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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.

on reading deschooling society by ivan illich

Ivan Illich offers both a bleak view of contemporary institutionalized society and an inspiring vision of what Deschooling Society by Ivan Illichcould be in his 1970 treatise Deschooling Society. “Good radical stuff,” notes the Observer in its cover accolade. Indeed it is radical in the best and truest sense of the word as defined below:

Radical. adj. Arising from or going to a root or source; Departing markedly from the usual or customary; Favoring or effecting fundamental or revolutionary changes in current practices, conditions, or institutions; slang – Excellent; wonderful.

What’s fascinating about Deschooling Society is that Illich goes beyond criticism of all that is wrong with contemporary western society and culture (arguments put forth by many social critics and educational reformists) to actually propose detailed solutions and alternatives. The problem is, though, his alternatives are so radically (and wonderfully) different and depend so much upon the goodwill of men and women that they are borderline Utopian. Just the same, important changes start by affecting the mindsets of people by stating what might be possible even if ostensibly infeasible.

Before offering detailed–even if radical–solutions, Illich does layout in considerable detail the problem he sees with societal institutions–with institutionalized schooling in particular. He contends that school is the basis of widespread discrimination, is socially divisive, and profoundly inegalitarian. Illich points out how school serves to divide the world into very separate realms which are anything but equal:

The very existence of obligatory schools divides any society into two realms: some time spans and processes and treatments and professions are “academic” or “pedagogic,” and others are not. The power of schools thus to divide social reality has no boundaries: education becomes unworldly and the world becomes noneducational. (24)

Furthermore, Illich suggests that the school system and curriculum serves to assign social rank. Rather than doing as it purports to do–giving everybody an equal chance at achievement–school instead monopolizes the distribution of such chances (12). This is very true. Certainly it is school that tends to systematically separate the haves from the have-nots. We tell kids this all the time, after all, right? School pays off. You want to be diggin’ ditches your whole life? No? Then go to school. To many of us, this seems like pretty sound advice and we don’t for a moment question it. It’s true. The more schooling you have, the greater your employment, material, and fiscal opportunity in our society. Is this fundamentally fair? Only if one has subjected him- or herself to “the form of a ritual, of sequential sacred ordination” (12)–a treatment of years–can he or she be “certified” to gain access to the spoils of “achievement.” Note that this has nothing to do with intellectual [singlepic=837,275,275]  Ivan Illichcompetency or demonstrable skills. It has everything to do with being “certified” that you have passed through a curriculum–that you have spent a predetermined amount of your time enduring sustained curricular treatment. What is the real purpose of this curriculum?

Illich’s commentary in his chapter on the “Institutional Spectrum” is particularly compelling regarding the differences between true public utilities and services and those “false utilities” that are designed to serve a product (and its related industries) at tax payer expense rather than the good of the public at large. An illustrative example he uses is the superhighway system, which he argues is an accessory of the automobile and serves only those privileged enough to own or have access to an automobile. “Genuine all-purpose roads are true public utilities. Superhighways are private preserves, the cost of which has been partially foisted upon the public” (57). Illich outlines a host of “false utilities” that orient themselves on the far right of our societal spectrum, and school he suggests is the worst of them.

“Modern” technology transferred to poor countries falls into three large categories: goods, factories which make them, and service institutions–principally schools–which make men into modern producers and consumers. Most countries spend by far the largest proportion of their budget on schools. The school-made graduates then create a demand for other conspicuous utilities, such as industrial power, paved highways, modern hospitals and airports, and these in turn create a market for the goods made for rich countries and, after a while, the tendency to import obsolescent factories to produce them.

Of all “false utilities,” school is the most insidious. Highway systems produce only a demand for cars. Schools create a demand for the entire set of modern institutions which crowd the right end of the spectrum. A man who questioned the need for highways would be written off as a romantic; the man who questions the need for school is immediately attacked as either heartless or imperialist. (59-60)

Consider the amount of money the average university graduate has spent on school (not to mention the amount tax payers have spent on him or her, whether those tax payers maximize their own schooling or not). According to Illich, at the time of his writing, “Each American college graduate had an education costing an amount five times greater than the median life income of half of humanity” (34). School is big business in America and most of the Western world. A lot of money moves through the schooling system; plus schooling in America is intricately interwoven with the economy; corporate interests in our schooling system run deep and wide, as the system works to breed workers and consumers. Learning itself has become a commodity–a consumer product. We’ve been for so long and so consistently told that the only learning that really matters happens in school–that in fact, we can’t learn in the absence of curriculum, teachers, and institutions. Our economy is built on this lie. This leaves me wondering about this industry of obligatory mass schooling. Is the phrase and purported principle of “lifelong learning” little more than a marketing tag line to keep the money flowing and to keep people addicted to a consumer product education? What does school prepare us for other than to be better consumers? School is good for the economy, but is it good for our humanity? We can engage in learning without teachers and without schools after all, and we can do it for free. There is learning without teachers!

Let’s be real. No one needs teachers, curriculum, delivery systems, or packaged learning of any kind to take a liberal education. If one can read, has access to books, people, and other such resources, and has a desire to learn, he or she will. That’s it. How much money do we need to spend to have our learning “certified”–with a certificate that, by the way, does not guarantee any learning but rather serves only as testimony that a person has gone through a state approved ritualized process of “education?”

Ok, so what does Illich suggest by way of solution? He writes at length about this, detailing his idea of “learning webs.” “The alternative to dependence on schools,” he writes, “is not the use of public resources for some new device which ‘makes’ people learn; rather it is the creation of a new style of educational relationship between man and his environment” (73).

