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Farnsworth House: A Look

By Madeline M. Nusser

farnsworth houseOne summer Sunday, I found myself running down the middle of South Michigan Avenue weaving through traffic and halting the bus that had deserted me at the Chicago Architectural Foundation (CAF). I was going to the Farnsworth House, a 58-mile drive southwest of Chicago, via the CAF’s bi-monthly bus tour. Although I made reservations in advance, purchased the $45 student ticket, and arrived on time—the tour had left me stranded. After arguing with the CAF staff, I caught up with the bus and panted excuses about why I was breaking in.

So began my not-so-peaceful pilgrimage to the serene countryside of Plano, Illinois, where European-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe constructed the canonical modern monument, the Farnsworth House. Built a half a century ago, the Farnsworth House is a pavilion-like structure made of glass and steel fully epitomizing Mies van der Rohe’s 1933 mantra that only with modern materials “can we articulate space freely, open it up and connect it to the landscape.” I began to investigate the house and its architect upon moving to Chicago, where I fell in love with Mies’s equally well-known, divergently scaled, steel and glass Lake Shore Drive apartment buildings and his large, but low-slung, campus buildings at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Last December, the Farnsworth House made national headlines during its pending purchase when it went on the auction block. Originally, the state of Illinois planned to purchase the Farnsworth House from then-owner Lord Peter Palumbo. The deal was severed in 2003 by Lisa Madigan, who remarked that although she is “an Attorney General, not a real estate agent,” the state does not need to spend $7 million on a single-family home. With this one comment, Madigan demeaned the Farnsworth House and devalued all of its antecedents.

For me, she put into debate what architecture means as an art form: does its importance lie in its original concept, in this case a mere weekend house, or in its mark on history?

I debated these ideas as the tour bus made its way out of Chicago to traverse county roads that lead to the isolated rural setting of the Farnsworth House. The bus parked at a small barn-like visitors’ center hawking Mies van der Rohe-inspired paraphernalia such as hard-edged clocks and steel tea filters. After a walk down a dirt-path tangled in poison ivy, the house came into view rather abruptly. Its exterior, shrouded by winding trees and set-back about a hundred yards from the gurgling Fox River, stood alone with an open clearing behind. Its glass skin, completely transparent even in the brilliance of noonday sun, conveyed a sensation of seamlessness with the surrounding landscape.

Yet there is nothing organic about the Farnsworth House, which stands about five feet above the ground, raised by white painted steel columns. Echoing the regidity of ancient Greek temples, the columns are, in actuality, the same I-beams that function as a structural necessity in skyscrapers, and appear as both structure and exoskeleton in all his buildings. Also Greek-inspired is the abundant use of white travertine marble that is used for the interior flooring, the exterior porch, steps and portico. The travertine creates a continuity, natural stone and brilliant white.

Our tour guide, handing us booties to put over our shoes so we would not leave our mark on the oft-bleached floor, gave us information about both Mies van der Rohe and the original owner, Edith Farnsworth, who commissioned the house in 1949. Complications arose by 1955 when Mies van der Rohe was over-budget and out of time. Additionally, Farnsworth was horrified by his refusal to make a closet. Mies van der Rohe reportedly told her, “It’s a weekend house. Hang your frock behind the bathroom door.” She ordered another architect to create a wardrobe that still stands on the southeast side of the open plan. Mies may not have wanted to give her a closet, but, hidden by gold-toned wood paneling, he created a space big enough for no less than two bathrooms, as well as a small utility space, where Palumbo installed air-conditioning.

While I took my last look at the Farnsworth House, others on the CAF tour, mostly architects, huddled in a group and bemoaned Palumbo and Farnsworth’s revisions. They were dismayed that the owners’ personal needs would be allowed to destroy the purity of the architect’s original Modernist concept. Like those on my tour, some of the house’s subsequent owners agreed.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois were able to purchase the house at auction after the state gave up their bid. The two organizations opened the house to the public in summer 2004, but they also may soon be implementing their ideas on what the public should or should not see. They are currently deliberating whether the house should be returned to its original state by removing the remnants left by previous owners.

Yet, ironically, this attitude is somewhat akin to Madigan’s in that the organizations would be imposing their idea of the architecture’s original concept while disregarding its history.

If you want to view its multi-layered history while it is still on display, the Farnsworth House is open 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $20 and you must call in advance (630-552-0052) for reservations. For more information go to www.farnsworthhouse.org. Although I advise against it, the CAF has bus tours on the following dates: September 10, 26; October 8, 24. The bus tour, including admission, is $45 for students. Information can be found at www.architecure.org.

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