Solid travertine drum and slab; lunette frame and
window beyond. Photo by Eileen Wold, 2003
Designed in 1963 by Pritzker Prize winning architect Philip Johnson with Richard Foster, the Kreeger residence was built for David and Carmen Kreeger on five and a half wooded acres overlooking the nation’s capital. At that time, and continuing on to the 1990s, the Kreegers were pillars of the Washington DC arts and cultural community, and their love of art, music and architecture resound throughout the building today. In a letter dated July 18, 1963, David Kreeger wrote to Johnson and invited him to their Washington home on Fessenden Street for “our exploratory talk” and to see “our [growing] art collection – the source of our problem!”
The programming requirements for the Kreeger residence included several components: 1) to display their collection of 19th and 20th century paintings and sculpture, 2) to create a large recital hall for playing music (piano, violin) for themselves and for visitors, 3) to design residential living spaces that would provide privacy, views and light, 4) to develop family recreational areas to include a pool, cabanas and tennis courts, and 5) to provide separate living quarters for the support staff. The final building is composed of 24,000 square feet.
The Kreeger is an excellent example of Johnson's references to the past by incorporating a modernist vocabulary. Johnson's earlier travels to Italy, Greece, the Middle East, and Egypt influenced the design, scale, proportion and materials of the Kreeger. The approach to the Kreeger residence is via a grand and circular forecourt as shown in the photograph to the right. Here Johnson provided a clearly defined vista of the building's entry while concealing the south garage and private gardens to the north of the site. The museum is sheathed in travertine (a limestone similarly used at the Colosseum) from Travertine, Itay. Above the entry is a balustrade composed of a slab of travertine supported by solid traverting "drums". On the either side of the entrance there are two-story arches filled with either travertine or glass windows that provide a rhythmic movement across the site.
Forecourt entrance to The Kreeger Museum. Photo by
Erich Keel, 2003
Once inside, the travertine continues and surrounds the Great Recital Hall. The modular system of 22 x 22 x 11 feet becomes quite evident throughout all of the internal spaces. Within the Great Hall, three modules in length and two modules in height, three saucer domes are elevated over the lunette windows to a ceiling height of 25 feet. These windows are filled with cork balls to help filter light, provide acoustical qualities and conjure up references to the latticework of Islamic mashrebeeyeh. These modules, of same height and proportion of the Great Hall, continue outward to the private east exterior elevation and Sculpture Terrace of the building. Here, however, Philip Johnson removed the infill of the travertine and glass to reveal the building's structure; it also opens to views of the sloping site and a magnificent pool surrounded by a marching colonnade reminiscent of Roman acqueducts of villas.
The Great Hall. Photo by Robert Lautman, 2004
Throughout the building Philip Johnson employed light, movement and procession in his design. He directs our vision through the Great Hall to Aristide Maillol’s bronze sculpture Pomona and the woods beyond; from the entry vestibule he leads us to view the library terrace while passing the internal and centralizing atrium. In 1965, Philip Johnson wrote:
Architecture is surely not the design of space,certainly not the
massing or organizing of volumes. These are auxiliary to the main
point which is the organization of procession. Architecture exists only in time. (That is the modern perversion of photography. It freezes architecture to three dimensions, or some buildings to two.) —From WHENCE & WHITHER: The Processional Element in Architecture
To focus our procession in a vertical and angled direction, Philip Johnson included a bronze intertwined balustrade/stair railing that extends from the main staircase of the lower through the second levels of the building. These polished screens were designed by the artist Edward Meshekoff who also designed a similar promenade for Johnson's New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) at Lincoln Center.
Bronze stair railings and atrium. Photo by
Robert Lautman, 2004
The interior finishes of the Kreeger provide a seamless refinement throughout the building. The walls of the gallery spaces are beige cotton carpet—fireproofed and over plaster—to match the color of the travertine. The carpet highlights the art while providing ease for its installation; it also enhances the acoustics within the Great Hall. The floors in the Great Hall, Dining Room and Living Room are made of teak in a herringbone pattern. In the private areas of the residence, the doors are the same height as the ceiling and in many rooms are 9’-10 3/8” pocket doors. The hardware is concealed and made of bronze.
The structural components are poured-in-place concrete with reinforced steel bars. Plywood shapes were formed and filled with various sized rebars as shown in the construction photo of the garage saucer domes to the right. Within the poured-in-place concrete columns, pipes and downspouts became an integral part of the design so that the exterior elevations would be uncluttered. The structural engineers for the Kreeger were Lev Zetlin & Associates.
Garage domes looking south. Construction photo by
Stewart Bros., November 30, 1965
The mechanical system is quietly recessed throughout the building. In the Great Hall, thin horizontal slots, between the wall carpet and travertine module, provide supply and return for the building. In the residential spaces, the grilles become part of the anodized aluminum frames that secure the window panes. Jaros, Baum & Bolles were the mechanical engineers for the building.
The Architect Philip Johnson
Philip Johnson was in his late fifties when he designed the Kreeger residence in 1963. Prior to that time, Mr. Johnson was the first Director of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). During his tenure at MoMA, he was co-curator of the "Modern Architecture—International Exhibition" (1932) which highlighted for the first time such notable architects as Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. Philip Johnson, along with Henry Russell Hitchcock, is generally credited with discovering and defining the term "International Style".
Philip Johnson and The Kreeger
Residence Model, Vogue, May 1964.
Photo by Horst.
In 1943, Philip Johnson received his professional degree in architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and looked to the works of Mies van der Rohe for inspiration. According to Benjamin Forgey, Mies was “the avatar of the honed modernist aesthetic Johnson had labeled as the ‘International Style’ back in 1932. One of Johnson’s first buildings, a cubical, glass-walled house he built for himself on his spacious estate in suburban New Canaan, Connecticut, was a straightforward act of homage to the master, and most of the designs he would produce well into the 1950s – for private homes, museums, universities and corporate offices - were strongly Miesan in flavor.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Philip Johnson talked of how “his arches represent the breaking” from the influence of Mies van der Rohe. These projects, as well as the Kreeger, all included prominent arches within their design and at varying scales: the Kneses Tifereth Israel Synagogue, Port Chester, NY 1956; the Philip Johnson Pavilion, New Canaan, CT 1962; and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln 1963.
Richard Foster, Johnson’s colleague at the time of the Kreeger residence design and construction, was heavily involved in the building’s construction documentation and construction administration. He traveled to Italy for the selection of the travertine and completed change orders until the building’s occupancy in July 1967. In Philip Johnson’s monograph entitled Architecture 1946-1965, he dedicated his book to Richard Foster.
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