Sunday, July 20, 2014

farnsworth house: midcentury modern minimalist miracle

We had the good fortune to spend the week of the 4th of July in Illinois and Indiana. My parents both hail from Indiana and my sweet cousin lives in Chicago. When we travel to the Chicago area, my cousin always indulges my architectural fantasies. She gave me a list of houses to pick from for this trip. Imagine my shock and awe when I looked through her links and brought up this home:

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois

OMG. I have seen the Farnsworth Home so many, many times in various books, touted as the quintessential example of mid-century modern minimalism. I never noticed it was near Chicago. SCORE.

Well...near Chicago is a bit of an exaggeration. It is about an 90 minutes east of where we were staying in Libertyville, IL (more towards the North side of Chicago). But it was a pleasant drive and we went in a convertible. (YAY CUZ).

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois

The Farnsworth House was built in 1951 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and is located near Plano, Illinois. The client was a well-to-do unmarried lady doctor. From the Farsnworth site:
First conceived in 1945 as a country retreat for the client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, the house as finally built appears as a structure of Platonic perfection against a complementary ground of informal landscape. This landscape is an integral aspect of Mies van der Rohe’s aesthetic conception. The house faces the Fox River just to the south and is raised 5 feet 3 inches above the ground, its thin, white I-beam supports contrasting with the darker, sinuous trunks of the surrounding trees. The calm stillness of the man-made object contrasts also with the subtle movements, sounds, and rhythms of water, sky and vegetation. 

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois

Above a little detail of the I-beams. This home is absolutely stunning. When they finally let you into it, the views are amazing. It is kind of like a tree house nestled amongst the foliage with views of the river.

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois


Dr. Farnsworth had the usual contentious relationship with her architect that we all eventually have. The project took too long, cost too much, and he wouldn't listen to her (what else is new). He was hell bent on creating a pristine example of minimalism, and Dr. Farnsworth wanted a closet. Women. The tour guide hinted that Dr. Farnsworth and Mies van der Rohe had a bit of an affair during the construction of the home. But, honestly, no one really has any proof of this, from what I have scanned through on the interweb.

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois

I am guessing the affair ended badly as they sued each other in 1953. She wasn't happy with the cost overruns and the construction delays. And he wasn't happy that she wasn't paying him for the cost overruns. Apparently Mies was super picky, for example selecting the marble stone for the floors piece by piece, personally, over several weeks. Mind you, the home cost $78K to construct in 1951. That is HUGE money, back in the day, for essentially a 1,500 square foot rural farmland weekend retreat ($648K in 2012 dollars... not counting the 60 acres of farmland).

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois


The kitchen is the ONLY area of the house that contains cabinets (both bathrooms -- yes somehow there are two--contain no cabinets). Mies expected his female client to keep all of her weekend possessions in the kitchen cabinets, including her clothes. Ms. Farnsworth insisted that a wardrobe be added.  The wardrobe has been removed due to the extensive flooding issues. Picture below shows the wardrobe in place. Kind of blocked the view? Mies probably hated it.

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois

The home is located near the Fox River on a flood plane. Mies positioned the home, on stilts more or less, five feet above the ground. Alas, this was not nearly enough.

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois
Courtesy of Chicago Tribune
In the last twenty years, the home has flooded at least twice, damaging the interiors substantially, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in restoration. The Farnsworth purists insist that the home is perfectly, aesthetically located on the site, and can never be moved. Therefore, the only prudent thing would be to build it on some sort of hydraulic device which would raise it off the flood plain during dangerous times.

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois


Seriously? Mies and Farnsworth would have never located this home here if they even suspected it would flood. I am sure both would approve of moving the house up the hill and out of harms way. Sometimes, in my humble opinion, historical preservation can go a little too far.

Side view facing the "bedroom" from a close by grove trees.

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois


Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois


Experimenting a little with panoramic photography. I like... (click on photo so see the photo across your screen in its full glory).

Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe, Plano Illinois

"Less is more." Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, architect of the Farnsworth house. Indeed.

Other mid-century modern architects:

13 comments:

  1. Seems I've heard of this house, but not sure. But I've never heard the client and architect background - so interesting, like how purist some people are to one detail, that they miss the likely intent or big picture.

    Historic preservation regardless of land issues and flooding, with such a great piece of architecture. Or the architect's disregard of storage and working out that picture. No wonder my mother said no man should be allowed design a kitchen, her special place - or was it a closet?

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    1. Great comment. The house is a work of art, and Dr Farnsworth eventually became frustrated that she was getting a work of art vs. a vacation home. However, from what we learned on tour and by reading, it was her own darn fault. She gave him free rein at the beginning to construct this kind of showpiece. She got frustrated that it went way over budget and was somewhat impractical. Although, the docent told me that she really didn't mind how impractical it was, she just wanted the wardrobe. Let me state one more time... the bathrooms have not one cabinet or drawer. Not a one.

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    2. Thanks. I just remembered this conversion from dance hall to house - though a rolling closet! Met the designer at a design event last fall, quite the legend in Marfa -
      http://www.dwell.com/my-house/article/dance-dance-renovation

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  2. I had to chuckle, because I too had no idea this house was in the Midwest. I always thought it was in New England somewhere. An incredible house - but more like a toy than a home. Jealous that you got to see it!

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    1. It is a toy sort of. But designed oh so well. And, keep in mind it's primary purpose was a weekend vacation retreat. There is some fun gossip about the Mies / Farnsworth relationship in this link. http://www.jetsetmodern.com/farnsworth.htm

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  3. I love the gossip! I'm dying to know if it's true. So great that you got to see it in person.

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    1. Dana you would have loved it. I was practically holding my breath the whole time walking around the place. It truly is a living piece of art. I don't hold it against Mies that it is so impractical, because his client was initially game for it. it appears she got cold feet the longer it progressed and the more money she sunk into it. Plus, maybe annoyed when Mies' attentions went elsewhere... Even as an architect/client relationship. It is possible they weren't involved personally at all except in the building of the home, and she may have been a little shocked that his attentions were just business. I have seen it before.

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  4. Rebecca - I've had the fortune to have gone to the Farnsworth house myself back in 2009. It is as spectacular as you describe, and I agree that it would be better to move it, though I guess the hydraulic lift idea would be suitable considering the house sits only on I-beams.

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  5. Wow incredible house, I never saw or heard about this type of house. It's interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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