Monday, October 6, 2008

The Farnsworth House By Mies van der Rohe

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.

The Farnsworth House: a pavilion in
a meadow
Gropius and Breuer's Chamberlain
House (1940) and
Rudolph and Twitchell's Healy Guest
House (1948-50), both cabins -onstilts
designed at roughly the same
time as the Farnsworth House
Mies's first built house, the Riehl
House of 1907
Two contrasting examples of Miesian
design in the 1920s:
The Hermann Lange House of 1927-
30, which is solid and block-like
The Barcelona Pavilion of 1928-9,
which is transparent and pavilion-like

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!'6
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.'
Seminal influences on Mies:
The bold, sharply-incised stone
facade of the Palazzo Pitti in
Florence, 1435
The rude honesty of Berlage:
Amsterdam Stock Exchange, 1903

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 horizontal 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 outward thrusting
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. The 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'.

Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, 1928-9

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

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 architects
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.

The structure
The basic structure of Farnsworth House consists of eight
wide-flange steel stanchions A, to which are welded two sets of
fascia channels to form a perimeter frame B at roof level, and a
similar perimeter frame C at floor level - see figure 40.
Sets of steel cross-girders D and E are welded to the longitudinal
channels, and pre-cast concrete planks I and N placed
upon these to form the roof and floor slabs respectively. The
loading imposed upon C by the floor construction is obviously
greater than that imposed on B by the roof, but for the sake of
visual consistency Mies has made them of equal depth - an
example of the primacy of 'form' over 'function' to which he
was in principle opposed,59 but which stubbornly emerges in
almost all his mature work.™
The steel stanchions stop short of the channel cappings,
making it clear that the roof plane does not rest on the columns
but merely touches them in passing, thus helping to create the
impression alluded to at the start of this essay - that the
horizontal elements appear to be held to their vertical supports
by magnetism.
Above the roof slab is a low service module containing water
tank, boiler, extract fans from the two bathrooms and a flue
from the fireplace. Beneath the floor slab is a cylindrical drum
housing all drainage pipes and incoming water and electrical

As the Farnsworth House is probably the most complete and
refined statement of glass-and-steel architecture Mies ever
produced - the ultimate crystallization of an idea, as Peter
Blake has put it- it is worth examining this aspect in detail.
Mies's admiration for the structural clarity of the steel frame
long predates his arrival in Chicago, and was no doubt motivated
by reasons both aesthetic and practical.61 Aesthetically the steel
frame lent itself to clear structural display, and was 'honest' and
free of rhetoric or historical associations - highly-prized
characteristics to the future-worshipping avant-garde of the
1920s. From a practical standpoint the steel frame allowed
open-plan interiors in which walls could be freely disposed,62
and even more importantly it seemed to hold the answer to
Mies's dream of traditional construction methods being
replaced by industrial systems in which all the building parts
could be factory-made and then rapidly assembled on-site.63
His move to Chicago in 1938 brought him to a city with
unparalleled expertise in steel construction. Until then he had
been able to use the steel frame only in a semi-concealed way;64
but after 1937-8 the nakedly exposed rolled steel beam,
uncamouflaged by covering layers of 'architecture' (except
where required by fire-safety codes), would begin to form the
basis of his most characteristic designs.
But whereas American builders used the steel frame with
no-nonsense practicality,65 the European Mies had different
priorities. Ignoring his own arguments of fifteen years earlier
that 'form is not an end in itself',66 and that the use of materials
should be determined by constructive requirements, he set
about refining and intellectualizing the steel frame in what may
best be described as a quest for ideal Platonic form.67
Thus, while the American avant-garde constructed their
steel houses on the practical and economical balloon-frame
principle, with slender steel members spaced fairly closely
together (see for instance Richard Neutra's Lovell 'Health'
House of 1927-9 and Charles Eames' Case Study House of
1949), Mies used heavy steel sections, spaced widely apart
and with no visible cross-bracing to give an unprecedentedly
open appearance (see especially his Farnsworth House and
New National Gallery). For added character he chose for his
stanchions not the commonly-used steel profiles of the time
but a wide-flanged profile notable for its handsome proportions
and precision of form.
Mies also departed from standard Chicago practice in his
steel-jointing techniques. Flanged steel sections are popular
in the construction industry partly for the ease with which they
may be bolted or riveted together. The flanges are easily drilled,
holes can take the form of elongated slots to accommodate
slight inaccuracies, and all the basic operations are speedy
and straightforward.
Mies used conventional bolted connections in the less visible
parts of his structures, but in exposed positions he wished his
elegant steel members to be displayed cleanly, uncluttered by
bolts, rivets or plates; and here he defied normal practice by
using more expensive welded joints, preferably concealed and
invisible. If the weld could not be totally hidden he would have
the steel sections temporarily joined by means of Nelson stud
bolts and cleats, apply permanent welding, and then burn off the holding bolts and plug the holes. The steel surfaces would
then be ground smooth to give the appearance of being formed
of a single continuous material without breaks or joints. Finally,
to ensure a smooth and elegant appearance he had the steel
sections grit-blasted to a smooth matt surface, and the entire
assembly primed and given three coats of paint.
The effect of this sequence of operations in the Farnsworth
House was, as Franz Schulze has commented, almost to deindustrialize
the steel frame, taming the mighty product of blast
furnace, rolling mill and electric arc into a silky-surfaced,
seemingly jointless white substance of Platonic perfection.

