Farnsworth House Built

The Farnsworth House, was designed and constructed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945-51.

It is a one-room weekend retreat in a once-rural setting, located 55 miles (89 km) southwest of Chicago's downtown on a 60-acre (240,000 m2) estate site, adjoining the Fox River, south of the city of Plano, Illinois. The steel and glass house was commissioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a prominent Chicago nephrologist, as a place where she could engage in her hobbies; playing the violin, translating poetry, and enjoying nature. Mies created a 1,500-square-foot (140 m2) house that is widely recognized as an iconic masterpiece of International Style of architecture. The home was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, after joining the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. The house is currently operated as a house museum by the historic preservation group, National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The essential characteristics of the house are immediately apparent. The extensive use of clear floor-to-ceiling glass opens the interior to its natural surroundings to an extreme degree. Two distinctly expressed horizontal slabs, which form the roof and the floor, sandwich an open space for living. The slab edges are defined by exposed steel structural members painted pure white. The house is elevated 5 feet 3 inches (1.60 m) above a flood plain by eight wide flange steel columns which are attached to the sides of the floor and ceiling slabs. The slabs' ends extend beyond the column supports, creating cantilevers. The house seems to float weightlessly above the ground it occupies. A third floating slab, an attached terrace, acts as a transition between the living area and the ground. The house is accessed by two sets of wide steps connecting ground to terrace and then to porch.

Mies found the large open exhibit halls of the turn of the century to be very much in character with his sense of the industrial era. Here he applied the concept of an unobstructed space that is flexible for use by people. The interior appears to be a single open room, its space ebbing and flowing around two wood blocks; one a wardrobe cabinet and the other a kitchen, toilet, and fireplace block (the "core"). The larger fireplace-kitchen core seems like a separate house nesting within the larger glass house. The building is essentially one large room filled with freestanding elements that provide subtle differentiations within an open space, implied but not dictated, zones for sleeping, cooking, dressing, eating, and sitting. Very private areas such as toilets, and mechanical rooms are enclosed within the core.

Mies applied this space concept, with variations, to his later buildings, most notably at Crown Hall, his IIT campus masterpiece. The notion of a single room that can be freely used or zoned in any way, with flexibility to accommodate changing uses, free of interior supports, enclosed in glass and supported by a minimum of structural framing located at the exterior, is the architectural ideal that defines Mies' American career. The Farnsworth house is significant as his first complete realization of this ideal, a prototype for his vision of what modern architecture in an era of technology should be.

The Farnsworth House addresses basic issues about the relationship between the individual and his society. Mies viewed the technology-driven modern era in which an ordinary individual exists as largely beyond his control. But he believed the individual can and should exist in harmony with the culture of his time to successfully fulfill himself. His career was a long and patient search for an architecture that would be a true expression of the essential soul of his epoch, the Holy Grail of German Modernism. He perceived our epoch as the era of industrial mass production, a civilization shaped by the forces of rapid technological development. Mies wanted to use architecture as a tool to help reconcile the individual spirit with the new mass society in which he exists.

His answer to the issue is to accept the need for an orderly framework as necessary for existence, while making space for the freedom needed by the individual human spirit to flourish. He created buildings with free and open space within a minimal framework, using expressed structural columns. He did not believe in the use of architecture for social engineering of human behavior as many other modernists did, but his architecture does represent ideals and aspirations. His mature design work is a physical expression of his understanding of the modern epoch. He provides the occupants of his buildings flexible and unobstructed space in which to fulfill themselves as individuals, despite their anonymous condition in the modern industrial culture. The materials of his buildings, no-nonsense industrial manufactured products like mill-formed steel and plate glass, certainly represent the character of the modern era, but he counter-balances these with traditional luxuries such as Roman travertine and exotic wood veneers as valid parts of modern life. Mies accepted the problems of industrial society as facts to be dealt with, and offered his idealized vision of how technology can be made beautiful and can support the individual. He suggests that the downsides of technology decried by late 19th century critics such as John Ruskin, can be solved with human creativity, and shows us how in the architecture of this house.
Reconnecting the individual with nature is one of the great challenges of an urbanized society. The 60-acre (240,000 m2) rural site offered Mies an opportunity to bring man's relationship to nature into the forefront. Here he highlights the individual's connection to nature through the medium of a man-made shelter. Mies said: "We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and the human being to a higher unity". Glass walls and open interior space are the features that create an intense connection with the outdoor environment, while the exposed structure provides a framework that reduces opaque exterior walls to a minimum. The careful site design and integration of the exterior environment represents a concerted effort to achieve an architecture wedded to its natural context.

Mies conceived the building as an indoor-outdoor architectural shelter simultaneously independent of and intertwined with the domain of nature. Mies did not build on the flood-free upland portions of the site, choosing instead to tempt the dangerous forces nature by building directly on the flood plain near the rivers edge. Philip Johnson referred to this type of experience of nature as "safe danger". The enclosed space and a screened porch are elevated five feet on a raised floor platform, just slightly above the 100 year flood level, with a large intermediate terrace level. The house has flooded substantially above the living level floor level twice, in 1956 and 1996 (both in excess of FEMA 500 year flood levels), causing significant damage to utilities, wood veneers, glass and to furnishings.

