Κυριακή 4 Οκτωβρίου 2009

The Farnsworth House

The Farnsworth House has this in common with Cannery Row
in Monterey, California: it is a poem, a quality of light, atone, a
habit, a nostalgia, a dream. It has about it, also, an aura of high
romance. The die for the romance was cast from the moment
Mies van der Rohe decided to site the house next to the great
black sugar maple - one of the most venerable in the county -
that stands immediately to the south, within a few yards of the
bank of the Fox River. The rhythms created by the juxtaposition
of the natural elements and the man-made object can be seen
at a glance - tree bending over house in a gesture of caress, a
never-ending love affair - and felt - when the leaves of the tree
brush the panes of glass on the southern elevation. In summer,
the dense foliage of the sugar maple shields the house from the
torrid heat and ensures its privacy from the river.
With its glass walls suspended on steel pilot! almost two
metres above the flood plain of the meadow, life inside the
house is very much a balance with nature, and an extension of
nature. A change in the season or an alteration of the landscape
creates a marked change in the mood inside the house. With
an electric storm of Wagnerian proportions illuminating the
night sky and shaking the foundations of the house to their very
core, it is possible to remain quite dry! When, with the melting
of the snows in spring, the Fox River becomes a roaring torrent
that bursts its banks, the house assumes the character of a
house-boat, the water level sometimes rising perilously close to
the front door. On such occasions, the approach to the house
is by canoe, which is tied up to the steps of the upper terrace.
The overriding quality of the Farnsworth House is one of
serenity. It is a very quiet house. I think this derives from the
ordered logic and clarity of the whole, from the way in which
the house has been lovingly crafted, and from the sensitive
juxtaposition of fine materials. Anxiety, stress or sheer fatigue
drop away almost overnight, and problems that had seemed
insoluble assume minor proportions after the 'therapy' exerted
by the house has washed over them for a few hours.
The start of the day is very important to me. At Farnsworth,
the dawn can be seen or sensed from the only bed in the
house, which is placed in the northeast corner. The east
elevation of the house tends to be a bit poker-faced - the dawn
greets the house more than the house welcomes the dawn.
Shortly after sunrise the early morning light, filtering through the
branches of the linden tree, first dapples and then etches the
silhouette of the leaves in sharp relief upon the curtain. It is a
scene no Japanese print could capture to greater effect.
People ask me how practical Farnsworth is to live in. As a
home for a single person, it performs extremely well. It was
never intended for anything else. The size of its single room,
55 ft by 28 ft, is a guarantee of its limitations. On the other hand,
for short periods of time it is possible to sleep three people in
comfort and privacy. This is a measure of the flexibility of the
space, and indeed it would be odd if this were not so, for
flexibility is a hallmark of Mies's work.
I believe that houses and structures are not simply inanimate
objects, but have a 'soul' of their own, and the Farnsworth
House is no exception. Before owning the house I had always
imagined that steel and glass could not possess this quality -
unlike brick, for example, which is a softer, more porous
material that seems to absorb as well as emanate a particular
atmosphere. But steel and glass are equally responsive to the
mood of the moment. The Farnsworth House is equable by
inclination and nature. It never frowns. It is sometimes sad, but
rarely forlorn. Most often it smiles and chuckles, especially
when it is host to children's laughter and shouts of delight. It
seems to eschew pretension and to welcome informality.
Living in the house I have gradually become aware of a very
special phenomenon: the man-made environment and the
natural environment are here permitted to respond to, and to
interact with, each other. While this may deviate from the
dogma of Rousseau or the writings of Thoreau, the effect is
essentially the same: that of being at one with Nature, in its
broadest sense, and with oneself.
If the start of the day is important, so is the finish. That tone
and quality of light shared with Cannery Row is seldom more
evident than at dusk, with its graduations of yellow, green, pink
and purple. At such times, one can see forever and with
astonishing clarity. Sitting outside on the upper deck one feels
like the lotus flower that floats in the water and never gets wet.
In November, a harvest moon rises slowly behind the tree-line,
as if giving a seal of approval to the day that has just gone by.