'In summerthe great room floats
above a green meadow, its visual
boundaries extending to the leafy
screen of deciduous trees encircling
the house, and the high sun
bouncing off the travertine surface
of the covered terrace...'

Other materials
Passing on from the steel-and-glass envelope, the other materials
used in the Farnsworth House are rigorously restricted to
travertine (floors), wood (primavera for the core walls, teak for
the wardrobe) and plaster (ceilings).
The range of colours is equally limited, the better to set off
the few artworks and carefully-chosen items of furniture inside,
and the framed views of nature outside - white columns and
ceiling, off-white floors and curtains, and pale brown wood.
Such sobriety was a long-standing Miesian characteristic. In
1958 he told the architect and critic Christian Norberg-Schulz:
'I hope to make my buildings neutral frames in which man and
artworks can carry on their own lives ... Nature, too, shall have
its own life. We must beware not to disrupt it with the colour of
our houses and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring
nature, houses and human beings together into a higher unity.

Steel frame
A -Steel stanchion
B -Steel channels forming perimeter frame at roof level
C -Steel channels forming perimeter frame at floor level
D -Steel cross-girders at roof level
E -Steel cross-girders at floor level
F -Intermediate mullion built up from flat steel bars

Floor construction
G -Waterproof membrane on
H -Foam glass insulation on
I -Precast concrete planks
J -Travertine slabs on
K -Mortar bed on
L -Crushed stone on
M -Metal tray on
N -Lightweight concrete fill on precast concrete slabs

If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth
House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed
from outside ... it becomes a part of a larger whole.

