There it is. My perfect Greek temple, the ultimate expression of art in nature, of architecture. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. Great art and great architecture work like this: you can visit it a hundred times and you see something new, learn something new, feel something new every single time. I discover it every time at Unity Temple and every time at the Farnsworth House. In the video we show visitors, John Bryan says there is no building more important in modern architecture. Dirk Lohan calls it a poem. It is a beautiful and perfect chord, a wonderful harmony of steel and glass and white and light wood and it floats above its site, resting loosely on the world, ready to rise like sound.
It is the autumnal equinox, which means the tourist season at Farnsworth House has 60 more days, and the attendance has already surpassed last YEAR, which was the highest attendance EVER, and all this despite the challenges of rebuilding from a 2008 flood, the shift of operations from Landmarks Illinois to the National Trust, and the challenge of trying to complete several repair projects, some of which were funded years ago.
The house is about its setting, and the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois, under the leadership of John Bryan, secured the house at auction in December 2003, saving it from being dismantled and moved away from its Fox River location. That location means floods, six of which have reached into the house over its 60 years, each officially a “100-year flood”. Many would like to move it to save it from future flooding, but it was built for flooding. It is steel and glass, designed and molded with the perfection that only Ludwig Mies van der Rohe could muster, his unerring precision modulating every element from the smallest window profile to the placement of I-beams that seemed magnetically attached to the deck and house, a floating and dynamic glass house that is about nature but also, so clearly and musically, about floating above nature.
I brought tours groups there Thursday and Friday and they loved it. Part of what is bringing the attendance numbers up is the creative programming that Site Director Whitney French has done, including the installation this summer of Virginia Tech’s Lumenhaus, an energy-positive portable house that not only produces more electricity than it consumes, but also recycles all of its grey water by means of ponds and plants that line the deck surrounding its sunshades and solar panels.
Lumenhaus was inspired by the Farnsworth House, as was the National Trust’s Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, designed by longtime Mies associate Philip Johnson and completed before (but designed after) the Farnsworth House.
If you read this blog much, you know I am pretty down on house museums. I am Chair of the Historic Sites Fund subcommittee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and I have studied historic sites all over the country over time and I know how hard it is for a site to make sense economically based on tourism and ticket sales alone. Ticket sales historically rarely exceed 20% of operating costs, so you need a vigorous and successful combination of bookstore/shop sales, special events, rentals, and installations like Lumenhaus that make the site NEW again every year or season so people keep coming back.
I think Farnsworth House is one of those rare sites, like Robie House or Fallingwater or Monticello, that can make sense as a house museum. No matter how beautiful, how rich and resonant a piece of architecture is, it still takes the creativity and 24/7 dedication of people like Whitney French to make it a success. The Farnsworth House is getting there.
Posts Tagged ‘John Bryan’
Well, it is finally here after years of planning. The Society of Architectural Historians, an international organization promoting the study of the built environment, is having its 63rd Annual Meeting in Chicago this week. I have the honor of being Local Chair and I am excited to welcome so many friends and colleagues to a city whose architecture has always been central to its identity.
Over 500 architectural historians from everywhere will be here, and many are taking tours of every kind of local landmark from the Gold Coast to the Farnsworth House; from Oak Park to Hyde Park; from the Reliance and Rookery and Marquette and Monadbock Buildings of the Loop to the grand mansions of the North Shore. I have Terry Tatum to thank for coordinating a dizzing array of tours led by local experts, and Sally Kalmbach for coordinating a medium-sized army of volunteers manning all of the scholarly paper sessions on Thursday through Saturday, as well as tours and special events. THANK YOU!
We kick it off with two all-day symposia on Wednesday – one on Historic Preservation, coordinated by Jim Peters of Landmarks Illinois and featuring the challenging topic of preserving public housing, including discussion of our efforts to create a public housing museum in Chicago. The other symposia focuses on landscape architecture and the direction of scholarship in this growing field. Wednesday evening one of my mentors, Robert Bruegmann, opens the conference with “Chicago: First City of American Architecture” although I can almost guarantee the talk itself will dissect that title.
The sessions proper kick off on Thursday with topics ranging from sustainabilities and superblocks to ancient Rome and Gothic in Latin America. Thursday evening we have the awards ceremony and a presentation by Alice Friedman, and Friday and Saturday morning we have more sessions, following by a day and a half of tours. Saturday night we are having a large benefit in the Gold Coast and the whole affair promises to be a whirlwind, especially for us locals pulled in a hundred directions. I presented a paper on Barry Byrne at the SAH Conference in Richmond, Virginia in 2002 and absolutely loved the event – took a fantastic tour of modernism and the recent past, saw the Jeffersonian rigour of the state capitol and the Victorian industry of Shockoe Slip, so this is a great honor to be welcoming the same scholarly crowd to the city I have never left.
