Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, a Modernist icon for Illinois
The Farnsworth House is comprised of eight steel columns sunk in the ground, plus a pair of strong horizontal planes formed by concrete slabs. It is really nothing more than an ideogram, and nothing less than the apotheosis of the Prairie Style according to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Floor to ceiling windows of single thickness 1/4-inch glass keep the weather at bay. A kitchen and bathroom core and a fireplace are the only intrusions on the single open living space. Mies' disciple, and the architect of an even more famous glass house, Philip Johnson, once wrote, "The Farnsworth house with its continuous glass walls is an even simpler interpretation of an idea…the purity of the cage is undisturbed. Neither the steel columns from which it is suspended, nor the independent floating terrace break the taut skin."
Despite its ethereal beauty, this getaway along the Fox River in Illinois is one of the most controversial American homes, ever. The weekend retreat for Chicago physician Edith Farnsworth designed by the former director of the Bauhaus epitomizes the perceptions of Modern architecture’s shortcomings. This 2,100 square foot "cottage" was subject to an endless recitation of tales about poor ventilation, condensation, cost overruns, salacious accusations and subsequent law suits between architect and client, the butt of jokes about “people living in glass houses,” mosquito invasions, and a failure to plan for once-in-a-century floods occurring, in fact, with dangerous regularity.
To focus on these peripheral issues is to miss the purity of Mies' severe geometry and the essence of the architect's reductivist philosophy. Such comments only detract from Mies' powerful American reinterpretation of his most iconic European work, the Barcelona Pavilion of twenty years earlier.
The Commission of a Lifetime
In searching for a designer for her house, Farnsworth wrote to that avatar of modernism, the Museum of Modern Art, to ask for their suggestions for an architect. What with hindsight seems an incredible irony, MoMA recommended Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies. (The museum displayed Mies' model of the Illinois house the year that the house was commissioned.)
Frank Lloyd Wright's early work, notably his eponymous Prairie Style, was widely disseminated in Europe by Ernst Wasmuth, who published a two-volume portfolio of the architect’s work in Berlin in 1911. Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies were all apprentices at Peter Behrens' office when the book appeared. They and other young European architects eagerly devoured Wright's open plans, horizontal planes, and grouped fenestration, making Wright a major influence on the pioneers of modern architecture. Inspired by drawings and monochromatic photographs in the Wasmuth Portfolio, European architects interpreted Wright’s work in different ways, but their roots were in Wright's Prairie houses. Mies' brick house of the early 1920s and Le Corbusier's Maison Domino concept evolved from Wright. Notably, the Farnsworth House can be seen as Le Corbusier’s “Five Points for Architecture,” further stripped down.
Thus, there is even greater irony in the attack on Mies in the April 1953 issue of the magazine House Beautiful. In “The Threat to the Next America,” that issue’s editor Elizabeth Gordon wrote that architects like Mies were moving the United States toward totalitarianism and communism. Gordon had the Farnsworth house in mind when she decried what she saw as an “attack on comfort, convenience, and functional values … an attack on reason itself.” Nothing, she declared, from overhangs, furniture, or possessions were allowed to spoil the “clean look.”
This putatively patriotic rant missed the point. The Farnsworth house is an undisputable symbol of the acceptance of the International Style. Every comment about the lack of screens was offset many times over by the impact of incredibly seductive and photogenic pictures of the house. Not to be too reductive, the Farnsworth house was an absolute visual stunner. These images maintained the aesthetic purity of the Miesian ideal, while making an indisputable case for the verities of modern architecture.
In 1981, the year the Farnsworth House received the AIA Twenty-Five Year Award, Michael Graves' Portland Building and Philip Johnson's AT&T Building were both under construction. Postmodernism, despite its genesis in its reaction to Mies’ work, was already fracturing into parodies of itself. When contrasted to Postmodernism’s garish colors, non-functional ornament, and theatrically indulgent historicism, the Farnsworth house appears as pure and upstanding as a Teutonic knight.
It seems thoroughly appropriate that the Farnsworth house has been preserved and restored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This landmark of 20th-century design was never really a residence. Rather it is a deservedly revered temple of Modern architecture.
William Morgan is an architectural historian and writer. He lives in Providence, RI.
wsifrancis via Flickr