The house has a distinctly independent personality, yet also evokes strong feelings of a connection to the land. The levels of the platforms restate the multiple levels of the site, in a kind of poetic architectural rhyme, not unlike the horizontal balconies and rocks do at Wright's Fallingwater. The house is anchored to the site in the cooling shadow of a large and majestic black maple tree. As Mies often did, the entrance is located on the sunny side, facing the river instead of the street, moving visitors around corners and revealing views of the house and site from various angles as they approach the front door. The simple elongated cubic form of the house is parallel to the flow of the river, and the terrace platform is slipped downstream in relation to the elevated porch and living platform. Outdoor living spaces are extensions of the indoor space, with a screened porch (screens now gone) and open terrace. Yet the man made always remains clearly distinct from the natural by its geometric forms, highlighted by the choice of white as its primary color.

Although constructed after the dissolution of the Bauhaus, the Farnsworth House, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, exemplifies the gendered problems with Bauhaus architecture. Edith Farnsworth, a successful doctor in Chicago, was completely excluded from the design process and construction of her home. For Mies the “theoretical and formal considerations always came before practical ones”. Mies’ philosophical considerations and desire to create a modern environment failed consider Farnsworth’s needs as an individual and a single woman. As stated by Alice T. Friedman in The Making of the Modern House, at the Farnsworth house “concerns about privacy, or about sexuality and social life, were repressed; for Mies, the house was a place of contemplation, an ordered space free of abstractions”. Mies’ Farnsworth House was intended to be a monument to modern architectural theory, and not a functional living space.

From the beginning, Edith Farnsworth had many complaints about the house. Farnsworth’s primary grievance was that the glass allowed viewers to see her in every moment of her daily life. Instead of feeling freed and closer to nature, as was the intention of Mies, Farnsworth described feeling like a “prowling animal, always on alert”. Farnsworth wrote: “I am always restless. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night, I can rarely stretch out and relax”. According to Mies’ utopian vision, the glass walls at the Farnsworth House were supposed to allow a soothing connection with nature. However, Farnsworth found that the glass walls un-soothing, and instead made her feel like a constant actor on a voyeuristic stage. Mies’ search for “the ultimate in universality, the ultimate in precision and polish, the ultimate in crystallization of an idea” led him to sacrifice the needs of his client. According to Peter Blake’s 1960 Mies van der Rohe: Architecture and Structure, “Mies’ insistence upon an all-glass skin was no arbitrary defiance of ‘practicality’; it was an attempt to arrive at an absolutely clear, visual separation of structure and non-structure”. Without consideration for her defined role in society, Mies so-called “crystals amidst the luxuriance of nature” failed to satisfy Edith Farnsworth’s domestic needs.

The Farnsworth House removed traditional barriers between the public and private sphere. Conventional housing plans contain a clear division between public space for receiving and entertaining guests, and private space for sleeping, dressing and relaxing. The Farnsworth House did not allow for a division between the private and public realms that was becoming increase important to women in the 1950s.4 Bauhaus designs annihilated the middle ground and “negotiating the space between buildings and inhabitants, between social and individual identity, between public and private, between objective and subjective culture, and between male and female identities”. The characteristically “Miesian” Farnsworth House, with its “elimination of partition walls so that a house tend to be one public room with open areas for sleeping, eating, playing, etc,” represents what House Beautiful described as “The Threat to the Next America”.

In April 1953, Elizabeth Gordon, editor of House Beautiful, stated: “I have decided to speak up”. After an interview with Edith Farnsworth, Gordon called for an end of the International Style in the “bluntest terms". She wrote:

Something is rotten in the state of design – and it is spoiling some of our best efforts in modern living. After watching it for several years, after meeting it with silence, House Beautiful has decided to speak out and appeal to your common sense, because it is common sense that is mostly under attack. Two ways of life stretch before us. One leads to the richness of variety, to comfort and beauty. The other, the one we want fully to expose to you, retreats to poverty and unlivabilty. Worst of all, it contains a threat of cultural dictatorship.

Appealing to American fears of communism and atomic warfare, Gordon described International Style architects such as Mies and Le Corbusier, followers of the so-called “Cult of Austerity” and practitioners of the “clinical look,” in the darkest and harshest terms. She claimed that these architects “are all trying to sell the idea that ‘less is more,’ both as a criterion for design, and as a basis for judgment of the good life” when in reality, “we know that less is not more. It is simply less!”. In Gordon’s proclamation against Bauhaus architecture she remains sympathetic to Edith Farnsworth. Following a series of lawsuits between Mies and Farnsworth, beginning in 1951 and settling in Mies favor in 1953, Farnsworth stated in her interview with Elizabeth Gordon of House Beautiful:

Something should be said and done about such architecture as this or there will be no future for architecture… I thought you could animate a predetermined, classic form like this with your own presence. I wanted to do something ‘meaningful,’ and all I got was this glib, false sophistication.

After living in her Mies masterwork for twenty years, Edith Farnsworth finally vacated the house in 1971.