Culture

A Visit to Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

To dust the furniture or wash the dishes in the Farnsworth House on a hot summer day in the steaming Fox River valley, with the hermetically sealed windows interrupted by only the smallest ventilating apertures in the rear of the place, is to realize that this is not an environment formed in response to the “demand for realism and functionalism.”

On the other hand, to approach the house, this abstract temple whose white geometry is set in relief against the green woods overlooking the river, then to mount the floating steps to the podium, to study the serenity of the proportions of its steel skeleton and the precision of its fabrication, to enter a totally glazed interior and hover there, between the space of an ordering mentality and the setting of a limitless nature, the one separated from the other by the immateriality of glass, is to experience an architecture which has ascended to the realm of the mystical.

— Chicago-based architectural historian Franz Schulze, Mies van der Rohe: Interior Spaces, 1982.

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Mies van der Rohe, circa 1958.

As World War II was concluding, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s career was at a crossroads. After the Nazis decided once and for all in 1937 that they were through with modernist art and architecture, Mies (who lived from 1886 to 1969), the last director of the Bauhaus, fled to America, with two prospects in mind. One was to design a modernist residence for Stanley and Helen Resor, both executives in the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, on the Snake River in Wyoming.

The other was to become director of the architectural program at Armour Institute, soon to be renamed Illinois Institute of Technology. Ultimately, Mies was given the entire 120 acre campus on the south side of Chicago to plot out and build. As Tom Wolfe sardonically reflected in From Bauhaus to Our House this meant “Twenty-one large buildings, in the middle of the Depression, at a time when building had come almost to a halt in the United States —for an architect who had completed only seventeen buildings in his career — O white gods.” But then, along with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, Mies was part of that elite group of “White Gods, come from the skies at last!” and newly deposited in American academia, to borrow from Wolfe’s legendary formulation.

But while several White Gods of modernism were able to flee the Nazis, they faced another intractable foe in America: the Depression, grinding on throughout the 1930s thanks to FDR’s mismanagement of the economy. Mies’s residential design in Wyoming fell through, and the first buildings he was able to erect at IIT were rather grim looking functional structures, owing to first the Depression and then WWII’s impact on materiel. The contrast between these severe buildings and the trilogy of beautiful Weimar-era jewels he built at the apex of his career there — the Barcelona Pavilion, The Tugendhat House in the Czech city of Brno, and his model home for the Berlin Building Exhibition of 1931 — were especially remarkable.

Searching for a new architectural language, it was during World War II that Mies came across a photo of a Martin Bomber Plant near Baltimore designed by the architectural office of Albert Kahn that greatly intrigued him. As a WWII bomber assembly plant, the structure was even more utilitarian and spartan in design than Mies’s IIT buildings, but it was engineered in such a way as to be entirely free of columns, by the use of steel structures resembling bridge girders in the roof. Mies used this photo as the first layer of a collage, placing a concert hall, along with painting and sculpture within Kahn’s structure. For the rest of Mies’ life, he would be obsessed with column-free, essentially one-room buildings, designing them in increasingly grandiose scales. These would culminate in S.R. Crown Hall, the main school of architecture building at IIT, the gigantic but never built Chicago Convention Hall, and his last completed building, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, a brilliant piece of engineering, but extremely unwieldy as a working museum.

When Edith Met Mies

But until the end of World War II, those sorts of clear-span buildings were just fantasies in Mies’s fertile mind. As were the tall modernist office buildings he first drew as a series of epochal drawings and models beginning with 1921’s Friedrichstrasse Office Building. Fortunately for his career, two providential meetings took place for Mies. For the remaining two decades of his life, Mies would be able to design as many tall buildings as he wanted. Beginning in the late 1940s, in order to tackle the postwar building boom, Chicago area developer Herb Greenwald tasked Mies with designing first Promontory Apartments in 1949, then shortly thereafter, the landmark 860-880 Lake Shore Drive buildings, which would bring Mies to the attention of Phyllis Lambert, who hired him to design her father’s Seagram office building in Park Avenue, eventually dubbed “the millennium’s most important building,” by one hyperbolic New York Times critic.

Steel I-Beams and their nearly-hidden welds ground perfectly smooth.

Concurrently, it was in 1945 that the path began to emerge that would allow Mies to both finally make his dreams of a column-free interior a reality, and to finally build a residence in America. As a result of a meeting with Mies at a dinner party, Dr. Edith Farnsworth (1903-1977), a leading Chicago-area nephrologist, walked into Mies’s office to inquire about one of his assistants designing a weekend retreat for her in the farm country of Plano, about 60 miles west of Chicago.

To her surprise, Mies himself took on the project — and in retrospect, is it any wonder? Here at last was the chance to finally build a residential project in America, the chance to put the theories of structure he had been accumulating during the Depression and WWII to work, the prospect of building an entirely glass and steel house, and the chance to do in America what Le Corbusier did with the Villa Savoye in the Paris hinterlands in the previous apex of modernism, the late 1920s. An all-white weekend retreat, resting on pilotis (“‘Columns’ was a bourgeois word,” as Wolfe quipped) in the middle of the verdant countryside.

