Farnsworth House

The Farnsworth House, was designed and constructed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945-51. It is a one-room weekend retreat in a once-rural setting, located 55 miles (89 km) southwest of Chicago's downtown on a 60-acre (240,000 m 2) estate site, adjoining the Fox River, south of the city of Plano, Illinois. The steel and glass house was commissioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a prominent Chicago nephrologist, as a place where she could engage in her hobbies; playing the violin, translating poetry, and enjoying nature. Mies created a 1,500-square-foot (140 m 2) house that is widely recognized as an iconic masterpiece of International Style of architecture.  The house is currently operated as a house museum by the historic preservation group, National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

After completion of design, the project was placed on hold awaiting an inheritance from an ailing aunt. Mies was to act as the general contractor as well as architect. Work began in 1950 and was substantially completed in 1951. The commission was an ideal one for any architect, but was marred by a very publicized dispute between Farnsworth and Mies that began near the end of construction. The total cost of the house was $74,000 in 1951, or about $1,000,000 in 2006 dollars. A cost overrun of $16,000 over the approved pre-construction budget of $58,400, was due to escalating post-war material prices resulting from inflationary shortages arising from the mobilization for the Korean War.

The essential characteristics of the house are immediately apparent. The extensive use of clear floor-to-ceiling glass opens the interior to its natural surroundings to an extreme degree. Two distinctly expressed horizontal slabs, which form the roof and the floor, sandwich an open space for living. The slab edges are defined by exposed steel structural members painted pure white. The house is elevated 5 feet 3 inches (1.60 m) above a flood plain by eight wide flange steel columns which are attached to the sides of the floor and ceiling slabs. The slabs' ends extend beyond the column supports, creating cantilevers. The house seems to float weightlessly above the ground it occupies. A third floating slab, an attached terrace, acts as a transition between the living area and the ground. The house is accessed by two sets of wide steps connecting ground to terrace and then to porch. Mies found the large open exhibit halls of the turn of the century to be very much in character with his sense of the industrial era. Here he applied the concept of an unobstructed space that is flexible for use by people. The interior appears to be a single open room, its space ebbing and flowing around two wood blocks; one a wardrobe cabinet and the other a kitchen, toilet, and fireplace block (the "core"). The larger fireplace-kitchen core seems like a separate house nesting within the larger glass house. The building is essentially one large room filled with freestanding elements that provide subtle differentiations within an open space, implied but not dictated, zones for sleeping, cooking, dressing, eating, and sitting. Very private areas such as toilets, and mechanical rooms are enclosed within the core. Mies applied this space concept, with variations, to his later buildings, most notably at Crown Hall, his IIT campus masterpiece. The notion of a single room that can be freely used or zoned in any way, with flexibility to accommodate changing uses, free of interior supports, enclosed in glass and supported by a minimum of structural framing located at the exterior, is the architectural ideal that defines Mies' American career.

The 60-acre (240,000 m 2) rural site offered Mies an opportunity to bring man's relationship to nature into the forefront. Here he highlights the individual's connection to nature through the medium of a man-made shelter. Mies said: "We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and the human being to a higher unity". Glass walls and open interior space are the features that create an intense connection with the outdoor environment, while the exposed structure provides a framework that reduces opaque exterior walls to a minimum. The careful site design and integration of the exterior environment represents a concerted effort to achieve an architecture wedded to its natural context. Mies conceived the building as an indoor-outdoor architectural shelter simultaneously independent of and intertwined with the domain of nature. Mies did not build on the flood-free upland portions of the site, choosing instead to tempt the dangerous forces nature by building directly on the flood plain near the rivers edge. Philip Johnson referred to this type of experience of nature as "safe danger". The enclosed space and a screened porch are elevated five feet on a raised floor platform, just slightly above the 100 year flood level, with a large intermediate terrace level.

The house has a distinctly independent personality, yet also evokes strong feelings of a connection to the land. The levels of the platforms restate the multiple levels of the site, in a kind of poetic architectural rhyme, not unlike the horizontal balconies and rocks do at Wright's Fallingwater. The house is anchored to the site in the cooling shadow of a large and majestic black maple tree. As Mies often did, the entrance is located on the sunny side, facing the river instead of the street, moving visitors around corners and revealing views of the house and site from various angles as they approach the front door. The simple elongated cubic form of the house is parallel to the flow of the river, and the terrace platform is slipped downstream in relation to the elevated porch and living platform. Outdoor living spaces are extensions of the indoor space, with a screened porch (screens now gone) and open terrace. Yet the man made always remains clearly distinct from the natural by its geometric forms, highlighted by the choice of white as its primary color. Criticism The building design received accolades in the architectural press, resulting in swarms of uninvited visitors trespassing on the property to glimpse this latest Mies building. But as a result of the accusations contained in Edith Farnsworth’s lawsuit, the house became a prop in the larger national social conflicts of the McCarthy era. 

Large areas of glass wall, flat roofs, purging of ornament, and a perceived lack of traditional warmth and coziness were International Style features that were particular talking points of attack. Still, the Farnsworth House has continued to receive wide critical acclaim as a masterpiece of the modernist style, and Mies went on to receive the presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to American architecture and culture. Prominent architect and critic Philip Johnson was inspired by the design to build his own Glass House in 1947. In the 21st century, Pulitzer Prize winning architectural critics Paul Goldberger and Blair Kamin have both declared the house a masterpiece of modern architecture.


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