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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.

st. louis summertime spirit

This summer we decided to forgo major travels and enjoy a series of brief excursions just beyond our usual stomping grounds. Our most recent adventure took us to the gateway city–St. Louis. Now, I didn’t know too much about St. Louis, but in my imagination I kind of likened it to vacationing in Gary, Indiana (but then again I don’t know much about Gary either). I anticipated a hot, uncomfortably urban, polluted experience leaving little to write home about. While it was indeed hot–hovering around 104 degrees two of the three days we were there–the city held some surprises for me that has me humbly reconsidering my preconceived notion of this river-front town.

the gateway arch

The five-hour drive south on I55 from Chicago didn’t offer much adventure. Perhaps there would have been more had we ventured off the interstate, but we were set on getting to St. Louis before too much of the day was behind us. Aidan wanted to spend the afternoon hours in Gateway park, picnicking, writing is his journal, and sketching the Arch. So that’s what we did.

We rolled into town around 5:00 pm or so, checked into the hotel and headed for the park. We had passed through to St. Louis a couple years before around this same time of year, and the weather was no different–stifling hot. At 104 degrees and high humidity, we were all a hot sticky mess. We didn’t let this deter us, though, as we parked and walked through Gateway park looking for a good picnic spot with a view of the Arch. We ate yummy tofu salad sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and fresh fruit. Chris and I lounged and chatted, while Aidan sketched in his notebook. We were hot, but it was fun. Nonetheless, we welcomed the air-conditioned hotel later that night.

the city museum

Our first full day in St. Louis, we awoke rearing to go. Our plan for the day was St. Louis’ City Museum. We had heard of this place from friends who had gone the year before and raved about it. Aidan saw some pictures from their trip and has been pleading with us to go ever since. So of course, we had to get there right away with a moment to waste.

Let me tell you, The City Museum is one crazy place and there is no simple way to describe or explain it. Housed in the 600,000 square-foot former International Shoe Company, it’s a Seussical labyrinthine urban wonderland filling a ten-story warehouse and constructed entirely from reclaimed and repurposed industrial materials from within the St. Louis city limits. The museum is the brainchild of artist Bob Cassilly who describes the place as an “eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel.” The moment we arrived, Aidan disappeared down the rabbit hole, so to speak, climbing through a maze of polished steel coils and rebar, sliding down old roller-top conveyors, walking atop the world’s largest pencil complete with lead and a 200-pound solid rubber eraser, scurrying through the gutted fuselages of two abandoned air craft and a school bus (precariously positioned) on the museum’s rooftop, and riding a ten-story slide through complete darkness from the roof to the bowels of the warehouse. It’s a wild ride; you never knew what to expect around the next corner, and get this: there are no maps. The idea is to explore and find your way–no matter how unusual.

While much of the museum felt like a giant playground, there were other more “museum-like” artifacts there as well. I particularly enjoyed the gallery of salvaged architectural artifacts. The museum also houses the World Aquarium, the “Everyday Circus,” two 3000-pound vault doors built in the mid-19th century, the largest continuous mosaic in the United States, and, of course, the world’s largest pair of underpants. Now I’ve never taken LSD, but I imagine the time I spent in the museum might approximate the experience. While we were thoroughly hot and sweaty by the time were done, the museum certainly did deliver on the fun. Aidan can’t wait to return.

forest park: flora, fauna, history, and science

One thing about St. Louis is that a family can find plenty to do that’s easy on the wallet. If you want to have a nice couple of days but don’t want to spend much (if any) money, head on over to Forest Park. Forest Park is kind of like the Central Park of St. Louis comprising 1,293 acres of the city center. (It’s actually 500 acres larger than New York’s Central Park.) It’s the site of the 1904 World’s Fair (also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition). The park holds many of the City’s cultural attractions including the Zoo, Art Museum, History Museum, Science Center, Muny Opera, and more. All the museums and the zoo have no charge for general admission, which is great, and free parking is usually available, as well. Forest Park also contains the beautiful architectural results of the World’s Fair, such as the Jefferson Memorial, the Word’s Fair Pavilion, and the beautiful gardens and conservatory known as the Forest Park Jewel Box.

Once we discovered Forest Park, it was hard to pull us away–again despite the soaring heat index. We roamed the zoo, seeking AC refuge in the beautiful bird, reptile, and primate houses as needed. We relaxed at the Jewel Box, enjoyed lunch at the historic boat house, time traveled in the Missouri History Museum, and strolled around the serene grounds surrounding the World Fair’s Pavilion, taking in the vistas and the cool spray from the magnificent fountains.

Our last day in St. Louis drew us again to Forest Park where we visited the Science Center–another free museum that certainly rivals Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (a place we’ve visited many times). We spent a significant amount of our museum time exploring the interactive building and architecture exhibit. Truly this is a hands-on museum with fun for everyone. Aidan enjoyed trying his hand at constructing bridges, testing foundation types for earthquake tolerance, and, of course, assembling an array of arches–some ten feel tall–to understand the engineering of their design.

Nowhere in the City did we find the kind of congestion or crowds we’ve become accustomed to in Chicagoland. In fact, the City had a bizarre quietness to it–even downtown at 5pm (a time you never want to be in Chicago’s Loop), there was scarcely a half dozen cars on any given street. We almost always found free parking and never had to wait in line. In the end, I found a new appreciation for the gateway city five hours south of Chicago and just across the river. We were there just three days, but it was packed with much to do and good memories. Aidan is already talking about returning again soon.

sometimes the best plans are having no plans at all

A couple days ago Aidan and I went and explored the stars at the Adler Planetarium. It was a great day (with the exception that my hubby was not able to come with us). I have found that some of the best days are the ones in which we have no plans but just decide something on the spur of the moment. That’s what happened today when we decided at the last minute to take advantage of a free day and head on down to Chicago.

We haven’t been to this planetarium in a few years and while not too much has changed, it is always a new experience as kids grow older. There is a new interactive kids exhibit in which kids can pretend to be astronauts and fly to Planet X. The exhibit is geared for kids 3 – 8 and I was a little apprehensive on how Aidan would like it, but he loved it and we spent almost two hours in this exhibit alone. We also took time to see a 3D movie about the great observatories in the world. It was a good look at all the latest technology in astronomy. Aidan was fascinated by both the 3D effects and all the machinery that the movie revealed. We then took our time and saw the entire rest of the museum–from the exhibit on the Solar System where you can program and drive a Mars rover to the exhibit on the history of astronomy and how early cultural groups used the stars and patterns of the sky in their daily lives (I especially enjoyed this exhibit). We opened and closed the museum–six hours of fun and exploration! What an awesome way to spend a day!

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