Reflective VesselMies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House
As you walk along the river, an outline appears through the trees: a construction of unembellished planes, with an emphasis on visual balance over symmetry, and volume over mass.
The best ideas remain unrealised. They take the form of blueprints and models, existing in a space of pure potential where they are protected from the taint of base reality. That does not mean that the Farnsworth House, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1951, is a failure. On the contrary; it is a near perfect expression of the principles of mid 20th century International Style.
The house stands by the Fox River in Plano, some 80 km southwest of Chicago. As you walk along the river, an outline appears through the trees: a construction of unembellished planes, with an emphasis on visual balance over symmetry, and volume over mass. The three horizontal planes – roof, base, and lower deck – are of equal proportions. Eight slender steel columns support the structure, the base is raised 1.5 m above the ground. The two flights of cantilevered steps appear to float, the glass walls take the place of empty space. The house is a self contained system, faultless on its own terms. It is a line drawing sketched in space, an embodiment of the idea of weightlessness.
It is true that the paint is a little chipped and the foundations have been weakened by the floods, which, every seven years or so, appear to set the house adrift as a reflected vessel. Yet still, the sense of perfection persists. When Mies unveiled an early architectural model of the building at MoMa in 1947, it is notable that no polyresin figurines were included for scale. Nor had much attention been paid to the interior. This did not appear to be a space designed for habitation, and in a sense, the house has never ceased to be an idea; those who attempt to live inside an idea will suffer the consequences.
The poet and physician Edith Farnsworth, who commissioned the project, had initially hoped that the house would be a home. She met Mies at a dinner party in Chicago in 1945, and they formed an immediate rapport. Farnsworth – wealthy, cultivated, ambitious – had recently bought a plot of land where she planned to build a weekend retreat. Mies – the newly appointed director of the Department of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology – was looking for an opportunity to build his first domestic project in the USA. A deal was struck before the cheese course.
Farnsworth and Mies developed a strong friendship over the following five years, prompting rumours that they were romantically involved. They went for picnics, to the theatre. She visited the construction site on balmy afternoons, while he drank martinis, lord-like in a deckchair. There was no contract, and Farnsworth allowed Mies to commission and sign for all craftsmen and materials, giving him complete freedom to pursue his vision. Mies’s minimalism did not extend to expenses: panels of primavera wood were custom fitted for the interior, and slabs of travertine were shipped from Italy. Costs rose to almost double the proposed fee, and suddenly wary of Mies’s profligate creativity, Farnsworth refused to pay the excess. He took legal action against her and she responded in kind, accusing him of professional incompetence. Today the house seems immune to such strife. It exists as an exhibit; an uninhabited island.
To commission a place to live is to imagine a structure which might shape one’s ideal self; the history of a house and its inhabitant is made in the space between idea and experience. How might Edith Farnsworth have imagined that ideal structure, that ideal self? A tall woman of 1.83 m, she would move with ease through the open plan circuit which led from sitting room, to kitchen, to bed, and back. The rigidity of the steel frame would be softened by the serpentine folds of the Shantung curtains, translucent enough to let the moonlight through. This would be her room of one’s own, a place to forget the tensions of the medical profession and commit herself to poetry. The interior design would be modern, though not clinically so. There would be a place for her collection of Asian art, her two poodles could curl up on her heavy inherited furniture. It may be that she imagined her ideal self sharing that space with another person. That other person may, or may not have been Mies.
Now let us consider the house Farnsworth actually inhabited. One of the first things she noticed was that the framing of the view to the river – one third earth, one third water, one third sky – did not apply to her. Mies was just 1.73 m tall, and the view was designed for his eyeline. And where was she to store her clothes? Mies had not accommodated for more than a minimalist lifestyle. The heated marble floor made little difference to the temperature on a harsh winter night, and in summer, she was forced to move her bed to the upper deck. The silk curtains were destroyed when the house first flooded in 1954. She replaced them with bamboo slats to hide from the eyes of the journalists, daytrippers, architecture students, and photographers, who, from the very first, had come to see the Modernist idea which had caused such controversy. Who had come to see what perfection looked like.
When Farnsworth decided to sell the house in the late 1960s, it was suggested that Mies might buy his own masterpiece. He decided against it, aware that perfection is best seen from a distance. Instead, the house was sold to a collector of architecture, Lord Peter Palumbo, who used it as a vitrine for his art collection while he lived in a large 19th century townhouse in Plano. When the flood waters broke through the glass walls in 1996, a Warhol and a Picasso were washed away.
The current status of the house rests on its ability to maintain a sense of an unattainable ideal; an Object of Desire, just out of reach. It is possible to rent the house for a romantic weekend at 20,000 USD per night, and it was once the setting for a Japanese jeans ad starring Brad Pitt. A film, featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal as Farnsworth and Jeff Bridges as Mies, is currently underway. Yet however much a moving image might disrupt the stillness, there will always be a screen between the house and its story; the glass reflects back, impervious to interpretation. When the flood waters rise, a state of the art hydraulic system will lift the house aloft, the interior untouched, the glass unbroken. In this age, an idea which retains its integrity is worth preserving – even if it exists only in outline.