As one would expect of Mies, the use of materials in the
Farnsworth House is immaculate.69 The American journal
Architectural Forum commented that the Italian travertine slabs
that form the floors of house and terrace were fitted to the steel
frames 'with a precision equal to that of the finest incastro
stonework', and that the plaster ceiling had 'the smoothness of
a high-grade factory finish' 7°
Looking at the details more closely, one discerns a typically
Miesian grammar that places his classically-inspired detailing
at the opposite pole to that represented by arts and craftsinfluenced
designers such as Greene and Greene." Whereas
the Greene brothers exuberantly celebrate the act of joining
materials, with an abundance of highly visible fasteners
intimating what goes on behind the surface, Mies hides his
fixings deep within the structure so as to leave his surfaces
smooth and unbroken.
The joints between components also display a characteristically
Miesian grammar. Wherever two adjoining components
are structurally unified, as in the case of steel members welded
together, Mies expresses unification by making the meetingpoint
invisible - hence the process already described of
grinding, polishing, priming and painting aimed at making an
assembly of separate steel members look like a single,seamless casting. This approach is first seen in the X-crossing
of his Barcelona Chair, whose appearance Adrian Gale has
compared with those curviform eighteenth-century chairs
whose legs and rails are fluidly shaped, and invisibly jointed, to
convey an impression of the whole frame having been carved
from a single block of wood.
But wherever two adjoining components are connected
without being structurally fused, as in the case of stone slabs,
timber panels or screwed (not welded) steel members, Mies
takes the converse approach and emphasizes their separate
identities by inserting between them a neat open groove. In the
Farnsworth House such an indentation separates the plaster of
the ceiling from the steel frames that hold the glass walls.
While the use of a groove between adjoining elements was
not invented by him (it occurs in the work of both Schinkel and
Behrens, the latter using it for instance to separate window or
doorframes from adjoining wall surfaces), Mies came gradually
to replace most of the traditional cover strips with 'reveals' or
'flash gaps' - the respective American and British terms for the
separating groove. The process may be traced as follows.
In his pre-1920 houses, from the Riehl House to the Urbig
House of 1914, Mies generally used conventional interior trim to
cover building joints. In his Lange House he was still using
cornices, architraves, skirtings and other cover mouldings, but
reduced now to simple flat strips.72 In the Barcelona Pavilion he
took the last step: there are no longer any skirtings or cornices,
no column bases or capitals, and no applied trim of any kind
except for glazing beads around the glass screens. Surfaces are clean and sheer, the junctions between them unconcealed.
But cover strips over the joints in a building have a function
and cannot simply be abolished. Where separate components
or different materials meet, the fit is inevitably imperfect, leading
to an unsightly crack. The crack worsens as repeated differential
movement causes the gap to widen and become ragged - a
process called 'fretting' - and some form of camouflage must
be devised. The traditional cover strip disguises the joint by
concealment; the open groove does so by making the crack
less obtrusive, an observer's eye tending to 'read' the straightedged
groove rather than the irregular crack-line meandering
within it. After about 1940 this was Mies's preferred method for
detailing all building joints. It is also of course an instance of the
phenomenon of 'inversion' noted on p.13, the open groove
being the counterform of the cover strip.

Internal environment
As regards thermal comfort, the Farnsworth House performed
poorly before the implementation in the 1970s of corrective
measures. In hot weather the interior could become oven-like
owing to inadequate cross-ventilation and no sun-screening
except for the foliage of adjacent trees. To create some crossventilation
occupants could open the entrance doors on the
west and two small hopper windows on the east, and activate
an electric exhaust fan in the kitchen floor, but these measures
were often inadequate. In cold weather the underfloor hotwater
coils produced the pleasant heat output characteristic of
such systems (partly radiant, and with temperatures at head level not much higher than at floor-level), but insufficient in midwinter.
Underfloor systems also have a long warming-up period
that is ill-suited to an intermittently occupied house. To increase
the supply of heat, and give quicker warming, hot air could be
blown into the living area from a small furnace in the utility room.
There was also a somewhat ineffective fireplace set into the
south face of the central core, facing the living area, which it is
said to have covered with a layer of ash.
The worst cold-weather failing was the amount of condensation
streaming down the chilled glass panes and collecting
on the floor - one of Dr Edith Farnsworth's complaints in the
1953 court case as described on p.15. This was an elementary
design fault whose consequences Mies must have foreseen
and could have avoided, but presumably chose to ignore so as
not to destroy the beautiful simplicity of his glass-and-steel
As regards electric lighting, the living and sleeping areas are
illuminated by uplighting reflected off the ceiling,augmented by
freestanding chrome lamps. The quality of the lighting thus
produced is entirely to the present owner's satisfaction.

Rainwater drainage
Efficient rainwater disposal requires sloping surfaces, a characteristic
that is somewhat at odds with the perfect horizontals of
Mies's design, but the problem is neatly solved in the Farnsworth
House. Behind its level fascia the roof surface slopes down to a
single drainage pipe directly above the utility room stack. The
steel fascia and its capping stand sufficiently high above the
roof surface to conceal the sloping roof from all surrounding
sight-lines, and to prevent water spilling over the edge and
staining the white paint.
The travertine-paved terrace has a perfectly level upper
surface and yet remains dry. This has been achieved by laying
the slabs on gravel beds contained in sheet-metal troughs with
water outlets at their lowest points (see figure 40). Rainwater
therefore drains down between the slabs, through the gravel
beds and out via the base outlets.