Later on, in January, when the winter snows have begun to fall
and the landscape is transformed, cars sweep silently past the
property along frozen roads, and the magical stillness of the
countryside is broken only by the plangent barking of a dog,
perhaps three miles distant.
In a low-lying meadow beside the Fox River at Piano, Illinois,
stands a serene pavilion of glass, steel and travertine.
When built it was unlike any known house, and a description
written by the American critic Arthur Drexler soon after its
completion in 1951 captures its essence: The Farnsworth
House consists of three horizontal planes: a terrace, a floor,
and a roof. Welded to the leading edge of each plane are steel
columns which keep them all suspended in mid-air. Because
they do not rest on the columns, but merely touch them in
passing, these horizontal elements seem to be held to their
supports by magnetism. Floor and roof appear as opaque
planes defining the top and bottom of a volume whose sides are
simply large panels of glass. The Farnsworth House is, indeed,
a quantity of air caught between a floor and a roof."
In spring the pavilion stands on a carpet of daffodils, in
summer upon a green meadow, in autumn amid the glow of
golden foliage; and when the adjacent river overflows the house
resembles a boat floating on the great expanse of water. It is in
effect a raised stage from which an entranced viewer may not
merely observe ever-changing nature, but almost experience
the sensation of being within it.
It is Mies van der Rohe's last realized house, built to provide a
cultivated and well-to-do urbanite with a quiet retreat where she
could enjoy nature and recover from the cares of work.
The rural escape for busy city-dwellers has a long history,
either as country villa2 or, more modestly, as the simple shooting
or fishing lodge.3 But while its function was fairly well established
in architectural tradition, the form and appearance of
Farnsworth House went to the extremes of modernism, neatly
inverting (as we shall see) most of the architectural devices
developed over the past 2,500 years.
In view of its status as an architectural landmark we should
try to locate this luculent design in two contexts - one personal
(the Farnsworth House as the culmination of the architect's 40-
year sequence of continually-evolving house designs) and the
other much wider (the Farnsworth House as an ultimate icon of
that strand of European modernism that became known as the
International Style) - before going on to more practical matters
such as why the house was built, how it was built, and how it
has performed.
A consummation of Miesian design
At first sight Mies's first and last built houses, the Riehl House of
1907 and the Farnsworth House of 40 years later, could hardly
be more different. Beneath the contrasting appearances,
though, there is a recognizable continuity of design approach.
From first to last there shines through Mies's work a dignified
serenity, a concern for regularity and orderliness, and a
precision of detailing that are just as important as the obvious
differences seen in successive stages of his work.
These differences were not capricious but reflect a continuous
and sustained effort - particularly after about 1920 - to
eliminate what the earnest Mies saw as inessentials and to distil
his buildings to some kind of irreducible architectonic essence
of the age."
While it is always a mistake to impose an unduly neat 'line of
development' on the complex, uncertain and partly accidental
career of any designer, as though each successive work represented
a calculated step towards a clearly foreseen goal,
hindsight does allow us to divide Mies's development into three
recognizable phases. The first was pre-1919, when his designs
were invariably solid, regular and soberly traditional. The
second covered the years 1919-38, when he began to
experiment (though only in some of his designs) with such
entrancing novelties as irregular plans, interiors designed as
continuous flowing fields rather than separate rooms, extreme
horizontal transparency, and floating floor and roof planes. The
third was post-1938, when he returned to the classicism and
sobriety of his earlier years, but expressed now in steel-framed
buildings rather than solid masonry, and incorporating the
transparency and (in some of the pavilions) emphatic horizontality
developed in his avant-garde projects of the 1920s.
The first of these formative periods had its roots in Mies's
youth in Aachen where, the son of a master mason, he came to
love the town's historic buildings. He later recalled that 'few of
them were important buildings. They were mostly very simple,
but very clear. I was impressed by the strength of these buildings
because they did not belong to any epoch. They had been there
for over a thousand years and were still impressive, and nothing
could change that. All the great styles passed, but they were
still there ... as good as on the day they were built.'5
This early affinity with sober clarity was confirmed in 1907
when he visited Italy and was deeply impressed by his first
sight of Roman aqueducts, the heroic ruins of the Basilica of
Constantine, and in particular the bold stonework facade of the
Palazzo Pitti with its cleanly-cut window openings, of which he
said: 'You see with how few means you can make architectureand
what architecture!'
