Phillip Johnson Glass House (with Kusama dots)
Phillip Johnson Glass House (with Kusama dots)
Norberto Feal


BUENOS AIRES — Exploiting architectural masterpieces as props for so-called ephemeral art is starting to become something of a permanent habit.

Perhaps the first example that comes to mind is what happened to Philip Johnson's iconic Glass House. Alongside the Farnsworth residence — designed by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and completed in 1951 — it was one of two pioneering, and controversial, homes that sought to be entirely transparent. The house, which Johnson began drawing in 1945 and which would become his home, was based on the Thesis House he had imagined and built in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for his graduate project.

In 1946, Johnson bought some 18 hectares of rolling woodlands in New Canaan, Connecticut, an hour's drive north of Manhattan, so he could build the house. Construction of the 14-room structure was completed in 1949, and the Glass House became the first of its kind, and perfect in its design. The wall of the structure, made to disappear, gives way to an uninterrupted glass membrane from the roof to the floor, which encases the living space and gently divides the inside from outside. Johnson would reside there until his death in 2005.

Christmas window?

Since 2007, the Glass House is open to the public between May and November. This year it is has been temporarily hosting Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's month-long residency, which consists in sticking hundreds of self-adhesive dots onto the glass walls. The artist explained that the dots sought to "measure and to make order of the infinite, unbound universe from own position." Every dot, she wrote, is "my own life, and I am a single particle amongst billions."

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Phillip Johnson Glass House (without Kusama dots) — Photo: Tom Hart

So anyone wishing to visit the Glass House this year — after making the long trip up to Connecticut and paying the $140 entrance fee — will have to take in this marvel ruined by Ms. Kusama's dots, which are about as pretty as a shop front display at Christmas time.

Such interventions on architectural landmarks risk becoming more and more common, as artists and curators are finding museums and public spaces too restricted for their shows now. And so some of the world's finest building are subject to these kinds of "reboots."

Explained away as ephemeral and removable, the constant repetition of such interventions may not turn out to be so harmless, with the risk that a series of provisional phenomena becomes a permanent fixture. We've seen it at the German Pavilion in Barcelona, which is always being exploited as such; or Versailles, whose grand canal has most recently become the setting for Olafur Eliasson's The Waterfall. Until the end of October, this vertical platform spewing water will ruin the view of a crucial axis of the 17th-century gardens. Eliasson says it is intended to reactivate the "engineering innocence of the past."

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Palace of Versailles (with Jeff Koons Balloon Flower) — Photo: Dalbera

In Florence, the Palazzo Strozzi's façade was covered with orange life rafts, part of a massive installation by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to remind viewers of the plight of refugees. Why are masterpieces of architecture treated this way? One wonders, what would happen if Velásquez's Las Meninas in the Prado were covered with Kusama's polkadots or David's Oath of the Horatii, plastered over with pictures of refugees?

Nobody doubts that Kusama, Eliasson and Weiwei are great artists, or that the use of installations can be striking, thoughtful and innovative. But with so many buildings around the world, why not leave the true masterpieces for us to see in their original splendor?

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