The Farnsworth House expresses to near perfection Mies van
der Rohe's belief in an architecture of austere beauty, free of
historical allusion or rhetoric, relying on clean forms and noble
materials to epitomize an impersonal 'will of the age' that
stands aloof from such ephemeralities as fashion or the
personal likes and dislikes of individual clients.74 In its very
perfection, by these exalted criteria, lie the building's great
strengths but also its weaknesses.
The first strength is its success as a place, where the house
goes far towards realizing that vision of the dwelling as a
spiritual space expressed three decades earlier by Ebeling,75
and again in 1951 (the very year of its completion) in a noteworthy
essay by the German philosopher Heidegger.76
The manner in which man, architecture and nature have been
brought together on this riverside meadow creates a magical
sense of being within nature, not separated from it as in
traditional buildings. From their glass-enclosed belvedere residents may tranquilly observe the surrounding meadow and
trees change character as one season gives way to the next,
the woodland colours heightened by the white framing, and the
hourly fluctuations of light subtly reflecting off the white ceiling.
As Peter Carter (who has stayed in the Farnsworth House in
all seasons) has observed:
'In summer the great room floats above a green meadow, its
visual boundaries extending to the leafy screen of deciduous
trees encircling the house, and the high sun bouncing off the
travertine surface of the covered terrace to wash the ceiling
with a glowing luminosity. On sunny days the white steel
profiles receive bright articulation and precise modelling from
the sun's rays; on dull days the diffuse light will still pick out the
profiles of these architectural elements even when viewed from
far away in the meadow. Summer is also the season of truly
operatic storms: when witnessed from the glass-walled interior
high winds, torrential rain and chunky hail, accompanied by
deafening thunder and spectacularly dramatic lightning, leave
an indelible impression of nature's more aggressive aspect.
'In autumn the green turns to a golden glow, to be followed
by the enchantment of winter when the prairy becomes whiteblanketed
for weeks on end, the snow lit by a low sun and the
bare trees affording long views across the frozen Fox river. By
day the slanting sunlight is reflected from the snowy surface on
to and into the house, projecting images of nature on to the
folds of the curtains and creating a softly luminous interior
ambience; by night the glittering snow reflects bright moonlight
into the house, mysteriously diminishing the boundary between the man-made interior and the natural world outside.
'As winter passes the landscape becomes alive with the
fresh colours and fragrances of spring foliage, the latter slowly
closing in once again to define the secluded domain of the
home meadow.'
The diurnal cycle is as delightful. Of the sleeping area to the
east, a guest who stayed the night wrote that 'the sensation is
indescribable-the act of waking and coming to consciousness
as the light dawns and gradually grows. It illuminates the grass
and trees and the river beyond; it takes over your whole vision.
You are in nature and not in it, engulfed by it but separate from
it. It is altogether unforgettable.'77 Another frequent visitor adds:
The sunrise, of course, is ravishing. But the night as well,
especially during thunderstorms. Snowfalls are magical. And I
recall times when the river water rose almost to the level of the
floor, but not quite, so that we had to locomote by canoe... I
cannot recall a dull moment here."8
In sum: 'For those who have been fortunate enough to live in
it the healing qualities of the Farnsworth House confirm its
status as the nonpareil of country retreats.' (Peter Carter)
The second great strength of the Farnsworth House is its
perfection as an artefact. Steel, glass and travertine have been
integrated into a classical composition in which everything
looks right, from overall form down to the tiniest detail. The
result stands as an object lesson for all designers, and the core
of the lesson is that excellence cannot be achieved without an
insistenceon fine materials, consummate details and unremitting
design effort. This is especially true of 'honest' modern design,
in which components and joints are nakedly displayed as in a
Greek temple. Unlike traditional buildings, whose complex
mouldings and overlapping finishes and coverings may conceal
a host of imperfections, the clarity of such design allows few
hiding places, and it requires a Miesian drive for perfection to
achieve the results seen at Piano.79
Turning to weaknesses, the case against the Farnsworth
House is that it pretends to be what it is not in three respects:
as an exemplar of industrial materials and construction
methods; as an exemplar of rational problem-solving design;
and as a reproducible 'type-form' that might be widely adopted
for other dwellings-all of these being self-proclaimed aims of
Miesian design.80
On the first point, the Farnsworth House uses rolled steel
sections and plate glass to present itself as a model of industrial
-age construction when in fact it is an expensive artwork
fabricated largely by handcraft. A case for the defence was
suggested in 1960 by the architect and critic Peter Blake: that in
an age of throw-away products and, increasingly, throw-away
architecture, Mies was legitimately creating prototypes that the
construction industry of the future might strive to emulate; that
he saw his role as that of directing the course of industry, not
slavishly following it.81 Forty years on it looks as though Mies
may yet be vindicated - industrial technology is producing
objects of increasing perfection, and moving away from
standardized towards customized production; and twenty-firstcentury
industry could conceivably become capable of
delivering buildings of Miesian quality at normal cost.
On the second charge, it is undeniable that the Farnsworth
House suffers from serious and elementary design faults. It was
perfectly predictable that a badly-ventilated glass box, without
sun-shading except for some nearby trees, would become
oven-like in the hot Illinois summers, and that single-thickness
glass in steel frames, devoid of precautionary measures such
as convection heaters to sweep the glass with a warm air
current, would stream with condensation in an Illinois winter.
Mies's disregard of such elementary truths illustrates his
greatest weakness as an architect - namely, an obsession with
perfect form so single-minded that awkward problems were
loftily disregarded.K
That brings us to the third of the points raised above -
whether the Farnsworth House might serve as a reproducible
'type-form'. It seems clear that Mies intended the concept of
the Farnsworth House for wider application. His broadly similar
50 ft by 50 ft (15m x 15m) House project of 1950-1, which he
reportedly thought suitable for mass-production for American
family housing,83 was open-plan and glass-walled, and shared
with the 55 ft by 29 ft (16.8m x 8.8m) Farnsworth House a lack
of privacy, lack of storage space, and very little adaptability
apart from the occupants' freedom to move the furniture. For
normal living these are crippling defects.
Though Mies insisted to the end of his days that open
interiors were practical and preferable to conventional rooms,84
this cannot possibly be true for dwellings unless they are large
enough to ensure privacy by distance - which means very large
indeed: it is significant that the over 80 ft x 50 ft (24m x 15m)

