Mies van der Rohe and his Farnsworth House

The impossible house

The Farnsworth House

Image above: Yang Chen ( @whyseeimage ) / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019

A crystal. A poem. A sound. Also, a temple. The house that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built in a patch of woodland in Illinois in 1950/51 has elicited enthusiastic descriptions from fans. But there’s another side to the story

The Farnsworth House is considered an icon of architectural modernism. It has influenced practically all subsequent steel and glass buildings – from villas to skyscrapers, and smaller-scale architectures as well, such as furniture by Walter Knoll. The unique building was the inspiration behind the development of The Farns – a house within a house, a revolutionary sideboard.

But the building on the banks of the Fox River, 75 kilometers west of Chicago, tells yet another story which sounds as contradictory as it is instructive. For the cuboidal glass house is not only a world-famous, ingenious masterpiece of modernity; it was also a misunderstanding. The commissioner Edith Farnsworth, after whom the house is named, considered the house uninhabitable. She refused to pay the architect his fee.

What happened? It is a story that reveals a lot about the eccentricity of an artist. And about a customer’s disappointments.

At first, the pair get along famously. Edith Farnsworth meets Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1945 at a dinner given by a friend. She is a respected nephrologist with a practice in Chicago and is on the look-out for an architect to build her a weekend home. Mies accepts the proposal right away. She shows him the plot of land – an area semi-covered with woodland, overlooking a river which swells over its banks with every melt of the snow. Two months later, Mies delivers a draft, which is unusually swift for him as he is generally considered to be a very methodical planner.

His drawing shows a rectangular bungalow with fully glazed walls, seemingly floating about 1.5 meters above the ground, supported by eight steel girders. It consists of a single room around a small core containing bathrooms, a heating system and supply pipes. Edith Farnsworth is thrilled. She confirms the order. The two drive to the plot and picnic there almost every Sunday. Friends and relatives suspect an affair.

Construction will cost around $ 40,000, which is equivalent to about € 350,000 today. Farnsworth is awaiting an inheritance and work is finally able to begin in 1949. But their harmonious relationship begins to disintegrate before the first sod is turned. Mies wants to build on the gentle elevation of a grassy hill, about 150 meters from the river, under a magnificent 200-year-old maple tree. However, Edith Farnsworth imagines the house further away from the shore and higher up. The contractor commissioned by Mies, a carpenter from Germany, also proposes a higher location to avoid the expected flooding. Mies insists on the meadow. “It’s an adventure,” he says. “But that belongs to life.” At the commencement of construction, costs increase by fifty percent, which Farnsworth accepts. For Mies, only the best craftsmen and the best materials will do. For the floors and for the freestanding terrace, which lies in front of the house like a giant step, he chooses Roman travertine, a bright, porous limestone. Fine primavera wood clads the plumbing and engineering core. Mies has the steel girders sandblasted until their surface is silky smooth. In 1951, the house is ready for Edith Farnsworth to move in. A lawsuit begins the following year, ending in 1955 with an arbitral award.

It’s mainly about the money. Farnsworth not only refuses to pay the architect’s fees and the additional construction costs, but also demands reimbursement of a considerable amount of the money already paid. Her statements show that she feels exploited by the architect. Apparently, Mies had ignored most of her wishes regarding comfort and coziness, and fulfilled others only later and reluctantly.

“The house is transparent, like an X-ray,” she says. “I can’t even put a clothes hanger in my house without considering how it affects everything from the outside.” When she asks Mies for more closet space because she doesn’t know where her clothes are supposed to go, he suggests she hang them “on the hook on the back of the bathroom door.” Finally, he concedes and has a closet with a wardrobe installed, likewise clad in primavera wood.

Reductive Romanticism in the corpus delicti. Once a bone of contention, today an architectural icon and museum. Image: Farnsworth House courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019

Sleeping, cooking, eating, living – everything takes place in the open space, visible from the outside. Sometimes the occupant has to hide in the shower from curious neighbors, tourists and architecture fans – the curtains made of natural silk apparently provide little protection. She is also vulnerable to the mosquito infestation ubiquitous in the river valley: for a long time, Mies van der Rohe refuses to hang mosquito nets for aesthetic reasons. Climatically, the house is a disaster. In the summer it’s an oven – only the front door and two small windows in the back can be opened and no air conditioning was installed. In winter, ice forms on the steamed-up windows because the underfloor heating is too weak. What’s more, the site really does turn out to be too low: the first high water floods the hill even during construction. Three years later, the bungalow is 1.2 meters deep in water.

The dispute between the two parties becomes personal. Mies van der Rohe is an inflexible, narrow-minded, unapproachable primitive, fumes the lady of the house. He, in turn, implies that her romantic feelings had been frustrated: “The lady expected the architect to go along with the house.” Particularly revealing is the addition: “The good lady doctor knew very well that the house was meant to be the pure expression of an idea.”

Mies van der Rohe clearly understood the assignment as an opportunity to realize himself as a freelance artist. Whether someone would feel at home in his “pure expression of an idea” was of lesser importance. The house, he said, is “a prototype for all glass buildings.” A prototype, sure, but not a finished product, not something ready for the market. Rather, it was an ingenious, avant-garde experiment. Today, the house belongs to two monument protection organizations and is open to visitors as a museum.

Edith Farnsworth deserves our gratitude. By giving the architect creative freedom, she made architectural history. She enabled the realization of an idea that continues to inspire people to this day. And she can’t have disliked the house as much as all that. After all, she spent her weekends there for twenty years.