Κυριακή, 4 Οκτωβρίου 2009

The Farnsworth House - The structure


The structureThe basic structure of Farnsworth House consists of eight
wide-flange steel stanchions A, to which are welded two sets of
fascia channels to form a perimeter frame B at roof level, and a
similar perimeter frame C at floor level - see figure 40.
Sets of steel cross-girders D and E are welded to the longitudinal
channels, and pre-cast concrete planks I and N placed
upon these to form the roof and floor slabs respectively. The
loading imposed upon C by the floor construction is obviously
greater than that imposed on B by the roof, but for the sake of
visual consistency Mies has made them of equal depth - an
example of the primacy of 'form' over 'function' to which he
was in principle opposed,59 but which stubbornly emerges in
almost all his mature work.™
The steel stanchions stop short of the channel cappings,
making it clear that the roof plane does not rest on the columns
but merely touches them in passing, thus helping to create the
impression alluded to at the start of this essay - that the
horizontal elements appear to be held to their vertical supports
by magnetism.
Above the roof slab is a low service module containing water
tank, boiler, extract fans from the two bathrooms and a flue
from the fireplace. Beneath the floor slab is a cylindrical drum
housing all drainage pipes and incoming water and electrical
services.
Steelwork
As the Farnsworth House is probably the most complete and
refined statement of glass-and-steel architecture Mies ever
produced - the ultimate crystallization of an idea, as Peter
Blake has put it- it is worth examining this aspect in detail.
Mies's admiration for the structural clarity of the steel frame
long predates his arrival in Chicago, and was no doubt motivated
by reasons both aesthetic and practical.61 Aesthetically the steel
frame lent itself to clear structural display, and was 'honest' and
free of rhetoric or historical associations - highly-prized
characteristics to the future-worshipping avant-garde of the
1920s. From a practical standpoint the steel frame allowed
open-plan interiors in which walls could be freely disposed,62
and even more importantly it seemed to hold the answer to

Mies's dream of traditional construction methods being
replaced by industrial systems in which all the building parts
could be factory-made and then rapidly assembled on-site.63
His move to Chicago in 1938 brought him to a city with
unparalleled expertise in steel construction. Until then he had
been able to use the steel frame only in a semi-concealed way;64
but after 1937-8 the nakedly exposed rolled steel beam,
uncamouflaged by covering layers of 'architecture' (except
where required by fire-safety codes), would begin to form the
basis of his most characteristic designs.
But whereas American builders used the steel frame with
no-nonsense practicality,65 the European Mies had different
priorities. Ignoring his own arguments of fifteen years earlier
that 'form is not an end in itself',66 and that the use of materials
should be determined by constructive requirements, he set
about refining and intellectualizing the steel frame in what may
best be described as a quest for ideal Platonic form.67
Thus, while the American avant-garde constructed their
steel houses on the practical and economical balloon-frame
principle, with slender steel members spaced fairly closely
together (see for instance Richard Neutra's Lovell 'Health'
House of 1927-9 and Charles Eames' Case Study House of
1949), Mies used heavy steel sections, spaced widely apart
and with no visible cross-bracing to give an unprecedentedly
open appearance (see especially his Farnsworth House and
New National Gallery). For added character he chose for his
stanchions not the commonly-used steel profiles of the time
but a wide-flanged profile notable for its handsome proportions
and precision of form.
Mies also departed from standard Chicago practice in his
steel-jointing techniques. Flanged steel sections are popular
in the construction industry partly for the ease with which they
may be bolted or riveted together. The flanges are easily drilled,
holes can take the form of elongated slots to accommodate
slight inaccuracies, and all the basic operations are speedy
and straightforward.