open-plan living room of the successful Tugendhat House is
three-and-a-half times the size of an entire floor of the Riehl
House or Perls House. As to storage space, it is difficult to
imagine a family inhabiting the 50 ft by 50 ft house - or even the
60 ft x 60 ft (18m x 18m) version - when the bachelor aesthete
Philip Johnson's 56 ft by 32 ft (17m x 9.8m) single-space 1949
Glass House at New Canaan depended on the existence of
several nearby buildings to which possessions, guests and
other intrusions of everyday life could be conveniently
banished. In this connection Peter Blake writes that the
traditional Japanese open plan that so inspired Frank Lloyd
Wright and other twentieth-century architects depended
absolutely, even in that age of sparse possessions, on servants
and subservient wives constantly spiriting away the clutter of
everyday living into special areas outside the open plan.85
Clearly the Farnsworth House fails as a normal dwelling, and
as a prototype for normal dwellings. But turning to happier
things, it undeniably provides a supreme model for a belvedere,
a garden pavilion or even a holiday dwelling, provided the client
truly understands what he or she is getting, as the unfortunate
Dr Farnsworth probably did not. One of the contractors on her
house, Karl Freund, later told the writer David Spaeth, 'she
didn't understand the house. Mies should have made it clearer
to her what she was getting.'86 Buildings very obviously inspired
by the Farnsworth House include the 1970 Tallon House in
Dublin, Ireland by Ronnie Tallon; the 1992 Villa Maesen at
Zedelgem, Belgium by Stephane Beel; and the 1998 Skywood
House in Middlesex, England by Graham Phillips.87
In sum: the crystalline masterpiece on the riverside at Piano
is a rare building for a rare client, to be emulated selectively and
with very great care.