And it crystallized into coherent principle when in 1912, on
a visit to the Netherlands, Mies encountered the work of
Hendrik Petrus Berlage. He was particularly struck by Berlage's
Amsterdam Stock Exchange (1903), an outstanding example of
the 'monolothic' way of building - that is to say one in which the
materials of construction are nakedly displayed (like the marble
components of Greek temples), in contradiction to the layered'
approach where basic materials are covered by more sophisticated
claddings (like the walls of Roman architecture). The
Stock Exchange walls are of unplastered brickwork inside and
out, and the roof trusses completely exposed, so that there is
no distinction between what is structure and what is finish,
or between what is structure and what is architecture.7 Mies
later recollected that it was at that point 'that the idea of a clear
construction came to me as one of the fundamentals we should
accept.'8 What especially appealed to him was Berlage's 'careful
construction that was honest down to the bone', forming the
basis, as Mies saw it, of 'a spiritual attitude [that] had nothing to
do with classicism, nothing to do with historic styles.'8
Between these mutually reinforcing experiences in Aachen,
Italy and Amsterdam there was a somewhat different influence
- that of the German neo-classicist Karl Friedrich Schinkel,
whose works Mies came to know while working in the Berlin
studio of Peter Behrens between 1908 and 1912.10 Mies did
not particularly admire Schinkel's early work, which to him
represented the end of a past era, but he considered that the
Bauakademie of 1831-5 'introduced a new epoch'. The lessons
he absorbed from Schinkel were concerned less with honest
construction (though the facades of the Kaufhaus project of
1827 and the later Bauakademie did reflect their underlying
structures with notable clarity) than with architectonic
composition. His compositional borrowings from Schinkel
included a tendency to place buildings on raised platforms to
create a sense of noble repose; a stern sobriety of architectural
form; highly regular spacing and careful proportioning of facade
elements; and an exceptional clarity of articulation, with the
separate elements of the building clearly differentiated.'
Here, then, were two complementary influences that would
preoccupy Mies for the rest of his life - a Berlage-like affinity
with 'honesty' that led him to theorize that building form should
be determined by the structural problem being solved, and the
materials employed, and not by abstract rules of composition;12
counter-balanced by a Schinkelesque love of classical form
that led him in the converse direction, yearning to develop
architectural forms of abstracted perfection. He was aware of
the conflict, saying in 1966: 'After Berlage I had to fight with
myself to get away from the classicism of Schinkel"3 - a battle
he seems largely to have lost, with the compositional
sophistication of Schinkel generally prevailing over the rude
honesty of Berlage.14
Had his development stopped at that point, Mies might have
spent the rest of his career as a consummate designer of
somewhat blocky buildings characterized by clarity, regularity
and discipline (derived from Schinkel); making increasing use of
exposed brickwork (inspired by Berlage); and showing also the
powerful forms and glassiness of Peter Behrens"5 and the open
interiors, powerful outward thrust and emphatic horizontality of
Frank Lloyd Wright.16
It took years of digestion before 'inputs' became 'outputs'
with the gradually-developing Mies; and while some of the
above characteristics are indeed visible in the severe
monumentality of the Bismarck Memorial (1910) and Kroller
House (1912) projects, others were only to appear much later.
One thinks for instance of the fluid interior and outwardthrusting
composition of the Brick Country House project
(1923-4), and of the cubic forms and immaculately-detailed
brickwork of the Wolf (1925-7), Esters (1927-30) and Lange
(1927-30) houses. These designs are especially notable for
their Berlage-like use of weighty, unplastered brickwork walls
at a time when European modernism strove mostly for a
smooth, white, lightweight appearance.
After returning from military service in January 1919, Mies
underwent an astonishing transformation, and began a distinct
second developmental phase. Berlin was then in a ferment of
avant-garde activity, both political and artistic; Mies was
willingly caught up in these movements," and in 1921 he began
to produce a sequence of projects that bore little resemblance
to anything he (or indeed anyone else) had done before. These
designs, manifesto-like in their vivid clarity, helped to change
the face of twentieth-century architecture, and their influence
would be unmistakably visible in the later Farnsworth House.
