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glass houses and safe danger

Looking for something to do Sunday morning, we decided to drive west of the city to the sleepy little town of Plano, IL to visit one of the most famous works of modern residential architecture from the 20th century. Tucked amidst sparse trees beside the cold black rush of the Fox River in autumn is The Farnsworth House completed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1951.

The house was commissioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth in 1945. A woman of exceptional learning, professional accomplishment, and–as the story goes–considerable interest in Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe. She wanted a simple country retreat to escape the pressures of professional and city life, had recently purchased 9 acres along the Fox River, and was in search of an architect to design her a house. As luck (or careful planning) would have it she found herself at a dinner party sitting across from Mies one evening, and after some time of her talking and his saying barely a word (she wondered if he spoke English), she demurely asked if he could perhaps recommend a young architect in his firm to design her a country home–at which he said, I’ll do it myself. And so the torrid affair began–between man, woman, and house.

It’s a complete and total architectural philosophy distilled into one beautiful little box.    – David Bahlam

There is much speculation about the full nature of the relationship between Mies and Farnsworth, but the role of the house is certain. Originally commissioned for $40 thousand (about eight times the average home price in the area at the time), projected costs began to climb. Mies began to focus almost pathologically on his vision for the house to the exclusion of his client’s wishes. Materials were to be locally sourced; the massive 1/4″ thick single-pane, hand-polished plate glass panels creating the facade of the house were manufactured in Aurora, IL and the steel kitchen cabinetry was manufactured in St. Charles, IL. However, the plan to use locally sourced materials was more than once scrapped in favor of more exotic materials such as imported Italian travertine marble and Primavera heartwood, and so costs climbed. At around $56 thousand, Farnsworth asked that the costs be contained and present work be completed so she could take occupancy. Mies pushed onward, though, with his vision, purportedly ignoring his client’s wishes. The total construction cost of the house when completed in 1951 was $76 thousand–nearly double the originally agreed upon cost. Farnsworth refused to pay. Mies van der Rohe sued. Farnsworth counter-sued. A media war ensued. Farnsworth called Mies van der Rohe incompetent and the house unlivable, and so forth and so on. The story is rich, tawdry and convoluted, and recounted in many places. (As an aside, the house had just one other owner since Farnsworth, and in 2003 sold at auction for $7.5 million to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)

I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.    – Mies van der Rohe

“I don’t want to be interesting,” said Mies. “I want to be good.” Much of the philosophy of architectural modernism–of which Mies is considered the father–is conveyed in words that mirror the minimalism of his design: “Less is more” and “God is in the details.” In designing the Farnsworth house, it is said that Mies was attempting to design “almost nothing;” the house is a transparent abstraction of the highest art, and, as such, aesthetic transcends function. The house has no closet–no wardrobe. During its construction, this was a practical matter that caused Farnsworth great concern. Where was she going to put her clothes? Mies was dismissive, reminding her that it was a weekend house. What could she possible need? He offered to put a hook on the back of the bathroom door. Eventually, Mies did assign a subordinate in his firm to build Farnsworth a freestanding Teak wardrobe, but it obstructed the clear line of sight across the length of the house; Mies surely would have preferred it not be there.

Then there was another issue. The house was made of glass–and world famous. Without any internal spaces, except the two bathrooms, and the architectural fame that drew camera-toting tourists to Farnsworth’s backyard on a daily basis, the good doctor was, at times, less than pleased with her transparent little box. Architectural minimalism of this kind, in fact, became the seed of a great political debate around what some perceived as the tyranny of modern design. Were we to live in such panoptical spaces? Our lives made transparent to all? And without possessions? Given the political climate of these early Cold War years, insinuations that Mies’ design embodied communist ideals were fodder for great public debate.

Beyond political mudslinging, the house has faced more tangible challenges in recent history. It stands precariously close to the river–on the flood plane, in fact, but elevated five feet from the ground on steel I-beams. This five-foot elevation just above the level of the 100-year flood plane, however, could not save the house from a devastating flood in 1997 and from the deluge of near Biblical proportions that dumped 18 inches of rain over the Fox River valley in just one hour in 2008. The river swelled and the house was engulfed. In ’97, one of the plate glass windows fractured and five feet of water flooded the house–washing priceless works of art down the river never to be retrieved. The house was restored after each flood, but evidence of the damage remains.

The house has a tumultuous history, but from day to day, times change. As we enjoyed the house and property this breezy autumn Sunday afternoon, I felt anything but tyrannized or endangered. The house creates a unique sensation of protected exposure, or what Phillip Johnson called, “safe danger.” It is remarkably quiet on the inside; the perfectly clear plate glass windows frame three equal width horizontal bands of lawn, river and treeline, and sky–a beautiful natural abstraction. One never feels apart from it. In fact, the house itself seems to recede to the back of one’s perception. It’s as if you are floating placidly. From the inside one can barely see any supporting structure below or above, nor can one see the stairs leading to the house. It just sort of hovers there amidst the trees beside the river. It endures. I hope it continues to do so.

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