While the land Farnsworth owned was attractive, with a beautiful view of the nearby Fox River, it came with a risk: the river flooded its banks from time to time. As Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst note in their 2012 book, Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, New and Revised Edition, “Mies requested information from the Illinois State Water Survey concerning the highest flood stages of the Fox River. Informed that such records were not kept, he was advised to ‘interview old settlers in that vicinity.’ He decided to set the top of finished floor five feet above grade, two feet higher than the highest stage reported by old-timers.” (Ahh, the best-laid plans of Mies and Men — the house has been flooded several times in the decades since it was completed, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation has weighed several proposals to adjust for this reoccurring natural disaster, ranging from moving the house to even placing it on a giant hydraulic lifting mechanism.)

Philip Johnson Steals Mies’s Thunder

While Mies established the basic concept for the Farnsworth House relatively quickly, because of cost overruns and delays in Farnsworth amassing the necessary funds, construction was delayed until 1950. It was during its long incubation period that an old friend from Mies’s career reappeared — the mercurial architect Philip Johnson, who was a sort of Zelig figure in what Jonah Goldberg and HG Wells would call “Liberal Fascism.” During the course of the 1930s, Johnson had fallen in love with the minimalist forms of European socialist architecture, established the Museum of Modern Art’s architectural department, then fallen in love with a far darker form of socialism in post-Weimar Germany. All the while, Johnson was also a huge admirer of Mies’ architecture, and worked to help Mies flee the Nazis, gave him the commission of designing his New York apartment in the 1930s, and arranged Mies’s 1947 MoMA exhibition, where the Farnsworth House was previewed.

Johnson was intrigued by Mies’s glass house concept, and thanks to his own inherited wealth, was able to quickly build a glass house of his own on his property in New Canaan Connecticut. Johnson’s beating Mies to the punch caused many to associate the glass house concept with him rather than Mies, much to the latter architect’s chagrin. After employing Johnson as an associate architect on the Seagram Building in New York (where again, Johnson would hog plenty of credit), once the Seagram Building was complete, Mies broke with him entirely, the rift begun during a disastrous liquor-soaked night of arguing architectural history in Johnson’s glass house in the mid-‘50s.

While Mies spent much of his life in America in the company of a Chicago-area sculptress named Lora Marx, there were rumors that he and Edith Farnsworth had an affair during the period leading up to the construction of her house. “The lady expected the architect to go with the house,” some sources claim Mies rather ungentlemanly uttered.

Aftermath

As a result of cost overruns at least in part due to the rise in steel prices during the Korean War, the price of building the Farnsworth House rose from an original estimate of $60,000 to a final cost of $74,000. (This in an era when the first Levittown houses sold for $7,000.) Mies would sue Farnsworth in 1953 for $28,173 for the materials he had purchased to construct the house. Farnsworth would countersue for $33,872 for the cost overruns. Farnsworth would lose the case, and was forced to pay $14,000 in large part because after reading the transcripts, Schulze and Windhorst noted that Mies had the better part of the argument, and was clearly better prepared for the trial.

Farnsworth rejected Mies’s classic furniture designs, and after the initial, iconic photos of the completed Farnsworth were shot, installed a functional, but rather ugly screen above the house’s entry plane. Whatever her initial disputes with Mies, she weekended in the increasingly famous house throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. However, in 1968, Kendall County replaced the 19th century-era bridge over the Fox River and shifted the road eastward to accommodate it. As Schulze and Windhorst note, when the new bridge was first announced, Farnsworth told the Chicago Tribune that the new structure “will pass within 180 feet of the house. Just think, any of these Hell’s Angels who seem to be riding around could shoot right into the house— it’s all glass.”

As melodramatic as that reads, she was onto something — when I visited the Farnsworth House in mid-August, the throaty sounds of roaring motorcycles and sports cars could certainly be heard on a regular basis as they lumbered by over the Fox River bridge, disturbing the pastoral calm that Farnsworth sought to create for herself.

It was also in 1968 that the path towards the Farnsworth House acquiring its next owner was set in motion.  Peter Palumbo (born 1935), who had made his fortune in British real estate, was an aficionado of Mies’s architecture, meeting the man himself in the mid-1960s in an ultimately quixotic effort to build a Seagram-inspired Miesian building in London.

Palumbo had also inquired about Mies building him a house in Scotland, but given Mies’s rapidly failing health  (he would die in 1969) when Mies’s grandson Dirk Lohan discovered that the Dr. Farnsworth was planning to sell her namesake house, he stepped in and arranged a sale to Palumbo, who would pay Farnsworth $120,000 and allowed her to remain in the house for three years. (She would pass away in 1977 at age 74 after spending her last years in a villa near Florence, Italy.)

