The Farnsworth House Finds a Home

Architecture holds a special place among the arts because in addition to aesthetic judgments, it also fulfills the basic human need of shelter. It is the art most easily passed by without a second thought because of its constant presence in our lives. All works of art in other disciplines can easily be thought of as having ideal habitats or environments, a piece of music may be best interpreted by a certain conductor, by a certain orchestra in a certain country, or best heard in a certain type of concert hall; a painting may be best seen in certain kinds of light, in certain kinds of spaces, next to certain other pieces of art; a play may be best performed by certain actors, with a certain director, in a certain kind of space. One might think at first that this analogy may carry over to architecture in a very simple way. Every building occupies a site, is surrounded by other structures be they natural or manmade, and may be seen best on certain kinds of days or in certain types of weather. There is, however, a much more interesting way to define the "home" of a piece of architecture, and this is not by its physical site, but by the people who interact with it, the family in a home, the workers in an office building, the tourists in a museum. It is this quality of architecture that most defines it, and it is this that provides the closest analog to the idea of home in the arts. It is with this definition of the home of a piece of architecture in mind that will provide the backdrop to our investigation of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House.

"Nature should also have a life of its own. We should avoid disturbing it with the excessive color of our houses and our interior furnishings. Indeed, we should strive to bring Nature, houses, and people together into a higher unity. When one looks through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House it takes on a deeper significance than when one stands outside. More of Nature is thus expressed – it becomes part of a greater whole."

-Mies van der Rohe
First Floor Plan

The basic glass box design for the Farnsworth House was completed as early as 1946. It wasn't until 1951 that the house was finally completed and its first owner and commissioner, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, was able to move in. The design consists of two rectangles of roughly the same proportions, the smaller of the two serving as an intermediary between the ground and the house proper which is raised about 5' 3" above the ground. This larger rectangle is also divided into an outdoor deck and the living area. These rectangles are built up from a modular unit consisting of a travertine slab 2' 9" x 2'. The smaller deck rectangle is made up of 19 x 11 of these slabs giving dimensions of about 53' x 22'. The larger living rectangle is 27 x 14 slabs with consequent dimensions of about 74' x 28'. The patio occupies 8 slabs horizontally with the remaining 19 slabs comprising the living area. The following simplified drawing makes clear the dimensions and shows some of the many subtle relationships between them:

Abstract Plan

The two rectangles pivot about a 3 x 3 slab square whose dimensions are defined by the overlap of the living space and the lower deck and by the extreme open position of the bottom door. The doors are placed slightly off-center to very subtly emphasize the main seating area opposite the kitchen side of the central core. The 'central' core itself is placed off-center as well, giving a highly dynamic quality to the open spaces it defines.

Roof Edge DetailMies attempted to solve some of the drainage problems of a flat roof by devising a system whereby the water on the roof is stopped at the perimeter by a single-beveled coping. This forces the water to drain through a pipe installed in the central core. In order to remove all visual trace of heating elements, a system of hot-water pipes were installed within the concrete of the floor radiating out from the heating unit contained in the central core. This helps to alleviate the high heating costs involved in a building with walls entirely of glass by heating the floor instead of the air within the house. Heating System PlanA further source of heat is provided by the minimal fireplace on the main seating area side of the central core. From this description one may be reminded of Wright's ideas of a central hearth; however, here the fireplace is so de-emphasized both visually and physically that it doesn't seem to operate in a similar role. All utilities are contained in a small room within the central core and protrude from below the house in a stack painted in black to allow it to hide in shadow. It has often been remarked that Mies raised the house above the ground in an attempt to raise it above the water during floods. While this is certainly an important reason for this, the effect of the raised floor has another, completely dramatic, effect of heightening the transparency created by the flood of light entering on all sides through the glass walls.