His experiments from 1919-38 involved progressive transformations
of the kind of space that is shaped by architecture,
and of the kind of structure that helps do the shaping.
The Glass Skyscraper project of 1922 (figure 10), with its
open interiors and transparent envelope and its clear distinction
between structure (slim columns and hovering slabs) and
claddings (a diaphonous skin), presents a vivid illustration of
Mies's spatial and structural ideas.18 But this project is an office
building, and the specific antecedents of the Farnsworth House
are more appropriately traced in his house designs, so it is to
those that we must turn.
Looking then at Mies's development in the specific context
of house design, his spatial ideas may be summarized as
follows. First he started to dissolve the interior subdivisions of
the dwelling, moving away from the box-like rooms of traditional
western architecture towards more open interiors - the latter
probably showing the intertwined influences of Frank Lloyd
Wright, the Japanese house" and the De Stijl movement.2'
The first hints of this progressive opening-up and thinning-out
of the interior appear in the unrealized Brick Country House
project. Its Berlage-like brick walls, while as solidly-built and
densely-packed as those of the past, are loosely arranged to
suggest rather than enclose a series of doorless spaces that
substituted for rooms.21 The idea is partly realized in the
1928-30 Tugendhat House, whose main floor is opened up to
become a single space within which dining, living and study
areas are lightly suggested by screens of maccassar ebony,
onyx and translucent glass. The final step, via a series of unbuilt
projects,2Z is the Farnsworth House which has no full-height
internal subdivisions except for a service core enclosing
separate bathrooms and a utility room.
Parallel to the above process Mies also started to dissolve
the boundary between inside and outside. The plan of the
unbuilt Brick Country House, while clearly influenced by Frank
Lloyd Wright,23 opens out into the site in a way unprecedented
in western architecture. The Glass Room at the Werkbund
Exhibition of 1927 uses glass walls to reduce the distinction
between inside and outside. And finally came the 1928-9
Barcelona Pavilion, an assembly of free-standing partitions
under a floating roof in which it is quite impossible to say at
what point 'inside' becomes 'outside'. Though in many ways
hauntingly house-like (hence its inclusion in this genealogy)
this was a non-inhabited pavilion with no need for enclosing
walls, thus allowing the architect to take liberties that would be
impossible in a true dwelling.2" But once conceived, the idea
kept re-emerging in subsequent house designs (see figures
19-22) and again reaches a climax in the glass-walled
Farnsworth House.
The spatial opening-up of the house described above was
interconnected with the parallel development of Mies's
structural ideas from the early 1920s to the early 1940s.
Mies's long-standing love of clearly-displayed structure
found a natural means of expression in the steel-framed
apartment and office buildings of Chicago, where he settled in
1938,25 and where his third period of development as suggested
on p.7 may be said to have begun. The outcome of his engagement
with the Chicago steel frame, seen to perfection in the
Farnsworth House, was what he himself referred to as 'skin
and bones' design - a thin external skin (preferably glass) fitted
to a skeletal frame (preferably steel) of the utmost clarity and
elegance, with maximum differentiation between load-bearing
frame and non-load-bearing skin.26
In this last period his work underwent a marked change of
temper. Seemingly sated with the irregular plans and freefloating
planes of the avant-garde experiments of the 1920s,
Mies rather surprisingly reverted after about 1938 to the sober
classicism of his early architecture, shown now in buildings with
steel frames rather than stone. All that survives from the 1920s
projects is a very modern transparency and (in some of his
pavilions) a use of floating planes.
Two points must be added to the above analysis. While the
essentially aesthetic experiments with space and structure
outlined above are the central story of Mies's second and third
phases of evolution as a designer, it would bean oversimplification
to see the form and appearance of the Farnsworth
House as the outcome only of aesthetic concerns.
There were also social issues at work. Nineteenth-century
European cities were haunted by disease, particularly
tuberculosis; and Mies shared a widespread early-twentiethcentury
yearning for a new way of living that would be simpler,
cleaner and healthier than before. The theme of wholesome
living in airy, sunny rooms (in contrast with the stuffy, dusty and
over-furnished buildings of nineteenth-century architecture) is
seen in countless early twentieth-century writings, architectural
and other, and led naturally to the clinically white, glassy and
sparsely furnished buildings of Mies and his contemporaries.
