Social Pressures

Social Pressures

What is it about Philip Johnson that he can rankle even from the grave?

Plans to repurpose his first freestanding building are causing tension in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Just a few blocks from Harvard Square stands a minimalist, 9 foot, gray rectangular wall defining the perimeter of the lot. It cheekily challenges the colonial, federal, and shingle-style houses nearby. Everyone tries to peer over the fence, but can’t.

Lush trees and bushes grow out of the courtyard, and when you read the little blue oval sign saying Philip Johnson designed and lived in the hidden house while at Harvard in 1942, well, Dionysian romps come to mind. When the house went up, Cambridge matrons supposedly got on hands and knees to peer under the fence. Johnson photographed them thus genuflecting. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design now has its eye on the property for more sedate activities.

The GSD would like to use the house to host salons (like the Conversations series held in Johnson’s more famous Glass House in Connecticut which, like this, is a pavilion fronting nature). The school would also give tours, use it for fundraising soirees, and perhaps occasionally allow visiting scholars to spend the night there.

The Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal will decide on whether to allow the residence to be converted to a more public use after a meeting with GSD Dean Moshen Mostafavi and the community. That meeting is set for Thursday.

But Cantabrigians are tired of standing by as Harvard gobbles up properties, and they wonder where it will stop. At zoning meetings they opine that Harvard must not add on to the house, exacerbate parking problems, nor have crowds of people visiting too often. To the surprise of some, no one has said, “Tear down that ugly box.” Real estate agents ballpark the house’s price at around two million dollars.

Johnson built the place as his graduate thesis. He lived in it only about a year while he was on leave from the Museum of Modern Art. Today, it’s owned by Laurence Tribe, the constitutional law scholar and former teacher of President Barack Obama. Tribe lived next door and used the little Miesian box with floor-to-ceiling glass between the rooms and garden as a study.

“The calm that comes over you when you’re there is palpable,” Tribe said in an interview. “There’s a sense of peace and stillness that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. The house is a mathematically exact gem, governed by the principle of enclosure… My former wife and I want Harvard to have it as a matter of history and for educational reasons. A great university like Harvard has a pedagogical responsibility to preserve and protect the jewels of its educational past.”

Ultimately, it is the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal that will decide the case, based on the level of community concern and opposition. Somewhere, Philip Johnson is smiling, loving that his former neighbors still talk about him.

A version of this article appeared in AN 19_11.18.2009.