Mies used conventional bolted connections in the less visible
parts of his structures, but in exposed positions he wished his
elegant steel members to be displayed cleanly, uncluttered by
bolts, rivets or plates; and here he defied normal practice by
using more expensive welded joints, preferably concealed and
invisible. If the weld could not be totally hidden he would have
the steel sections temporarily joined by means of Nelson stud
bolts and cleats, apply permanent welding, and then burn off
the holding bolts and plug the holes. The steel surfaces would
then be ground smooth to give the appearance of being formed
of a single continuous material without breaks or joints. Finally,
to ensure a smooth and elegant appearance he had the steel
sections grit-blasted to a smooth matt surface, and the entire
assembly primed and given three coats of paint.
The effect of this sequence of operations in the Farnsworth
House was, as Franz Schulze has commented, almost to deindustrialize
the steel frame, taming the mighty product of blast
furnace, rolling mill and electric arc into a silky-surfaced,
seemingly jointless white substance of Platonic perfection.

Other materialsPassing on from the steel-and-glass envelope, the other materials
used in the Farnsworth House are rigorously restricted to
travertine (floors), wood (primavera for the core walls, teak for
the wardrobe) and plaster (ceilings).
The range of colours is equally limited, the better to set off
the few artworks and carefully-chosen items of furniture inside,
and the framed views of nature outside - white columns and
ceiling, off-white floors and curtains, and pale brown wood.
Such sobriety was a long-standing Miesian characteristic. In
1958 he told the architect and critic Christian Norberg-Schulz:
'I hope to make my buildings neutral frames in which man and
artworks can carry on their own lives ... Nature, too, shall have
its own life. We must beware not to disrupt it with the colour of
our houses and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring
nature, houses and human beings together into a higher unity.
If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth
House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed
from outside ... it becomes a part of a larger whole.

Detailing
As one would expect of Mies, the use of materials in the
Farnsworth House is immaculate.69 The American journal
Architectural Forum commented that the Italian travertine slabs
that form the floors of house and terrace were fitted to the steel
frames 'with a precision equal to that of the finest incastro
stonework', and that the plaster ceiling had 'the smoothness of
a high-grade factory finish' 7°
Looking at the details more closely, one discerns a typically
Miesian grammar that places his classically-inspired detailing
at the opposite pole to that represented by arts and craftsinfluenced
designers such as Greene and Greene." Whereas
the Greene brothers exuberantly celebrate the act of joining
materials, with an abundance of highly visible fasteners
intimating what goes on behind the surface, Mies hides his
fixings deep within the structure so as to leave his surfaces
smooth and unbroken.
The joints between components also display a characteristically
Miesian grammar. Wherever two adjoining components
are structurally unified, as in the case of steel members welded
together, Mies expresses unification by making the meetingpoint
invisible - hence the process already described of
grinding, polishing, priming and painting aimed at making an
assembly of separate steel members look like a single,
seamless casting. This approach is first seen in the X-crossing
of his Barcelona Chair, whose appearance Adrian Gale has
compared with those curviform eighteenth-century chairs
whose legs and rails are fluidly shaped, and invisibly jointed, to
convey an impression of the whole frame having been carved
from a single block of wood.
But wherever two adjoining components are connected
without being structurally fused, as in the case of stone slabs,
timber panels or screwed (not welded) steel members, Mies
takes the converse approach and emphasizes their separate
identities by inserting between them a neat open groove. In the
Farnsworth House such an indentation separates the plaster of
the ceiling from the steel frames that hold the glass walls.
While the use of a groove between adjoining elements was
not invented by him (it occurs in the work of both Schinkel and
Behrens, the latter using it for instance to separate window or
doorframes from adjoining wall surfaces), Mies came gradually
to replace most of the traditional cover strips with 'reveals' or
'flash gaps' - the respective American and British terms for the
separating groove. The process may be traced as follows.
In his pre-1920 houses, from the Riehl House to the Urbig
House of 1914, Mies generally used conventional interior trim to
cover building joints. In his Lange House he was still using
cornices, architraves, skirtings and other cover mouldings, but
reduced now to simple flat strips.72 In the Barcelona Pavilion he
took the last step: there are no longer any skirtings or cornices,
no column bases or capitals, and no applied trim of any kind
except for glazing beads around the glass screens. Surfaces
are clean and sheer, the junctions between them unconcealed.