And there was, secondly, a spiritual aspect. Throughout his
life the apparently technology-driven Mies van der Rohe was
actually an earnest searcher after the deeper meanings behind
everyday existence.27 Some time between 1924 and 1927
he moved to the view that 'building art is always the spatial
expression of spiritual decisions' and began to gravitate away
from the rather mechanistic functionalists of the Neue
Sachlichkeit ('new objectivity') movement.28 He had for many
years been pondering the writings of Catholic philosophers
such as St Thomas Aquinas, and now discovered a new book
by Siegfried Ebeling titled DerRaum als Membran. This was
a mystical tract which treated the building as an enclosing
membrane forming a space for concentration and mystic
celebration.29 It is clear from the underlinings in Mies's personal
copy that he took Ebeling's arguments seriously.
Though this period of spirituality seems to have faded somewhat
after his Barcelona Pavilion, and he gradually returned to
drier and more objective design attitudes as noted above, the
dignified serenity of pavilions such as the Farnsworth House
and the New National Gallery in Berlin (1962-8) bear witness to
Mies's abiding preoccupation with the creation of orderly, noble
and indeed quasi-spiritual spaces in our turbulent world.
The outcome at Fox River of all the themes traced above -
aesthetic, social and spiritual - is a tranquil weekend house
of unsurpassed clarity, simplicity and elegance. Every physical
element has been distilled to its irreducible essence.
products-even if the effect had to be faked, as it usually was.
Where traditional buildings were ornamented, modern buildings
must be bare. Where traditional houses had rooms, modern
ones must be open-plan. Where traditional rooms were thickly
carpeted and curtained, and densely filled with furniture and
bric-a-brac, modern ones must have hard, clean surfaces and
be virtually devoid of furniture and possessions.
And so on. Though there were important continuities
between classicism and modernism,37 stylistic inversions such
as those above (and others which interested readers may trace
for themselves) dominated the mostly white, glassy, flatsurfaced,
sparsely-furnished buildings selected for publication
in 1932 in The International Style, five of them by Mies van der
Rohe.38 In the Farnsworth House these characteristics are taken
so far, and distilled into a composition of such elegance and
single-minded clarity, that it can stand as a late icon of what the
International Style of the late 1920s and early 1930s had been
'trying to be'.
Client, site and brief
In late 1945 Mies van der Rohe, then aged 59 and still relatively
unknown in America,33 met (probably at a dinner party) an
intelligent and art-conscious 42-year-old Chicago medical
specialist called Edith Farnsworth.40 She mentioned in conversation
that she owned a riverside site on the Fox River, about 60
miles west of Chicago, and was thinking of building there a
weekend retreat. She wondered aloud whether his office might
be interested. He was, and after several excursions to the site
with Edith Farnsworth he was given the commission.
It was, for Mies, an ideal challenge. A cabin for weekend use
by a single person was the kind of programme to which he best
responded. Rather like the Barcelona Pavilion of 1928-941 the
Farnsworth House was a project in which the tiresome realities
of everyday life (the need for privacy, the accumulation of
possessions, the daily litter and clutter) could be disregarded
in a single-minded quest for transcendental elegance.
The site was a narrow seven-acre strip of deciduous
woodland beside the Fox River. Its southern boundary was
formed by the river-bank and a thin line of trees; the northern
boundary by a gentle grassy rise and a thicker grove of trees,
along which ran a minor public road giving access to the site.
The eastern boundary was also formed by a grove of trees;
and the western boundary by Fox River Drive, the main road to
Piano. Between these features lay a grassy meadow, idyllically
isolated except for the (then) lightly-used road to the west.
Initial progress was rapid. Mies started designing within a
year, and a model closely resembling the final design was
exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1947.
He was ready to proceed but Dr Farnsworth had to wait for an
inheritance before authorizing a start on site. Construction
finally began in September 1949, and the house was completed
in 1951.