In 1971 Dr Edith Farnsworth vacated the famous pavilion that
had become so deeply intertwined with her life and would
always bear her name. Her original devotion to the house had
evaporated in the quarrel with Mies: she never furnished it
properly and angrily discouraged visits. She had nevertheless
continued to own and use it until finally demoralized by a new
In the 1960s the Board of Supervisors of Kendall County
decided to widen and re-align the road and bridge along the
western boundary of the site. These works required the
purchase of a 60m (200 ft) wide strip of Dr Farnsworth's land, a
proposal she vigorously contested. There followed a painful
battle with the County authority, culminating in a court hearing
after which the ground was compulsorily purchased. In 1967
the authorities built a new road that was twice the width of the
old, raised on an embankment, 45m (150 ft) closer to the house
and clearly visible therefrom. The traffic was now faster and
noisier than before, and audible from the house.
The once quiet and secluded retreat was no longer quite so
magical, and in 1968 Dr Farnsworth advertised it for sale. Thus,
with tragic symmetry, her twenty-year occupation of a house
she had commissioned with love and enthusiasm ended as it
had begun-with a traumatic court hearing ending in defeat.88
The offer to sell came to the notice of Mr Peter (now Lord)
Palumbo, a London property developer and lover of modern
architecture with a particular respect for the works of Mies van
der Rohe. Knowing of Dr Farnsworth's severe reputation he
risked entering the grounds to look at the house, and decided at
once that he must buy. Taking his life in his hands, as he put it,
he knocked on the door. 'I essentially bought the house that
afternoon', he later recalled, 'but she was a difficult, ferocious
woman and we didn't really complete the deal until 1972.'
Lord Palumbo's original dream that Mies van der Rohe might
be commissioned to restore to perfection his own twenty-yearold
building was cruelly thwarted when the latter died in 1969.
The commission was therefore given in 1972 to Dirk Lohan,
Mies's grandson and a partner in Conterato, Fugikawa and
Lohan, the successor-office to Mies's atelier.85
The principal works required were the following.90
With respect to structure, the flat roof (an inherently troubleprone form of construction in cold climates'1) had deteriorated
quite badly: condensation had caused staining, bubbling and
cracking of the plastered underside, and the paint finish on the
latter had begun to peel away. To improve its performance a
vapour barrier was installed above the plaster, additional
insulation laid above the pre-cast concrete planks, and a new
waterproof membrane laid on the upper surface. On the
underside the damaged plaster and paint were replaced.
The mosquito screens were removed from the terrace, the
white finish to all steelwork was stripped back to the primer
coat and repainted, and all the glass panels were replaced.
With respect to services, all the existing installations received
a major overhaul. The original space-heating principles (floorembedded
coils for main heating, augmented by fan-induced
hot air for quick warming-up) were left unchanged, but the
oil-fired heating system, which was dirty and cumbersome,
was converted to electricity. All the wiring in the house was
replaced. The 'almost nothing' hearth with its propensity for
spreading ash was given atravertine platform. Air-conditioning
(a rare luxury when the Farnsworth House was designed in the
1940s) was newly installed, and the plant concealed above the
service core.
And finally the interior, which Dr Farnsworth had filled with a
miscellany of inappropriate articles (see for instance the photo
on p.21 of Schulze, The Farnsworth House), was at last furnished
as first intended. Her roller blinds were replaced with off-white
curtains as envisaged by Mies, and the prosaic furniture
replaced by a few classic pieces placed almost as sparingly and precisely as exhibits in an art gallery. The black glass table
with chrome legs seen near the entrance in some published
photographs is a rare survivor of the Barcelona Pavilion.
Turning from the building to its setting, Lord Palumbo immediately
removed the crazy-paving pathway to the front steps
and put in hand a gradual improvement programme for the
entire site, which had been neglected for twenty years.
During her ownership Dr Farnsworth had bought an additional
55 acres of land to the east of the original seven-acre site,
creating the potential for a relocated and more discreet car
access route. Now Lord Palumbo commissioned the American
garden designer Lanning Roper, a devotee of informal English
garden design, to replan the landscape substantially.
In its original state the house looked out east, north and west
on terrain with grassland, natural shrub and a scattering of
trees. At first Lord Palumbo tried to enhance the sense of unspoilt
nature by allowing the grass surrounding the Farnsworth House
to grow tall, in effect creating a meadow. But the long grass
proved difficult to cut and became a fertile breeding-ground for
mosquitoes. The grass is now regularly mown, with the cutters
set at their highest level.
Lanning Roper planted trees to the east and west, leaving
the space directly behind and north of the house as a tract of
lawn that slopes lazily upward toward River Road. This open
space he filled with daffodils, literally tens of thousands of them,
which blossom progressively in the spring, leaving the ground
decorated with patches of yellow and white. The moment of
bloom is brief but compelling, and the landscape hardly less compelling later, when the flowers give way to a meadow wholly
of summery green.'92
The new stands of trees to the north, east and west now
provide an enclosure for the house and the scenic backdrop
that is seen through the transparent walls.
Roper also replanned the access route, moving the access
gate nearly 200m (650 ft) to the east of the original, out of sight
of the house, and laying a gravel drive that sweeps gently round
from the north to terminate in a new parking area 45m (150 ft)
from the south-eastern corner of the house. When visitors
arrive at this riverside parking space they leave their cars, cross
a modest timber bridge that arches over a small stream, and
make their way to towards the house through a landscape
dotted with trees. There is no pathway across the meadow, so
that the house is gradually revealed through the foliage.
The new approach, which involves walking the full length
of the house before turning at right angles towards the flight
of access steps, has therefore become more dramatic than
the simple 'house in a meadow' arrangement created by
The above improvements deserve high praise, but many
visitors have felt that the road realignments by Kendall
County, the designation of the opposite river bank as a
public park, and the creation of relatively lawn-like grass
in place of the original untended meadow, have combined
to transform an isolated retreat into what is essentially a
suburban house - a depressing fate shared by several
other icons of twentieth-century architecture including Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye and Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin

A worse development has been a steep rise in the floodlevels
of the Fox River. Mies van der Rohe's enquiries in 1946
established a maximum water level over the past century of
about 0.9m (3 ft) above ground-level, and he considered it
safe to locate the floor 1.6m (5 ft 3 in) above the plain. But,
partly as a result of the outward expansion and paving-over
of Chicago's environs, the volume of water run-off increased
and flood levels began to rise dramatically in the 1950s.
In 1954, three years after Dr Farnsworth moved in, the
spring flood rose 1.2m (4ft) above the pavilion floor. Carpets
and furniture were ravaged but the water-marked wooden
core unit was fortunately reparable.
In 1996 came a truly gigantic downpour, with 0.45m (18 in)
of rain falling in 24 hours, most of it in eight hours. The
resulting floodwaters broke two of the glass walls, rose 1.5m
(5 ft) above the pavilion floor, swept away artefacts, and
ruined not only carpets and furniture but also the woodveneer
finish to the core. An unpleasant layer of mud and silt
covered the travertine floor and the damage came to over
As Lord Palumbo has put it, the house had to be 'taken
apart and put together again', and DirkLohan, now of the
architectural firm Lohan Associates, was commissioned to
carry out the necessary restoration.84 The timber core unit
was so badly damaged that it had to be discarded and built
anew. As the once-plentiful primavera was now almost extinct Dirk Lohan had to search for months to find wood of
the original colour. The new plywood panels were attached
to their frames by clips rather than screws so that the panels
could be quickly dismantled and stored on top of the core
unit in case of flood.
In February 1997, even before the above restoration had
started, there was yet another flood, rising to only 0.30 m (1
ft) above floor level but confirming that the Farnsworth
House must henceforth survive in conditions very different
from those for which it had been designed. There has been
talk of installing jacks beneath the footings, able to lift the
entire structure in case of flood, but this phenomenally
expensive solution remains conjectural. Since buying the
house Lord Palumbo has spent roughly $1 million on repairs
and improvements, mostly in restoration work after the
floods of 1996 and 1997, and one can understand a pause
for deliberation. These days the water regularly rises two or
three steps above the lower terrace, and occasionally a foot
or so above internal floor level, bringing in a layer of silt but
not (so far) causing ruin.
Despite the double irony that a dwelling designed as a
private retreat is now open to the public, and that its survival
is being threatened by the element it was specifically
designed to surmount, this chronicle can nevertheless end
on an uplifting note. Mies van der Rohe's glass pavilion,
having survived fifty troubled years, has become one of the
most revered buildings of the twentieth century, constantly
visited by admirers from all over the world.


  1. excellent article on a great home. thanks for the information

  2. well...very nice piece....but this is EXACTLY what lord peter palumbo wrote on farnsworth house....however...there the print is not very clear so thanx for posting this

  3. Hi, this article is really nice. Thanks for sharing these wonderful pics. I own a granite worktops website that might be useful for your visitors. Have a look!


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