There is a sense of high refinement in every detail of the house, as in every building designed by Mies. The entire frame was sandblasted smooth and then painted with a perfect white veneer instead of being left rough. While pipes would have lent stronger support to the house, Mies favored the I-beam as the main structural support of the house for its symbolism of strength. All of the materials used are of the highest quality from the travertine slabs, to the primavera plywood used in the central core and various shelving units placed within the living area.

The house was clearly intended by Mies to be primarily the pursuit of an ideal pursued to its extreme, and only secondarily as a shelter. It is this quality of the house that shapes its conception of home, and serves as a definition to judge the occupants by.

Mies met Edith Farnsworth at a dinner party in 1945. Their personalities were strikingly similar and they become close acquaintances. They eventually began discussing the idea of Mies building a small vacation house for her on some land she had recently bought outside of Chicago in Plano. The design was finished by 1946 and was enthusiastically approved by Dr. Farnsworth. As soon as she received a large sum of money in the form of an inheritance, building began.

It is not quite historically clear whether Dr. Farnsworth became dissatisfied with the house while living in it and this caused their eventual diffraction, or if some dispute arose between them and this souring of the relationship caused her to see the house in a negative light. There is much evidence that Dr. Farnsworth was attracted to Mies but that Mies only saw her as a friend and client. Whatever the cause, in the two decades that Dr. Farnsworth occupied the Farnsworth House, she was certainly far from being happy in it and thus far from being a good home for the house.

Probably her biggest complaint was that the house went far over budget, as many of Mies' buildings do. This complaint went so far as to cause Edith to sue Mies, and Mies to in turn sue her back. The lawsuit was eventually settled in Mies' favor, but not until some damaging attacks on his character and the international style in general appeared in House Beautiful magazine including a particularly scathing attack by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Her discomfort in the house was somewhat justified by the reality of living in it. In pursuing his ideal, Mies was far more inclined to forsake small practical amenities in favor of aesthetic aims. Despite his design for the roof-water drainage system, the roof still leaked in heavy rainfall. The large windows encouraged excessive condensation to form on their surface. The great iconic steel columns holding up the entire building were prone to rusting. Fallen autumn leaves on the decks would leave stains requiring extensive cleaning. But probably the least foreseen problem, a direct result of the house's very form, was that at night the house was transformed into a giant bug attracting lantern. This problem became so severe as to prompt Edith to have a screen wall installed surrounding the perimeter of the main living area's deck. From the early model Mies had made for exhibition, it appears that he had included a screen-like covering for the deck, but in the final plans he had done away with it, probably because it visually conflicts with the rest of the house.

Despite all of these problems, Dr. Farnsworth settled in her new house and stayed for all of two decades. Mies had planned on designing furniture for the house just as he had done for his Barcelona Pavilion and several other buildings, but after the split occurred, Dr. Farnsworth ended up furnishing the house with pieces of her own choosing. Over the course of her years in residence, she added 55 acres to the 7 of her original lot. She lived in quiet acceptance of her discomfort of the house, until a wonderful opportunity arrived in the form of one Peter Palumbo.

Peter Palumbo had seen picture of the Farnsworth House as child and had always dreamed of owning it. In 1962 Peter commissioned Mies to design his office building in London and as a result of this contact Peter eventually asked Mies to design him a house. However, instead of pursuing that end he instead decided to call Dr. Farnsworth and inquire about purchasing the Farnsworth House. She agreed and vacated the house in 1971. The next year Palumbo hired Dirk Lohan, Mies' grandson, to restore the house to its original pre-Farnsworth residence condition. To make the house more livable in the humid Illinois summers Palumbo also had an air conditioning unit installed, concealed above the core to minimize its visual effect on the house.

Palumbo did much more upon moving in than just restore the house to pristine condition. He had a much better understanding of who the house was, and the best way to live within it in order to give it fuller expression. In the absence of furniture designed specifically for the house, Palumbo furnished it entirely in earlier furniture designed by Mies, greatly enhancing the interiors. He also had the screen Dr. Farnsworth had installed around the deck removed. Within the house he only displayed works of art that were free standing sculptures to comply with Mies' wish to keep the central core free from hangings.