The lawsuit
By then, unfortunately, the initially sympathetic relationship
between architect and client had turned sour. Everyone who
knew them agrees that this was at least partly due to a failed
romance between Mies van der Rohe and Edith Farnsworth. At
the start of the project they worked closely together, had picnics
on the river bank, and Dr Farnsworth was breathlessly excited
by both the man and the emerging design. Recalling the evening
she first discussed the house with Mies she later said that 'the
effect was tremendous, like a storm, a flood, or an Act of God.'42
And in June 1946, a few months after that revelatory evening,
she sent Mies a handwritten letter:
'Dear Mies
It is impossible to pay in money for what is made by heart and soul!
Such work one can only recognize and cherish - with love and
respect. But the concrete world affects us both and I must
recognize that also and see that it is dealt with in some decent
So, dear Mies, I am enclosing a cheque for one thousand [dollars]
on account, with full awareness of its inadequacy.
Faithfully yours Edith'
The romance went wrong, unkind remarks began to be made
on both sides,43 and in 1953 Mies sued Dr Farnsworth for unpaid
fees of $28,173. She countersued for $33,872, alleging a large
cost over-run on the original budget, a leaking roof and excessive
condensation on the glass walls.44
After a court hearing that must have been excruciatingly
painful for both sides, Mies van der Rohe and Edith Farnsworth
in mid-1953 agreed a $14,000 settlement in Mies's favour.
The battle continued outside the courtroom. Many architect
and critics had been overwhelmed by the clarity, polish and
precision of the design but the April 1953 issue of the more
populist (and in many respects more realistic) House Beautiful
attacked the house itself, the International Style of which it is an
exemplar, and the Bauhaus which was the seedbed of this kind
of design. The author, Elizabeth Gordon, accused the
architecture of being 'cold' and 'barren'; the furniture 'sterile',
'thin' and 'uncomfortable'; Mies's design as an attack on
traditional American values.45
Frank Lloyd Wright, who in the 1930s and early 1940s had
admired Mies's work and regarded him as a friend,48 joined in:
The International Style ... is totalitarianism. These Bauhaus
architects ran from political totalitarianism in Germany to what
is now made by specious promotion to seem their own
totalitarianism in art here in America ...""
Edith Farnsworth added her own angry comments, then and
later, about the general impossibility of living in her exquisite
glass pavilion. She complained that 'Mies talks about his "free
space", but the space is very fixed. I can't even put a clothes
hanger in my house without considering how it affects
everything from the outside'; and that 'I thought you could
animate a pre-determined, classic form like this with your own
presence. I wanted to do something meaningful and all I got
was this glib, false sophistication.'48 It may of course be that her
views were coloured by the extremity of her bitterness towards
Mies.49 As Professor Dieter Holm suggested to me in conversation,
had she envisaged her exquisite pavilion as a kind of
Japanese tea house in which she and her friend and mentor
would conduct exalted discussions about life and art;50 and
were her subsequent attacks an expression of rage at the man
who had let her down, rather than a comment on the house?
It seems likely. Despite her criticisms Edith Farnsworth
continued to use the house until 1971, though treating it with
scant respect. Adrian Gale saw it in 1958 and found 'a
sophisticated camp site rather than a weekend dreamhouse'.
When its subsequent purchaser Peter Palumbo visited Dr
Farnsworth in 1971 he was depressed to see an approach path
of crazy paving; the western terrace enclosed by mosquito
screens so that one entered the glass pavilion via a wire mesh
door; the once-beautiful primavera panels veneered to a
blackish, reddish colour; the floor space unpleasantly blocked
by mostly nondescript furniture; and the sink piled high with
dishes which had not been washed for several days.

A year later the Farnsworth House was sold, and entered
upon a happier phase of existence, as will be related in the
Postscript on p.24.
Before turning to the planning of the Farnsworth House itself,
that of its immediate predecessors must be considered. The
emphatic horizontal planes, glass-walled transparency and
open interiors which Mies had been perfecting since 1921
had come together in a sublime synthesis in the Barcelona
Pavilion.51 Having crystallized his ideas in that essentially
ceremonial and functionless building, where such experiments
in abstraction could be carried out relatively freely, Mies began
also to incorporate them in a sequence of house designs.
