On April 2, Henry Urbach began his tenure as the director of the Glass House, the former weekend home of architect Philip Johnson and now one of the handful of modernist properties overseen by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. After running an architecture-focused gallery in New York and a stint as chief architecture and design curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Urbach is settling into the more pastoral surroundings of New Canaan, Connecticut. He’ll be the first director to live on the Glass House property, moving into Calluna Farms, a 19th-century farmhouse that was the residence of Johnson’s partner David Whitney. And following in the footsteps of the very social Johnson and Whitney, as director Urbach plans to bring the party to New Canaan.
The Architect’s Newspaper: Before being appointed director, what was your relationship to the Glass House?
Henry Urbach: I first went to the Glass House in 2001 at Philip’s invitation. A mutual friend, Hilary Lewis, introduced us, and Philip was eager to know about the gallery I was running at the time. He was always curious about what “the kids” were up to. I spent a beautiful morning with him on the property. It was really a special day.
Then, a few years ago, I started to explore a new project about the Glass House as a curatorial laboratory, a complement to Johnson’s work as founding curator of modern architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. Curatorial practice in architecture lacks a sense of its own genealogy. I’d become interested in Johnson’s work at the Glass House—in particular, the architecture, art, and people he collected and displayed there. So I went back to New Canaan for a visit last year and, while there, was given a tour by a staff member who mentioned the search for a new director.
How does that project idea relate to your goals as the new director?
My ambition for the Glass House is to reanimate it as something not so different from what it was during Philip’s lifetime. Currently, it’s operating as a house museum, and we will continue with that public mission. But we also want to develop an intimate, vibrant center for contemporary culture that will host changing exhibitions, performances, and other events, with fellows and writers-in-residence. The Glass House is an ideal facility for producing a new conversation on culture, thanks to its proximity to—and distance from—New York as well as research institutions in the area, including Columbia, Yale, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. It is also an ideal stage for culture because of its extraordinary setting, with structures and landscape that can support a range of activities. I feel this is the best way to honor the legacy that Philip and David Whitney left to us.
That’s an ambitious, not to mention lively, vision for a National Trust property. Are the powers that be supportive?
Very much so. As part of a very thorough interview process, I was asked to state my “vision” for the Glass House, and I submitted a 12-page document outlining the idea of the Glass House as a house/museum/cultural center, a kind of 21st-century salon. I foresee a multidisciplinary approach to the projects I’m hoping to foster on-site. It’s an extension of something I’ve been working on for quite some time—an expanded notion of architecture as it reaches toward culture.
When it opened in 2007, the first few seasons of tours at the site were sold out. But over the years that level of demand may prove impossible to sustain. In terms of fund raising, what do you see as the next chapter for the Glass House?
There was a pent-up demand early on from people who hadn’t had the opportunity to visit. That demand has softened, and the challenge now is to give people a reason to come back and experience the site in new ways. There has been a recent change of leadership at the National Trust, and there’s genuine support for innovative approaches to historic preservation. It’s not just the physical elements and “look” of the site that we aim to preserve, but also the spirit of the place, its DNA. In my view, that means the Glass House should remain a site of cultural production, a place of innovation and discovery.