Instead of living in the house year-round as Dr. Farnsworth was wont to do, he complied with the house's original intended use as a retreat. This had the extra effect of leaving the house unoccupied for large portions of the year, and in 1997 he opened the house to the public during these absences. He also filled the now 150 acre site with sculptures by Richard Serra, Harry Bertoia, Wendy Taylor, Jim Dine, Andy Goldsworthy, Michael Warren, Anthony Caro, Ellsworth Kelly, George Rickey and hired Lanning Roper to do the landscaping. In the context of sculpture garden and the possibility of public tours, the house begins to fully express itself as a singular work of art, a sculpture among many. The Farnsworth House has seemingly found a suitable home.

This fruitful relationship between Palumbo and the house has been threatened in recent years. Due to Palumbo's failing health he is being forced to sell some of his landmark homes situated all over the world, the Farnsworth House being among those to be sold. Its future is far from sure.

There are many possible paths the house could take at this juncture. It could be bought by another millionaire. From there this person could set up a similar arrangement that Palumbo had forged, or he could have bought the house as a work of art irrespective of its surroundings and move it to another location leaving the valuable land it sits on ripe for development, or he could buy the house merely for the land it sits on, razing it at the first opportunity. A far more fruitful future could be had for the house if the state of Illinois decided to purchase it. Then the house could be opened to the public year round, finally making its transition from the living space it begrudgingly was designed for, to the complete work of art it strives to be. It is this future that would allow the house to be seen in its entirety, to be appreciated fully for what it was designed to be, in short, to be at home.

Bibliography

  1. Schulze, Franz. The Farnsworth House. Peter G. Palumbo, 1997.
  2. Blaser, Werner. Mies van der Rohe: The Art of Structure. New York : Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., Publishers, 1965.
  3. Tegethoff, Wolf. Mies van der Rohe: The Villas and Country Houses. Cambridge : MIT Press, 1985.
  4. Blake, Peter. The Master Builders. New York : W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996, 1976, 1960.
  5. Blake, Peter. No Place Like Utopia. New York : W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
  6. Friends of the Farnsworth House. [Online] No longer available from http://www.farnsworthhousefriends.org/index.html, please see http://www.farnsworthhouse.org/about_us.htm
  7. Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe. [Online] Available http://www.columbia.edu/cu/gsapp/BT/GATEWAY/FARNSWTH/farnswth.html
  8. Farnsworth House. [Online] No longer available at http://architecture.about.com/library/blmies-farnsworth.htm?once=true&, please see http://architecture.about.com/od/greatbuildings/ig/Modern-and-Postmodern-Houses/Farnsworth-House.htm
  9. Jetset: Designs for Modern Living – Architecture - Farnsworth House. [Online] Available http://www.jetsetmodern.com/farnsworth.htm
  10. Design-Engine > Farnsworth House. [Online] No longer available http://www.design-engine.com/news/farnsworth/, please see the archived version at http://web.archive.org/web/20020701042215/http://www.design-engine.com/news/farnsworth/
  11. Farnsworth House to be Sold. [Online] Available http://www.artnet.com/magazine/news/cassidy/cassidy2-5-01.asp

As several of the above references are either out of print or outrageously expensive, please see the below options as well:

  1. Clemence, Paul. Mies Van Der Rohe's Farnsworth House. Schuffer Pyblishing, 2006.

    Part of the Architecture in Detail series of books each dedicated to an individual building.

  2. Blaser, Werner. Mies van der Rohe Farnsworth House: Weekend House/Wochenendhaus. Birkhäuser Basel, 1999.

    By the same author as reference 2 above and edited by the former owner of the Farnsworth House, Peter Palumbo.

  3. Vandenberg, Maritz. Farnsworth House (Architecture in Detail). Phaidon Press, 2005.
Rendered Elevation
Return