But cover strips over the joints in a building have a function
and cannot simply be abolished. Where separate components
or different materials meet, the fit is inevitably imperfect, leading
to an unsightly crack. The crack worsens as repeated differential
movement causes the gap to widen and become ragged - a
process called 'fretting' - and some form of camouflage must
be devised. The traditional cover strip disguises the joint by
concealment; the open groove does so by making the crack
less obtrusive, an observer's eye tending to 'read' the straightedged
groove rather than the irregular crack-line meandering
within it. After about 1940 this was Mies's preferred method for
detailing all building joints. It is also of course an instance of the
phenomenon of 'inversion' noted on p.13, the open groove
being the counterform of the cover strip.
Internal environment
As regards thermal comfort, the Farnsworth House performed
poorly before the implementation in the 1970s of corrective
measures. In hot weather the interior could become oven-like
owing to inadequate cross-ventilation and no sun-screening
except for the foliage of adjacent trees. To create some crossventilation
occupants could open the entrance doors on the
west and two small hopper windows on the east, and activate
an electric exhaust fan in the kitchen floor, but these measures
were often inadequate. In cold weather the underfloor hotwater
coils produced the pleasant heat output characteristic of
such systems (partly radiant, and with temperatures at head
level not much higher than at floor-level), but insufficient in midwinter.
Underfloor systems also have a long warming-up period
that is ill-suited to an intermittently occupied house. To increase
the supply of heat, and give quicker warming, hot air could be
blown into the living area from a small furnace in the utility room.
There was also a somewhat ineffective fireplace set into the
south face of the central core, facing the living area, which it is
said to have covered with a layer of ash.
The worst cold-weather failing was the amount of condensation
streaming down the chilled glass panes and collecting
on the floor - one of Dr Edith Farnsworth's complaints in the
1953 court case as described on p.15. This was an elementary
design fault whose consequences Mies must have foreseen
and could have avoided, but presumably chose to ignore so as
not to destroy the beautiful simplicity of his glass-and-steel
facades.73
As regards electric lighting, the living and sleeping areas are
illuminatedbyuplightingreflectedofftheceiling,augmented by
freestanding chrome lamps. The quality of the lighting thus
produced is entirely to the present owner's satisfaction.
Rainwater drainage
Efficient rainwater disposal requires sloping surfaces, a characteristic
that is somewhat at odds with the perfect horizontals of
Mies's design, but the problem is neatly solved in the Farnsworth
House. Behind its level fascia the roof surface slopes down to a
single drainage pipe directly above the utility room stack. The
steel fascia and its capping stand sufficiently high above the
roof surface to conceal the sloping roof from all surrounding
sight-lines, and to prevent water spilling over the edge and
staining the white paint.
The travertine-paved terrace has a perfectly level upper
surface and yet remains dry. This has been achieved by laying
the slabs on gravel beds contained in sheet-metal troughs with
water outlets at their lowest points (see figure 40). Rainwater
therefore drains down between the slabs, through the gravelbeds and out via the base outlets



AssessmentThe Farnsworth House expresses to near perfection Mies van
der Rohe's belief in an architecture of austere beauty, free of
historical allusion or rhetoric, relying on clean forms and noble
materials to epitomize an impersonal 'will of the age' that
stands aloof from such ephemeralities as fashion or the
personal likes and dislikes of individual clients.74 In its very
perfection, by these exalted criteria, lie the building's great
strengths but also its weaknesses.
The first strength is its success as a place, where the house
goes far towards realizing that vision of the dwelling as a
spiritual space expressed three decades earlier by Ebeling,75
and again in 1951 (the very year of its completion) in a noteworthy
essay by the German philosopher Heidegger.76
The manner in which man, architecture and nature have been
brought together on this riverside meadow creates a magical
sense of being within nature, not separated from it as in
traditional buildings. From their glass-enclosed belvedere
residents may tranquilly observe the surrounding meadow and
trees change character as one season gives way to the next,
the woodland colours heightened by the white framing, and the
hourly fluctuations of light subtly reflecting off the white ceiling.