The first of these was a grand residence for Fritz and Grete
Tugendhat, which Mies was actually in the process of designing
when he was commissioned to undertake the Barcelona
Pavilion. The Tugendhats were enlightened newly-weds who
wanted a modern house with generous spaces and clear,
simple forms; and who were aware of Mies's work. They
arranged a meeting in 1928 - and like many previous clients
(and his future client Dr Edith Farnsworth) were bowled over by
his massive presence and air of calm self-assurance. As Mrs
Tugendhat said later: 'From the first moment it was certain that
he was our man ... We knew we were in the same room with an
artist.' That was a common reaction among Mies's clients.52
Architect-client relations were not quite as smooth as here
implied, but the project went ahead. The Tugendhat House was
completed in 1930 and represented a decisive step away from
the solid 'block' houses Mies had been building only two years
earlier (the Esters and Lange houses of 1927-30), and towards
the transparent 'pavilion' houses he would be designing in the
future. The living room was extensive and tranquil, enclosed by
glass walls so transparent that the outer landscape and sky
seemed almost to form the room boundaries. The room was
subtly zoned into conversation, dining, study and library areas
by only two or three free-standing partitions and a few
precisely-placed pieces of furniture. It was virtually empty
except for these artwork-like items of furniture, and there was
no allowance for pictures on the walls.

In another pre-figuration of the Farnsworth House the
colours were predominantly neutral and unassertive. The floor
was covered in creamy, off-white linoleum. There was a black
silk curtain before the glass wall by the winter garden; a silverygrey
silk curtain before the main glass wall; the library could be
closed off by a white velvet curtain; and a black velvet curtain
ran between the onyx wall and the winter garden. This neutral
backdrop heightened the dramatic effect of a few carefullydevised
focal points - the rich black-and-brown ebony curved
partition; the tawny-gold onyx flat partition; the emerald-green
leather, ruby-red velvet, and white vellum furniture claddings;
and the lush green jungle of plants filling the winter garden.
After many experimental drawing-board projects Mies was
beginning to realize in built form that 'puritanical vision of
simplified, transcendental existence' referred toon p. 13.
This vision had its negative side, and along with the plaudits
the Tugendhat House began to attract comments of a kind
that would recur with the Farnsworth House. Gropius called
it a 'Sunday house', questioning its suitability for everyday
living, and a critic asked unkindly, 'Can one live in House
Tugendhat?' -a question the Tugendhats answered with an
impassioned 'yes'.53
There followed the House for a Childless Couple at the Berlin
Fair (1931), which distinctly recalls the Barcelona Pavilion; and
then a series of unbuilt Courtyard House designs (1931-8) in
which Mies tested on confined urban sites the concept of openplan
interiors, sheltering beneath horizontal roof planes and
looking out on to gardens via glass walls. One-, two- or threecourt
houses were planned, the entire site in each case being

surrounded by a brick wall. Within the privacy of these enclosures
each individual house faced its courtyard via a thin-framed,
ceiling-height glass wall. Interiors consisted of few rooms and
large areas of continuous, fluid space very reminiscent of the
Brick Country House project; and roofs were lightly supported
on the external walls plus four to eight slender columns, leaving
the internal partitions free of all load-bearing function. Space
flowed freely through the interiors and out into the courtyards.
Each walled enclosure was effectively one large 'room', part of
which was indoors and part outdoors - an intermediate stage to
the Farnsworth House where the entire surrounding meadow
would become an extension of the glass-walled interior.
In 1937-8, as Mies was in the process of emigrating to
Chicago, came the immediate forerunner of the Farnsworth
House. This was a design (alas, unbuilt) for a summer residence
for Mr and Mrs Stanley Resor bridging a small river in Wyoming.54
Very appropriately for-his first American building, the central
'bridge' section of the house was a long steel-framed box.
This was raised slightly clear of the site, formed a glass-walled
living area, and had no internal divisions except for furniture and
a fireplace.
Interestingly, Mies's previous intimate incorporation of
houses into their landscapes begins here to give way to a
distinct separation between the man-made object and nature.55
In the past, the interior spaces (the wings of the house) and
exterior spaces (the gardens and courtyards) were intimately
interlocked in projects as late as the Esters and Lange houses.
