Botanica Atlanta | Landscape Design, Construction & Maintenance


Atlanta Garden Design

A Courtyard House

Posted by Author on July 28, 2014 at 9:10 PM

If you have heard of Philip Johnson, you know him as one of the most renowned American architects of the twentieth century. Both influential and prolific, Johnson worked creatively with a range of materials, employed (and invented) multiple architectural styles, and built at scales both intimate and gigantic.

Images: Mark Larmuseau, Carole Félix, and Archirazzi


With Johnson/Burgee Architects, the office he cofounded, Johnson designed with stone, glass, concrete, wood, and many combinations thereof. For an architect who built an iconic, small house almost entirely of glass that still dominate many American city skylines, it is a bit elusive to identify which building would appropriately be called his best known.


But for a moment let us take a look at one of his least known.


While walking down a street in Cambridge, Massachusetts earlier this month, I came upon a structure that seemed a bit out of place with the neighborhood. A small plaque revealed it as an early work of Philip Johnson, and as I began to research the residence I found that it is also quite unique among his body of work.


Images: Archirazzi & Studio4112


In the 1940s, while a student at the neighboring Harvard Graduate School of Design, Johnson was apparently able to win his professors' approval to design this house and have it built as his graduate thesis project. This house on Ash Street not only served as his residence for the rest of his time in Cambridge, but to historians it is notable as his first freestanding work of architecture to be built.


Image: LeastConsidered


The residence has a decidedly inward focus, and as a result, neighbors and passing pedestrians are confronted with a nine-foot tall, relatively bland wall. (It is important to note that when this outer fence was built, it was already two-feet taller than what was allowed by city law at the time.) In Johnson's own words, “People felt that it didn’t jibe with the street, and they were right-it didn’t.” In my view, the home's exterior is irresponsive to its context and proves irresponsible towards the surrounding community.


Image: North Carolina Modernist


In essence, I accept that this first foray into built work was an experiment for Philip Johnson, and while its street presence may be best described as an unfortunate side effect, there is something truly novel about what happens within its walls. Fortified by jade-green outer panels, Johnson embraced a landscaped courtyard as the living room of his home. Even on such a miniscule parcel, it is inspiring that an architect choose to focus so much attention to landscape. Within what is best considered the home's "footprint," almost two-thirds of the square footage is reserved for a simple courtyard garden. Johnson allowed a private landscape to serve as the defining element of his architectural work.

Images: Ezra Stoller


Categories: Garden History, Outdoor Living

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