As Peter Carter (who has stayed in the Farnsworth House in
all seasons) has observed:
'In summer the great room floats above a green meadow, its
visual boundaries extending to the leafy screen of deciduous
trees encircling the house, and the high sun bouncing off the
travertine surface of the covered terrace to wash the ceiling
with a glowing luminosity. On sunny days the white steel
profiles receive bright articulation and precise modelling from
the sun's rays; on dull days the diffuse light will still pick out the
profiles of these architectural elements even when viewed from
far away in the meadow. Summer is also the season of truly
operatic storms: when witnessed from the glass-walled interior
high winds, torrential rain and chunky hail, accompanied by
deafening thunder and spectacularly dramatic lightning, leave
an indelible impression of nature's more aggressive aspect.
'In autumn the green turns to a golden glow, to be followed
by the enchantment of winter when the prairy becomes whiteblanketed
for weeks on end, the snow lit by a low sun and the
bare trees affording long views across the frozen Fox river. By
day the slanting sunlight is reflected from the snowy surface on
to and into the house, projecting images of nature on to the
folds of the curtains and creating a softly luminous interior
ambience; by night the glittering snow reflects bright moonlight
into the house, mysteriously diminishing the boundary between
the man-made interior and the natural world outside.
'As winter passes the landscape becomes alive with the
fresh colours and fragrances of spring foliage, the latter slowly
closing in once again to define the secluded domain of the
home meadow.'



The diurnal cycle is as delightful. Of the sleeping area to the
east, a guest who stayed the night wrote that 'the sensation is
indescribable-the act of waking and coming to consciousness
as the light dawns and gradually grows. It illuminates the grass
and trees and the river beyond; it takes over your whole vision.
You are in nature and not in it, engulfed by it but separate from
it. It is altogether unforgettable.'77 Another frequent visitor adds:
The sunrise, of course, is ravishing. But the night as well,
especially during thunderstorms. Snowfalls are magical. And I
recall times when the river water rose almost to the level of the
floor, but not quite, so that we had to locomote by canoe... I
cannot recall a dull moment here."8
In sum: 'For those who have been fortunate enough to live in
it the healing qualities of the Farnsworth House confirm its
status as the nonpareil of country retreats.' (Peter Carter)
The second great strength of the Farnsworth House is its
perfection as an artefact. Steel, glass and travertine have been
integrated into a classical composition in which everything
looks right, from overall form down to the tiniest detail. The
result stands as an object lesson for all designers, and the core
of the lesson is that excellence cannot be achieved without an
insistenceon fine materials, consummate details and unremitting
design effort. This is especially true of 'honest' modern design,
in which components and joints are nakedly displayed as in a
Greek temple. Unlike traditional buildings, whose complex
mouldings and overlapping finishes and coverings may conceal
a host of imperfections, the clarity of such design allows few
hiding places, and it requires a Miesian drive for perfection to
achieve the results seen at Piano.79
Turning to weaknesses, the case against the Farnsworth
House is that it pretends to be what it is not in three respects:
as an exemplar of industrial materials and construction
methods; as an exemplar of rational problem-solving design;
and as a reproducible 'type-form' that might be widely adopted
for other dwellings-all of these being self-proclaimed aims of
Miesian design.80
On the first point, the Farnsworth House uses rolled steel
sections and plate glass to present itself as a model of industrial
-age construction when in fact it is an expensive artwork
fabricated largely by handcraft. A case for the defence was
suggested in 1960 by the architect and critic Peter Blake: that in
an age of throw-away products and, increasingly, throw-away
architecture, Mies was legitimately creating prototypes that the
construction industry of the future might strive to emulate; that
he saw his role as that of directing the course of industry, not
slavishly following it.81 Forty years on it looks as though Mies
may yet be vindicated - industrial technology is producing
objects of increasing perfection, and moving away from
standardized towards customized production; and twenty-firstcentury
industry could conceivably become capable of
delivering buildings of Miesian quality at normal cost.
