Buildings: Farnsworth House

In light of my post last week,  you might be wondering why the first building I chose to discuss in detail on Dwelling Places is neither natural nor sustainable. I guess the short answer would be … because I like it … and because it has an interesting story.  Allow me to elaborate.

How the Farnsworth House Came to Be

Farnsworth House in Plano, IL is, according to Kenneth Frampton, the “reducio ad absurdum of the notion of a dwelling.”1 It was designed by Ludwig Mies vand der Rohe in 1947 for Dr. Edith Farnsworth.  The building was never intended to be a livable home.  Edith Farnsworth was a successful single doctor in her mid forties who wanted a small weekend house in the country.  Mies was a German ex-patriot full of grand academic concepts about the future of design but with very little in the way of built work.  They met in 1945 at a dinner party and, according to Farnsworth’s journals, began planning the project that very night.2

The two became friends over a two year design process which grew from multiple site visits to extracurricular socializing and a strong connection between Farnsworth and then entire design office.  Her role in the building gradually metamorphosed from that of client to patron as the design process continued the building likewise shifted from the original notion of comfortable but architecturally provocative retreat for a single woman to “an exercise in architectural minimalism”3 which had little to do with any consideration for Farnsworth’s needs or plans.

In the end the two had a huge falling out which extended into the courts (each sued the other over the the final cost of the building) and the press.  Their public battle did neither any good; Mies was vilified as out of touch and a poor designer and Fanrnsworth ridiculed as an elitist fool who had paid nearly twice the cost of a suburban home for a “glass cage on stilts.”4

To me, the most telling of all Farnsworth’s complaints about the finished house is the pervasive lack of privacy.  Not only was her bedroom enclosed on three sides with sheet glass (which must have felt much more like an space for the observed rather than the observer once the controversy began drawing crowds of trespassing gawkers) but the third “wall” was a 5′ partition screening it from the living area.  Farnsworth had wanted it to be higher (she was 6′ tall) but Mies had stuck to the lower datum line in deference to the proportion of the building!5

Dr. Farnsworth lived in the house for 20 years.  She refused to use the furniture Mies had intended for it, filling it instead with her own objects and family heirlooms.  But in the end she sold it (to a Mies enthusiast) and moved to Europe, presumably to a house which did not purposefully feature her as the lone figure of interest in a solitary landscape.

The Farnsworth House as “Architecture”

My experience of the building is very different from Edith Farnsworth’s.  Today it is owned and operated as a tourist destination by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  It can be rented for weddings, “cocktail parties” or corporate meetings.  It can also be visited by busloads of architecture students like myself.

My well thumbed architectural history text book tells me that The Farnsworth House (how ironic that name feels once you know the history) reduces the basic elements of architecture into “a mechanistic hovering plinth, support and architrave” which “recalled the abstract painting of the 1920s.”6

The design is rife with impractical and complicated manifestations of purity.  For example, the terraces which surround it are perfectly level and need a unique drainage system of “inverted pyramidal drain pans” which allow the water to run off between the travertine pavers (which are arranged in an unbroken 2 foot grid).  Each window bay comprises eight of these 2′ modules and all the services of the building – kitchen, two bathrooms and all storage – is contained in the central block which is uniformly paneled in high quality plywood.7

Mies, himself, said of the 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 at Nature 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.”8

Columbia University has a website devoted to the house with some rather interesting structural and heat load analyses.  Their discussion of its history and architectural merit is pretty formal and sanitized although they do acknowledge that, “its design neglects some traditional domestic conventions and comforts.”9

Interestingly, as a further demonstration of the Mies’s commitment to isolate and separate the house from the world around it, their analysis points out that the horizontal planes are punctured in only two places – drain and sewage pipes going down a tidy chase way and a single vertical access for both bathroom vents and the fireplace flue.

Nothing else interrupts the streamlined floating plinth.

In Conclusion: Mixed Feelings

On the one hand it is such a beautiful object – a perfect jewel box of a building – so compact and sleek.  Its social history can’t prevent it from from being an architectural icon.  I loved visiting the place and regard it as a fascinating idealization of a house.

On the other hand it seems so completely non-functional.  There is no privacy from the outside world or from any other occupants.  It has only two operable windows making a nearly hermetically sealed environment which can rarely have been a thermal delight.  The stark, industrial materials that make it up are only given beauty by a) the contrast of their setting in nature and b) the exquisite (and costly) design with which they are arranged; its not as if this type of building could be streamlined into a prototype for larger scale production without being quite dreadful.

I have very mixed feelings about buildings which purport to be functional dwellings but are actually extremely large pieces of sculpture or intellectual exercises made manifest. 

What do you think about Farnsworth House’s place in history?

2 responses to “Buildings: Farnsworth House

  1. I think it is has breathtakingly clean lines and makes an appealing contrast to its natural setting, but it should never have been called a home. To do so exposes Meis’ lack of attachment to the human experience. “Intellectual exercises” with decks that don’t drain and interiors that don’t breathe do architecture a disservice.
    Many people are afraid of architects for this very reason, and that fear proliferates cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all building.

    A striking home must also convey protection and comfort. That is the meaning of shelter to me as a dweller.

    I don’t really like it as a “country” home.
    Any building so oblivious of its surroundings in not successful.

    • I have to agree. As a museum piece the Farnsworth House is great but I don’t really understand how Dr. Farnsworth lived in it for so long, even on weekends. It doesn’t seem like it can ever have been a home.

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