An entirely new elite would be promoted, an elite who earned their education by sharing it.

In order to de-institutionalize and decentralize learning as a consumer product, he suggests a radical new paradigm that puts education back in the hands of the learner and orients it in a real-world context. This new paradigm does not ask the question “What should students learn?” or anything of the kind; rather, it asks “What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?” (78). Illich describes in considerable detail how this new way of providing educational opportunity to citizens might be fairly distributed to everyone–rich and poor–as their birthright. He suggests four established approaches that would help any learner define and get at his or her educational goals. These four approaches or networks include 1) reference services to educational objects, 2) skill exchanges, 3) peer matching, and 4) reference services to educators-at-large. By participating in these networks of learning–these learning webs as he calls them, one would both get an education and participate in providing one to others. This is the part I love. Citizens could draw on these services using a “basic credit” that they could use to learn fundamental skills. “Beyond the minimum, further credits would go to those who earned them by teaching… An entirely new elite would be promoted, an elite who earned their education by sharing it” (90). Now that would be nice.

only the cool boys like pink!

Pink, blue, purple, green–aren’t these all just colors, beautiful colors of our world?! I really don’t understand why people associate colors, or anything else for that matter, so completely with one gender or the other. Why can’t a boy get a purple folder? Why can’t a girl get a plastic frog to play with? And who the heck can determine that one particular [singlepic=835,350,350] Smitten—One of Aidan’s Favoritesstuffed animal is better suited for a boy vs. a girl! Come on! I personally know a boy whose favorite color is purple, several girls who love insects, reptiles, and amphibians, and my own son has every imaginable stuffed animal (including a pink hedgehog and a glittery bear with wings).

Having a son has really opened my eyes to how challenging it can be to be a boy growing up in our society. When I was a young girl growing up, I was what most everyone would call a “tomboy,” and while I would get an occasional comment (mostly by my one aunt who was so happy to finally have a girl in the family, and perhaps slightly disappointed when I didn’t succumb to society’s gender stereotypes), it was mostly accepted that I could like the color blue, play sports, climb trees, and not wear dresses! However, over the past seven years I have encountered numerous times the short sightedness of people when it comes to simple things, such as what color a boy likes or that a boy likes having fresh flowers in his room.

Aidan’s favorite color for a long time was pink (now it is orange), he has always preferred wearing bright colors and gets so frustrated with the dark, drab color choices of clothes in the boys sections at stores; he loves flowers and knows many of them by name; he likes hearts and peace symbols, and he loves cuddling with all his stuffed animals. Aidan also enjoys cars, playing pirates, building Legos, skateboarding, and climbing trees (along with so many other things). I think it is so important for people to not let the societal stereotypes get in the way of learning, exploring, and figuring out who your true self is. I believe it is when you can embrace all sides of yourself that you can then develop into a well-rounded individual.

I am flabbergasted at the way some adults perpetuate these stereotypes and then just brush it off when they are called out on upholding such notions. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there are gender differences and all societies do have gender roles and stratification (as a cultural anthropologist I have taken my fair share of gender studies classes, and have even taught the topic myself). But, as a mom to a seven-year old boy, I want to leave his interests and likes up to him; I do not want society to outline for him how he needs to be just because he’s a boy.

I can easily let passing comments from a store clerk or other unknown stranger end with a simple statement or two on my part. But, it is when these comments are made by people that we see on a regular basis that I have the most difficult time with. The most recent incident was at a local 4H group where we were packing gifts for less fortunate children. Comments were made by the adult facilitators to ensure that we avoided putting certain items in certain bags (e.g. no purple folders in the “boys” bags or no plastic frogs into the “girls” bags). I did speak up and voiced my opinion on this matter, and while there was a brief exchange on this topic, I mostly felt that my comments and concerns were dismissed. I struggle a bit with how to proceed with this. While there are a few people within this group whose company we enjoy as friends outside the meetings, overall, this is a group in which I don’t feel very invested. Also, I have other concerns with the group concerning issues of sustainability, cultural awareness, and so on–but these are topics for another day and another post.

What do you do when your free-range 7-year-old wants to be part of a group that conflicts with your values?

I’ve voiced my concerns and frustrations to Aidan and Mike. They both largely agree. Mike wants me to walk away from the group if they are unwilling to listen to reason–if they are unwilling to recognize that, as an organization with an educational mission for children, they need to demonstrate a more enlightened view of the world (or at least try). On the other hand, Aidan keeps telling me that he wants to continue going to this group, but I’m not quite sure why. He agrees wholeheartedly with me on these issues, but I think he’s not willing to walk away from the group over them. (He gets embarrassed if I voice my concerns too loudly in the group meetings.) He really wants to fit in, as I suppose many kids do, but Mike and I are not sure if we want him to fit in with this group, given their less-than-progressive attitudes. My dilemma is that we want Aidan to explore new avenues and make choices based on his interests, and we want to help him pursue his interests, but what if these interests conflict with our values as parents? Do we make him stop something because we don’t feel it’s in line with our own beliefs about the world and the values we hope to engender in our family? Or do I suck it up and stand by him since it’s something he wants to pursue? I want him to take part in activities that he desires, but at the same time I want to make sure that he sees that people need to stand up for what they believe in. My thought is that the answer to this problem lies somewhere in between. We need to find a balance to meet both our needs, but how to do this exactly is something I still need to figure out. Any suggestions?

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