the hardware. We set them to wake up a few minutes before the Visitor Center opens, they play their files all day, then they go to sleep when the center closes — all without needing an external control system.”

He continues, “We used QuickTime H264 to compress the files for native pixel resolution playback from the Mac minis — 1280 x 1084, which is considered HD quality or better, because it’s native. So we were pumping out the QuickTime movies at this gorgeous high resolution, with no scaling or interpolation for pixels. It’s beautiful.”

A Very Modern Experience

The Historic Trust staff approached the opening of Johnson’s Glass House as an expression of the designer’s values and practices. Says Dunn, “We asked ourselves, What tools are available now that we can use in the Visitor Center to introduce people to the Glass House in the most innovative way? And the answer was Apple.”

“Our Visitor Center is small,” notes Dunn, “just 2,000 square feet. So crowding the space with lots of signs and display boards would be antithetical to the Modernist mission of our site. Using Apple technology allowed us to shape the exhibit as a very Modern experience.”

Dunn recounts, “Apple was the first contact we made and the first technology we considered, because of the quality of the products. And because our primary audience for this site is the professional design community — and Apple is what they use.”

Modern Icon Meets Modern Icon

Dunn reflects on Philip Johnson’s role as a key influencer of 20th century design. “As the founding curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he brought Modernism to this country via his groundbreaking 1932 show and book, ‘The International Style.’ He saw architecture as the foundation for thinking and learning about design, so he’s recognized as a leader and catalyst in the design community.”

“That’s why,” adds Dunn, “choosing Apple was the no-brainer part of this project. We didn’t even have to ask the producers and editors we worked with — we knew they all used Apple. When you’re talking about Philip Johnson and Apple, it’s Modern icon meets modern icon."

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