The Salon Lives On

From left: Andy Warhol, David Whitney, Philip Johnson, Dr. John Dalton, and Robert A. M. Stern in the Glass House in 1964. Photo: David McCabe

Writing 24 years ago in Architectural Digest, Vincent Scully called Philip Johnson’s Glass House “the most sustained cultural salon that the US had ever seen.” Within the glass walls of that modernist marvel, people like Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Robert A. M. Stern battled wits over the endless martinis supplied by Johnson and his partner, David Whitney. Now, thanks to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the School of Visual Arts (SVA), that vibrant discussion continues at glasshouseconversations.org.

After the architect’s death in 2005, the National Trust realized that it would be meaningless to preserve the building without attempting to preserve the culture of inquiry and debate that animated it for so many years. In 2008 and 2009, they held two events under the new Glass House Conversations program, inviting cultural, business, and educational leaders to sit around and have a chat, just like the old days. (Metropolis’s editor-in-chief, Susan Szenasy, co-moderated the conversation in 2008; watch the video here.) This year, the Philip Johnson Glass House teamed up with SVA’s graduate programs in interaction design and design criticism to update that format for the age of Web 2.0 and social networking.

Every week, a guest moderator sparks the conversation with a thought-provoking question. Michael Beirut, the graphic designer and author, was the moderator of last week’s conversation; this week it is Alice Rawsthorn, the design critic of the International Herald Tribune. Her question–“What do you consider to be the most important challenge for designers to tackle today?”–has already elicited  more than 20 responses. At the end of the week, Rawsthorn will select one response as the “Final Word.”

It is an engaging format, well supported by the site’s clean, no-fuss design. But the most interesting thing to me is that it opens up the conversation to everyone. Johnson and Whitney invited a lot of famous people to the Glass House, but they also had a steady stream of students and promising young professionals. Staying young, current, and cutting-edge was important to Johnson, so I can’t help but feel that he would approve of this digital incarnation. And with John Maeda and Ralph Caplan slated to moderate future sessions, there is every reason for you to join the conversations at the Glass House. Unfortunately, you will have to bring your own martini.

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Previously: In our 2008 cover story on the Glass House, Vincent Scully, Robert A. M. Stern, Richard Meier, Terence Riley, and several others shared their memories of the iconic residence, and Erich Nagler wrote about the “contemporary art, high design, stiff drinks, and sharp repartee” at Chez Johnson.

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