On the second charge, it is undeniable that the Farnsworth
House suffers from serious and elementary design faults. It was
perfectly predictable that a badly-ventilated glass box, without
sun-shading except for some nearby trees, would become
oven-like in the hot Illinois summers, and that single-thickness
glass in steel frames, devoid of precautionary measures such
as convection heaters to sweep the glass with a warm air
current, would stream with condensation in an Illinois winter.
Mies's disregard of such elementary truths illustrates his
greatest weakness as an architect - namely, an obsession with
perfect form so single-minded that awkward problems were
loftily disregarded.K
That brings us to the third of the points raised above -
whether the Farnsworth House might serve as a reproducible
'type-form'. It seems clear that Mies intended the concept of
the Farnsworth House for wider application. His broadly similar
50 ft by 50 ft (15m x 15m) House project of 1950-1, which he
reportedly thought suitable for mass-production for American
family housing,83 was open-plan and glass-walled, and shared
with the 55 ft by 29 ft (16.8m x 8.8m) Farnsworth House a lack
of privacy, lack of storage space, and very little adaptability
apart from the occupants' freedom to move the furniture. For
normal living these are crippling defects.
Though Mies insisted to the end of his days that open
interiors were practical and preferable to conventional rooms,84
this cannot possibly be true for dwellings unless they are large
enough to ensure privacy by distance - which means very large
indeed: it is significant that the over 80 ft x 50 ft (24m x 15m)
open-plan living room of the successful Tugendhat House is
three-and-a-half times the size of an entire floor of the Riehl
House or Perls House. As to storage space, it is difficult to
imagine a family inhabiting the 50 ft by 50 ft house - or even the
60 ft x 60 ft (18m x 18m) version - when the bachelor aesthete
Philip Johnson's 56 ft by 32 ft (17m x 9.8m) single-space 1949
Glass House at New Canaan depended on the existence of
several nearby buildings to which possessions, guests and
other intrusions of everyday life could be conveniently
banished. In this connection Peter Blake writes that the
traditional Japanese open plan that so inspired Frank Lloyd
Wright and other twentieth-century architects depended
absolutely, even in that age of sparse possessions, on servants
and subservient wives constantly spiriting away the clutter of
everyday living into special areas outside the open plan.85
Clearly the Farnsworth House fails as a normal dwelling, and
as a prototype for normal dwellings. But turning to happier
things, it undeniably provides a supreme model for a belvedere,
a garden pavilion or even a holiday dwelling, provided the client
truly understands what he or she is getting, as the unfortunate
Dr Farnsworth probably did not. One of the contractors on her
house, Karl Freund, later told the writer David Spaeth, 'she
didn't understand the house. Mies should have made it clearer
to her what she was getting.'86 Buildings very obviously inspired
by the Farnsworth House include the 1970 Tallon House in
Dublin, Ireland by Ronnie Tallon; the 1992 Villa Maesen at
Zedelgem, Belgium by Stephane Beel; and the 1998 Skywood
House in Middlesex, England by Graham Phillips.87
In sum: the crystalline masterpiece on the riverside at Piano
is a rare building for a rare client, to be emulated selectively andwith very great care


PostscriptIn 1971 Dr Edith Farnsworth vacated the famous pavilion that
had become so deeply intertwined with her life and would
always bear her name. Her original devotion to the house had
evaporated in the quarrel with Mies: she never furnished it
properly and angrily discouraged visits. She had nevertheless
continued to own and use it until finally demoralized by a new
misfortune.
In the 1960s the Board of Supervisors of Kendall County
decided to widen and re-align the road and bridge along the
western boundary of the site. These works required the
purchase of a 60m (200 ft) wide strip of Dr Farnsworth's land, a
proposal she vigorously contested. There followed a painful
battle with the County authority, culminating in a court hearing
after which the ground was compulsorily purchased. In 1967
the authorities built a new road that was twice the width of the
old, raised on an embankment, 45m (150 ft) closer to the house
and clearly visible therefrom. The traffic was now faster and
noisier than before, and audible from the house.
