Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House are very alike, but their little differences are magnificent. Each is a glass box with an open plan of roughly the exact same size on a large estate for an individual, but Johnson’s home sits right on the land, while Mies’ home for Edith Farnsworth is increased above it. The Glass House blurs the distinction between structure and glass framing, while the Farnsworth House clearly expresses the construction. And of course one is painted black and one is white.
Johnson may have finished the Glass House in 1949, two years before Farnsworth House was constructed, but having seen a version of Mies’ design at MoMA in 1947, he was obviously poised to Mies. While the two homes are strongly connected formally, for Mies the home is part of a bigger idea about universal space that he had been exploring for decades and that would discover much grander fruition in a number of residential and office towers in the 1950s. In this sense the Farnsworth House is an incredibly important home for the architect, a small-scale experiment in his ideas. Matters weren’t as perfect for the client, as we’ll see, but the view of the home as a masterpiece of a contemporary architect has prevailed to this day.
Edith Farnsworth House in a Glance
Year constructed: 1951
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Location: Plano, Illinois
Viewing info: Individual and group tours available
Size: 1,500 square feet
More: 10 Must-Know Modern Homes
Farnsworth and Mies fulfilled at a dinner party held by mutual friends in November 1945. Farnsworth knew of his buildings and requested him to plan a weekend escape to get her 9 acres she owned in Plano, roughly 40 miles west of Chicago. Mies agreed to do the project that evening.
Accounts of their assembly and following working relationship signify that Farnsworth respected Mies’s imagination and gave him lots of leeway with the plan. She also liked the thought that her home can serve as a prototype for a new American architecture.
The weekend home sits on the banks of the Fox River, on land which would eventually mushroom to 62 acres from the initial 9. The home sits inside the flood plane, therefore Mies lifted it about 5 ft above the level of the river. In addition, he positioned the rectangular box parallel to the river, to benefit from these views to the south and into the clearing in the north.
The house consists of three flat planes: the floor of the home and porch, the roof, along with the lower porch. The home and adjoining porch occupy a 28- by 77-foot rectangle, while the lower porch is 22 by 55 feet, roughly the exact same dimensions as the enclosed portion of the home.
The two porches give the otherwise regular home some asymmetry. They also make sure that people going to the home approach it in a specific fashion, walking from the east and then visiting the home frontally in the south and then up the steps.
By comparison, the north side of the home is so regular that it borders dull. Nevertheless 1 detail (and remember, Mies is known for saying “God is in the details”) which comes across nicely in this opinion is the way the floor and ceiling extend past the columns.
This detail gives the impression that the two airplanes are being held (barely) between the columns, while highlighting the way the floor and roofing are somewhat of these columns, as if they can extend even further. In fact the beams of the floor and roofing are stored between the columns, welded to them so carefully that they seem to just “kiss” each other.
Whenever the Farnsworth House was under construction, Mies was working on two apartment buildings on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. While the house’s construction can be expressed on the outside, in the Lake Shore Drive buildings and towers the structural steel needed to be fireproofed (encased in concrete), therefore Mies chosen for smaller steel pieces on the outside to stand out for the construction.
This photograph, of the opinion Fox River in the porch, illustrates how Mies accentuated the landscape as a picture during the parallel planes of floor and ceiling. We can also see the roughly 2-foot-square grid where he founded the plan; every piece lines up with the grid.
What we don’t see are the screens Farnsworth had installed once she transferred in. These along with a wardrobe inside were taken care of by Mies’ workers, but the architect and client weren’t communicating at the moment. He sued Farnsworth for nonpayment, and she countersued, saying the home was unlivable. The courts sided with Mies on both lawsuits, but the entire undertaking scarred him so much that he never pursued another real estate commission.
The house’s entry is between the dining area and room inside the open area. Beyond is a piece of millwork that extends form the floor to the ceiling ; inside are two bathrooms, the kitchen cabinets, a fireplace and a mechanical core. In front of the millwork is your living room, seen here. In the backdrop is the apparel which Farnsworth had made following moving; to the side is your sleeping area.
Mies believed that a home with large expanses of glass would link people to nature in a deeper way than smaller windows, or even being outside. Appreciating nature as a picture was so just as important as being inside it. A home in character, like the Farnsworth House, subsequently supplied the ideal condition for this appreciation.
Even though the lawsuits brought the connection of client and architect into a bitter near, Farnsworth utilized the home for more than 20 years. Peter Palumbo bought the home and land in 1972; he removed the screens, added air conditioning and made extensive changes to the bigger grounds. In addition, he opened up the home for visits once he wasn’t in town.
In 2003 he put the home up for auction. Preservationists and the National Trust for Historic Preservation worked together so the NTHP could Buy the house and operate it as a house museum, such as Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut.
2 higher-than-average flooding in the previous twenty years sent the Fox River’s waters nicely above the floor level. In 1996 the home underwent recovery following the oceans peaked 5 ft above the floor, and in 2008 waters climbing 18 inches above the floor needed some repairs that were less extensive. Rising waters are threatening the home this season, but the NTHP had heard from the prior floods and enacted emergency measures to protect the interior.
Blaser, Werner. Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House: Weekend House. Birkhäuser, 1999. Cadwell, Michael. Strange Details. MIT Press, 2007.
Farnsworth House + The Glass House. Modern Views. Assouline, 2010.
Farnsworth House, National Trust for Historic Preservation
Frampton, Kenneth and Larkin, David. American Masterworks: The Twentieth Century House. Rizzoli, 1995. More: 10 Must-Know Modern Homes