Once he took position of the house, Palumbo carefully renovated the interior, hiring Lohan to design a flue for the house’s fireplace to minimize flying ash, installing Mies’s iconic 1920s-era furniture, both replicas by Knoll and an original black glass table from the Barcelona Pavilion, and he installed air conditioning hidden in the space between the central core that contains the kitchen and mechanical equipment and the ceiling.

Iconic furniture originally designed by Mies in the late 1920s and early ’30s.

As Schulze noted in the 1985 edition of his biography of Mies, “Palumbo is the ideal owner of this house. He is wealthy enough to maintain it with the infinite and eternal care it deserves and he lives in it for only short periods during any given year. Thus he finds it easier to do what anyone must who chooses to reside there: he derives sufficient spiritual sustenance from the reductivist beauty of the place endure its creature discomforts.”

In 2000, Palumbo decided to sell the Farnsworth House, due to age (he was 65) and health issues. Three years later, it was acquired via auction at Sotheby’s, by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois.

Note nearly hidden pipe in the middle of the structure that connects the Farnsworth House’s plumbing and electrical lines to earth.

The Farnsworth House in Perspective: The Sculpture for Living In

For me, after seeing photos of the Farnsworth House over the years since my initial interest in modern art and architecture in the late 1980s, visiting in person was a revelation. Seeing how the building was sited on the property, looking at nature through its plate glass windows, seeing and running my hand over its immaculately welded I-beams and seeing the single, nearly hidden column that connects the house’s plumbing, electrical and telephone lines to the earth, I began to understand better the art that Mies was trying to create. The Farnsworth House, as Schulze noted, is perhaps the ultimate example of Mies’s slogan of beinahe nichts, minimalist architecture that is “almost nothing.” 

However, knowing that Edith Farnsworth must have cooked while there in summers — our tour guide told us that Farnsworth called the house her “terrarium” — was a reminder that Mies was operating somewhat in advance of technology, and was always prepared to wish away any problems that stood in the way of achieving his architecture.

Near the end of his life, when the last major building he designed was completed, the giant Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Mies was quoted as saying, “It is such a large hall, that of course it means great difficulties for the exhibiting of art. I am fully aware of that. But it has such potential that I simply cannot take those difficulties into account.” The Farnsworth House, a much smaller one room steel and glass structure, is another reminder that Mies could wish away all sorts of distractions and human difficulties away in pursuit of architectural purity.

The Farnsworth House’s bed. Note nearly hidden circular electrical outlets in travertine marble floor.

In the 1989 book Mies van der Rohe: Critical Essays, which Schulze edited, he interviewed James Ingo Freed, who studied under Mies at IIT and in the mid-‘70s was IIT’s dean of architecture. After Schulze compared the reductivist stasis of the Farnsworth House to Mies’s far more dynamic Weimar-era structures, and described the house as “a shrine,” Freed replied:

Or a temple. Or a metaphor for a house, not a house in the psychological or physical sense. As he goes on, Mies sheds programmatic restrictions right and left and ends up with inhabitable sculpture. A wonderful thing, that house. It really is an icon of our age, and it has, by Mies’s definition, Zeitgeist written all over it. But it hardly works well for people who look to architects to give form to their environment. It is the last station on the Weimar road that starts with an optimistic attempt to change, if not society, at least its (public) norms of perception and ends in a private pavilion in a private landscape to be privately enjoyed.

Fortunately, the Farnsworth House can now be seen by anyone willing to make the trek.  And it’s worth contemplating for its sheer aesthetic beauty, how it reflects the postwar architectural Zeitgeist as Mies saw it, and how it reflects the will of its designer.

Mies’s architecture is, to borrow from the left’s current favorite word, “problematic.” As James Lileks once wrote, “One Seagram building can transform a medium-sized city’s downtown. Five can depress it. Ten can ruin it.” Mies had created what he thought was a universal architectural language and a systems-based design philosophy, which was implemented by both Mies’s students at IIT and thousands of American architects with varying degrees of success in the 1950s and ‘60s. But the Miesian vocabulary created a sameness to American cities, with to borrow from Tom Wolfe, row after Mies van der Rohe of near identical-looking steel and glass buildings.

By the 1960s, it became common to say that Mies’s architecture was the easiest architectural language to teach — and certainly Mies thought so himself. But as Schulze, Mies’s best biographer, would write in 1985, “Indeed it was not at all, and may have been among the least teachable. The acres of stillborn design in the Miesian manner that transformed the American cityscape in the 1950s and 1960s are a palpable indication of this.”

Mies himself was once quoted as saying, “I’m working on architecture as a language, and I think you have to have a grammar in order to have a language. You can use it … for normal purposes, and you speak in prose. And if you are good at that, you speak a wonderful prose. And if you are really good, you can be a poet.”

Along with the Barcelona Pavilion, the Tugendhat House and Seagram, the Farnsworth House was one of the rare examples of Miesian architecture rising to the level of poetry. As much as I admire the best of Mies’s aesthetics, I wouldn’t want to live there, but I’m honored to have finally seen it in person.

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