The once quiet and secluded retreat was no longer quite so
magical, and in 1968 Dr Farnsworth advertised it for sale. Thus,
with tragic symmetry, her twenty-year occupation of a house
she had commissioned with love and enthusiasm ended as it
had begun-with a traumatic court hearing ending in defeat.88
The offer to sell came to the notice of Mr Peter (now Lord)
Palumbo, a London property developer and lover of modern
architecture with a particular respect for the works of Mies van
der Rohe. Knowing of Dr Farnsworth's severe reputation he
risked entering the grounds to look at the house, and decided at
once that he must buy. Taking his life in his hands, as he put it,
he knocked on the door. 'I essentially bought the house that
afternoon', he later recalled, 'but she was a difficult, ferocious
woman and we didn't really complete the deal until 1972.'
Lord Palumbo's original dream that Mies van der Rohe might
be commissioned to restore to perfection his own twenty-yearold
building was cruelly thwarted when the latter died in 1969.
The commission was therefore given in 1972 to Dirk Lohan,
Mies's grandson and a partner in Conterato, Fugikawa and
Lohan, the successor-office to Mies's atelier.85
The principal works required were the following.90
With respect to structure, the flat roof (an inherently trouble
prone form of construction in cold climates'1) had deteriorated
quite badly: condensation had caused staining, bubbling and
cracking of the plastered underside, and the paint finish on the
latter had begun to peel away. To improve its performance a
vapour barrier was installed above the plaster, additional
insulation laid above the pre-cast concrete planks, and a new
waterproof membrane laid on the upper surface. On the
underside the damaged plaster and paint were replaced.
The mosquito screens were removed from the terrace, the
white finish to all steelwork was stripped back to the primer
coat and repainted, and all the glass panels were replaced.
With respect to services, all the existing installations received
a major overhaul. The original space-heating principles (floorembedded
coils for main heating, augmented by fan-induced
hot air for quick warming-up) were left unchanged, but the
oil-fired heating system, which was dirty and cumbersome,
was converted to electricity. All the wiring in the house was
replaced. The 'almost nothing' hearth with its propensity for
spreading ash was given atravertine platform. Air-conditioning
(a rare luxury when the Farnsworth House was designed in the
1940s) was newly installed, and the plant concealed above the
service core.



And finally the interior, which Dr Farnsworth had filled with a
miscellany of inappropriate articles (see for instance the photo
on p.21 of Schulze, The Farnsworth House), was at last furnished
as first intended. Her roller blinds were replaced with off-white
curtains as envisaged by Mies, and the prosaic furniture
replaced by a few classic pieces placed almost as sparingly
and precisely as exhibits in an art gallery. The black glass table
with chrome legs seen near the entrance in some published
photographs is a rare survivor of the Barcelona Pavilion.
Turning from the building to its setting, Lord Palumbo immediately
removed the crazy-paving pathway to the front steps
and put in hand a gradual improvement programme for the
entire site, which had been neglected for twenty years.
During her ownership Dr Farnsworth had bought an additional
55 acres of land to the east of the original seven-acre site,
creating the potential for a relocated and more discreet car
access route. Now Lord Palumbo commissioned the American
garden designer Lanning Roper, a devotee of informal English
garden design, to replan the landscape substantially.
In its original state the house looked out east, north and west
on terrain with grassland, natural shrub and a scattering of
trees. At first Lord Palumbo tried to enhance the sense of unspoilt
nature by allowing the grass surrounding the Farnsworth House
to grow tall, in effect creating a meadow. But the long grass
proved difficult to cut and became a fertile breeding-ground for
mosquitoes. The grass is now regularly mown, with the cutters
set at their highest level.
Lanning Roper planted trees to the east and west, leaving
the space directly behind and north of the house as a tract of
lawn that slopes lazily upward toward River Road. This open
space he filled with daffodils, literally tens of thousands of them,
which blossom progressively in the spring, leaving the ground
decorated with patches of yellow and white. The moment of
bloom is brief but compelling, and the landscape hardly less
compelling later, when the flowers give way to a meadow wholly
of summery green.'92
The new stands of trees to the north, east and west now
provide an enclosure for the house and the scenic backdrop
that is seen through the transparent walls.