APRIL 21 UPDATE:
Opening Day at SAH went well – saw my dear friends, session chairs from the panel I was on in ’02- Victoria Young and Christine Madrid French. Jim Peters set up a FANTASTIC Historic Preservation colloquium with three excellent speakers on the preservation of public housing. Elizabeth Milnarik gave a nicely illustrated, reasonably detailed history of public housing in America and Europe. Europe, never uncomfortable with the concept of a public realm, leapt into public housing after World War I, whereas America was still in the “philanthropy plus 5 percent” mode whereby a few wealthy individuals like Julius Rosenwald and Marshall Field created affordable housing via a limited profit private market.
Even in the great government era of the New Deal, Harold Ickes did not propose government built housing right away but eventually it happened – a series of low-rise projects that in many ways thrived for much longer than the 1950s-1960s segregated highrises we all remember. Mike Jackson spoke about preservation of public housing, including an award-winning 2006 project in Danville, IL that used the preservation tax credits AND secured LEED Gold status. He also noted – check this out – that ONE-QUARTER of the preservation tax credit projects in Illinois involve affordable housing. TAKE THAT, all you “either-or” folks. Finally, Sunny Fischer led her discussion of the National Public Housing Museum she has been spearheading with moving tales of her own – largely positive – experiences growing up in public housing in New York. She said the message she received as a child was simple: “my city, my government wanted us to make it.”
The public housing museum has an exhibit in the Merchandise Mart you can see right now. The Colloquium was followed by a tour of several sites, including the museum’s future home on Taylor Street in a one of the Jane Addams Homes built by the fed 70 years ago; the still-to-be-redeveloped and hopefully preserved Lathrop Homes, and several other sites.
The evening featured a very entertaining business meeting and powerpoint on SAH achievements by President Dietrich Neumann, and of course Bob Bruegmann, who asked whether Chicago was the first city of architecture and detailed a great variety of publications about Chicago architecture over the last century, giving us a nuanced picture of Chicago’s dominant narrative; its counter-narratives, and even its ongoing practice, that like all “Facts” serves narratives, counternarratives, ideologues and iconoclasts equally. Then he left it for us to decide whether Chicago really was the first city of architecture, but in a sense it was clear from the list that this is a city that tells itself stories about its architecture and has done so for at least four generations, embedding the concept of architectural distinction in its civic character. Whether Chicago is the first city of architecture may not be determinable, but it is a certainty that the first thing Chicago does is tell the world and itself about its architecture, and these narratives counter or canonical, have brought architects here to practice from all over the world for over a century. And this week they bring over 500 architectural historians.
September 25 UPDATE
And now it is finally over. Other highlights from SAH: Thursday night’s plenary speech by Alice Friedman at the Murphy Auditorium, which deftly combined the evolution of the discipline with her own pathbreaking investigations into the gendered nature of architecture and remained a rousing paean within and without that most deserving critique. I got to see far fewer paper sessions than I wanted, but each left me wanting more: I loved the discussion following “Counter-Histories of Sustainability” on Thursday, which revisited the 1960s and 1970s attempts at systems-based architecture, but goshdarnit aesthetics always creeps in. It seems every attempt at modernity and the discarding of traditional aesthetics ends up becoming aesthetic – or does it? It did strike me that the 1970s anti-aesthetic architectural ecologists were at least concerned with process and results: something the product-based LEED system may never get too. It was also fitting that the discussion was taking place more or less on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.
Saturday I was focused on getting the tours up and out, with some glitches but the weather could have been worse. Saturday night was the SAH benefit, honoring the Chicago 7 – those 1970s rebels who upturned the Modernist Miesian apple cart – and Chicago Women in Architecture. It was a fantastic event in the Merchandise Mart, and I got to chat with many great Chicago architectural and preservation people, including the incomparable John Bryan, who so graciously endowed the Chair I hold, Gunny Harboe, Jim Peters and David Bahlman, who made the trip from his new digs in Connecticut. Geoffrey Baer of Channel 11 was the MC and gave me a very kind shout-out during the proceedings. We shuttled some more tours off this morning and I met one of them to tour the River Forest Women’s Club this afternoon, that stellar story of a 10 Most Endangered (2005) building that within three years became the Preservation Project of the Year (2008) thanks to Paul and Ellen Coffey. They met all of the preservation standards in spades, and made it more environmentally friendly as well, putting in a geothermal system and cutting its heating costs by four-fifths. Preservation is Sustainability. And it often looks pretty darn good.