Here, while the ends of the Resor House - whose foundations

were inherited by Mies from an earlier design for that site - are
firmly rooted to the site, the bridge-like central section parts
company with the landscape, hovering aloofly above an
untouched site. By a quirk of fate the site problem which
generated this elevated geometry - regular floodwaters -
would recur with his next house.
In 1946, on Dr Farnsworth's plot beside the Fox River, Mies
could finally bring all these gradually-evolved ideas to their
ultimate conclusion.
His most fundamental decision involved the relationship
between the building and the landscape - a relationship that
aimed at bringing nature, the house and human beings together
into 'a higher unity', as he put it.
The house stands about 1.6 metres (just over 5 ft) above the
surrounding meadow, leaving the site completely undisturbed
and giving its occupants a magnificent belvedere from which to
contemplate the surrounding woodland. The practical reason
for the raised floor is that the meadow is a floodplain, but Mies
has characteristically managed to transmute a technical solution
to an aesthetic masterstroke. Being elevated, the house is
detached from disorderly reality and becomes an exalted place
for contemplation -safe, serene and perfect in all its smooth,
machine-made details.
The basic arrangement of the Farnsworth House was quickly
settled, but the precise layout went through the usual painstaking
process of Miesian fine-tuning (his most characteristic
injunction to students and design assistants was, it is said, to
'work on it some more'). Literally hundreds of preliminary

drawings were produced, and these show Mies trying out
several alternative positions for the access stairs, the central
core and other minor elements before achieving finality.56 Note,
for instance, on figure 27, the two glass screens separating the
kitchen space from the rest of the house - Mies's last halfhearted
attempt at traditional boxed-in rooms before going for
a completely undivided living area.57
Another abandoned idea was the enclosure of the western
terrace by insect-proof screening. The screens were shown
on the model exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947,
but Mies never liked these transparency-destroying elements
and the house was built without them. (In fact practicality would
soon triumph over aesthetics, and the idea had to be resurrected
after Dr Farnsworth moved into the house, owing to the
tormenting clouds of mosquitoes rising from the riverside
meadow every summer. Stainless steel screens were therefore
designed and installed at her request in 1951. The work was
done under Mies's supervision by his design assistant William
Dunlap, client/architect relations by then being frosty.58 The
screens were removed two decades later by the new owner
Peter Palumbo, and the mosquito-breeding meadow mown
down to a more lawn-like surface as will be related later.)
The interior as finally realized is a single glass-enclosed
space, unpartitioned except for a central service core. The
latter conceals two bathrooms (one for Dr Farnsworth, one for
visitors) and a utility room, and is set closer to the northern wall
than to the southern. This off-centre location creates a narrow
kitchen space to the north and a much larger living area to the

south. The long northern side of the core consists of a single run
of cabinets above a kitchen worktop, and the long southern
side incorporates a low, open hearth facing the living area. The
two short sides contain the entrance doors to the bathrooms.
The living area is zoned into a sleeping area on the east
(thus conforming with the excellent precept, going back to
Vitruvius's Sixth Book of Architecture, that bedrooms should
face east so that the sleeper wakes to the glory of the morning
sun), a dining area to the west, and a general sitting area
between the two. The sleeping zone is served by a freestanding
teak-faced cupboard.
Outside, the raised terrace to the west is a splendid place for
sitting at the end of the day, watching the sunset.
Turning from internal to external planning, it seems to have
been decided that allowing motor vehicles to drive right up to
the pavilion (a formative design factor in another twentiethcentury
country villa, Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye of 1929-31)
would impair the Farnsworth House's idyllic sense of seclusion.
Therefore Mies's design made no provision for car access.
Dr Farnsworth did subsequently build a conventional twocar
garage beside the gate on the northern boundary of the site,
where she presumably parked her car and walked across the
field to the house. Her visitors more commonly drove all the way
to the house and parked there. The disturbing presence of
garage, track and automobiles inevitably diminished the dreamlike
image of a small pavilion in remote woodland and, as
outlined on p.25, its next owner radically replanned the site to
overcome this defect.

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555 KUBIK - facade projection

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