Roper also replanned the access route, moving the access
gate nearly 200m (650 ft) to the east of the original, out of sight
of the house, and laying a gravel drive that sweeps gently round
from the north to terminate in a new parking area 45m (150 ft)
from the south-eastern corner of the house. When visitors
arrive at this riverside parking space they leave their cars, cross
a modest timber bridge that arches over a small stream, and
make their way to towards the house through a landscape
dotted with trees. There is no pathway across the meadow, so
that the house is gradually revealed through the foliage.
The new approach, which involves walking the full length
of the house before turning at right angles towards the flight
of access steps, has therefore become more dramatic than
the simple 'house in a meadow' arrangement created by
Mies.93

The above improvements deserve high praise, but many
visitors have felt that the road realignments by Kendall
County, the designation of the opposite river bank as a
public park, and the creation of relatively lawn-like grass
in place of the original untended meadow, have combined
to transform an isolated retreat into what is essentially a
suburban house - a depressing fate shared by several
other icons of twentieth-century architecture including
Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye and Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin
West.
A worse development has been a steep rise in the floodlevels
of the Fox River. Mies van der Rohe's enquiries in 1946
established a maximum water level over the past century of
about 0.9m (3 ft) above ground-level, and he considered it
safe to locate the floor 1.6m (5 ft 3 in) above the plain. But,
partly as a result of the outward expansion and paving-over
of Chicago's environs, the volume of water run-off increased
and flood levels began to rise dramatically in the 1950s.
In 1954, three years after Dr Farnsworth moved in, the
spring flood rose 1.2m (4ft) above the pavilion floor. Carpets
and furniture were ravaged but the water-marked wooden
core unit was fortunately reparable.
In 1996 came a truly gigantic downpour, with 0.45m (18 in)
of rain falling in 24 hours, most of it in eight hours. The
resulting floodwaters broke two of the glass walls, rose 1.5m
(5 ft) above the pavilion floor, swept away artefacts, and
ruined not only carpets and furniture but also the woodveneer
finish to the core. An unpleasant layer of mud and silt
covered the travertine floor and the damage came to over
$500,000.
As Lord Palumbo has put it, the house had to be 'taken
apart and put together again', and DirkLohan, now of the
architectural firm Lohan Associates, was commissioned to
carry out the necessary restoration.84 The timber core unit
was so badly damaged that it had to be discarded and built
anew. As the once-plentiful primavera was now almost
extinct Dirk Lohan had to search for months to find wood of
the original colour. The new plywood panels were attached
to their frames by clips rather than screws so that the panels
could be quickly dismantled and stored on top of the core
unit in case of flood.
In February 1997, even before the above restoration had
started, there was yet another flood, rising to only 0.30 m (1
ft) above floor level but confirming that the Farnsworth
House must henceforth survive in conditions very different
from those for which it had been designed. There has been
talk of installing jacks beneath the footings, able to lift the
entire structure in case of flood, but this phenomenally
expensive solution remains conjectural. Since buying the
house Lord Palumbo has spent roughly $1 million on repairs
and improvements, mostly in restoration work after the
floods of 1996 and 1997, and one can understand a pause
for deliberation. These days the water regularly rises two or
three steps above the lower terrace, and occasionally a foot
or so above internal floor level, bringing in a layer of silt but
not (so far) causing ruin.
Despite the double irony that a dwelling designed as a
private retreat is now open to the public, and that its survival
is being threatened by the element it was specifically
designed to surmount, this chronicle can nevertheless end
on an uplifting note. Mies van der Rohe's glass pavilion,
having survived fifty troubled years, has become one of the
most revered buildings of the twentieth century, constantly
visited by admirers from all over the world.

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555 KUBIK - facade projection

The AJ Buildings Library (ajbuildingslibrary.co.uk)