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 ‘Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’
In three weeks I will be speaking at Modernism Week in Palm Springs; my last post “What Is Modern” got a ton of hits; and I have just finished a draft of the Barry Byrne book following my JSAH article (still free during February 2011 online) “Barry Byrne: Expressing the Modern in 1920s Europe” so I have been thinking about Modernism a lot. Barry Byrne wrote a letter to Lionel Feininger at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s disparaging the term, and he was right: What does “Modern” mean, especially now that it is overwith and reborn as a nostalgic style courtesy of Mad Men and Dwell magazine?
a Barry Byrne church in Pierre, SD Photo by Katherine Shaughnessy
So I have been trying to figure our another term for it, like “20th Century” or “Late Industrial” but none are adequate and we do have to recall that Barry Byrne and all of his friends like Mies and Oud and Corbu were actively proselytizing “modern” whatever the heck it was. It was a movement. It certainly lasted two-thirds of the 20th century and it had some formal consistencies like machined finishes and ornamental abstraction or negation, but as my article noted, there were lots of different modernisms from the revolutionary asceticism of Loos to the painterly formalism of Corbu, the expressive romanticism of Mendelsohn, and the reborn classicism of Mies.
or Dudok’s EuroPrairie
So Felicity has been thinking about boots and last night I looked at the latest pair of boots and they looked a little Emma Peel and a little English riding but mostly they were just a combination of very deft lines and contours. And they lacked ornament, unlike the ones with stitching along the sole or the various ones with buckles near the upper calf and it occurred to me that there is an attempt in many times and places to achieve aesthetic beauty without ornament, simply by skillful disposition of lines and forms and scale and proportion.
In ancient architectural terms I am leaving commoditas and utilitas aside here to focus on venustas and it seems a big piece of the modernist project was finding the simplest, sharpest lines between creation and venustas. Now we know from Mies that simplicity often took a hell of a lot of work, like the effort to polish away the ship welds that keep the Farnsworth House afloat.
Mies’ aesthetic was classicizing and quite different from his onetime student Bertrand Goldberg, who joined Felix Candela and other 1960s expressionists to find beauty in the potential of curving concrete structural systems. His Prentice Women’s Hospital – the current preservation cause in Chicago – is a brilliant example of beauty united with parabolic concrete vaults that grant a 45-foot (15m) cantilever.
Now, normally we consider Mies to be of one modernist tradition and Goldberg of another, but it doesn’t matter whether the line is curving or straight – both are seeking expression through an economy of form, without applied ornament, not unlike that pair of boots, which is seductive without being explicit about it. No neon needed.
Einsteinturm, Photograph by Rolf Achilles
But what about the ornamental modernists, like Barry Byrne? In my book I note that he used ornament as an extension of the wall plane. At St. Thomas Apostle the exterior brick wall serrates and folds at the corners, expressing itself in the material alone, a la Mies, but at the top Alfonso Iannelli’s ornament creates a dramatic and perhaps slightly precious fringe at the skyline, but it reads I think as an extension of the wall.
Photograph copyright Felicity Rich, 2006
But Loos actually threw us off when he said ornament was crime. When I tour downtown Chicago, I always note the 1889 Monadnock Building, the first sculpturally modern building without ornament. And across the street is Mies’ Federal Center, which is covered in ornament.
Huh? you say – Mies doesn’t use ornament! Of course he does, but it isn’t eggs and darts and guilloches and dentils, it’s I-beams. Loads of ‘em. They don’t support the structure and each is only two stories high, so they might help hold the windows a tad but mostly they make the building look a heck of a lot better. Venustas. Just because an ornament doesn’t look like a basket overgrown with acanthus leaves doesn’t mean it isn’t ornament.
another copyright Felicity Rich photo of a Barry Byrne building
another copyright Felicity Rich photo of a Barry Byrne building.
There is an attempt at clarity and unity that we identify with modernism, but I would argue that striving for economy of formal expression existed in many times and places, from Italy 2000 years ago to Ireland 1000 years ago to India 300 years ago to India 50 years ago, and that is only thinking about countries that start with “I.”
If you look at the career of a modernist who moved from Expressionism to Rationalism, like Oud or even Piet Mondrian, you see that one key to this movement or style or what have you is not simply simplicity or even simply an attempt to find venustas through an economy of form and material. It is also continuity, the most often overlooked aspect of Modernism.
Oh, heck, time to throw in Rietveld as long as we are being formalist….
But focus for a second on this Mondrian, which falls in between the evolution described visually above, and see the sense of continuity and connection. It is also there in Dulles airport, and this lovely Saarinen detail that lets a brick wall go through a glass wall without breaking continuity.
Continuity is the limited-access highway in planning and the fenetre en longeur and the machined surface and the streamlined railroad engine and continuity is there in Barry Byrne’s wall because even if there is fringe on the end, his goal was “clarity” and “unity” and that terra cotta is trying to express the wall, not add to it.
Photograph copyright Felicity Rich
Continuity was opposed by complexity and contradiction as High Modernism began its decline in the 1960s, but if we look closely at movements and forms that stress continuity and economy of line we find that they existed long before Mad Men. I was always stunned by the stuff of Biedermaier and Christopher Dresser in the first half of the 19th century because it was so…modern – but it was a century before modern.
So we need a word for modern (and so does Dwell) and we have needed it certainly since Byrne and Feininger commisserated about it back in 1925 but maybe if we look past the time period toward the impulse – economy of form, continuity and clarity – we might get there.
I had a morning meeting of the Steering Committee for the Farnsworth House, the stunning glass house built in Plano, Illinois by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1951. (You can see it on the LPCI website link at right) The house was famously sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December 2003. LPCI and the National Trust hooked up and bought it for over $7 million, saving it from a potential move out of state.
The house is a marvel. Yes, its style is modernist, its materials glass and steel, its entire perimeter floor-to-ceiling glass, but the emotional effect on the visitor is a Greek temple. It is mathematical perfection sitting in the natural perfection of the Fox River floodplain, a perfect little symphony of white I-beams, travertine and spartan, sculptural furnishings. Neither too many notes nor too few. No wonder it was auctioned off like a work of art- that is what it is.
But you may know that my bias is history, and that I feel quite strongly that historic preservation is adaptive use; the repurposing of buildings for contemporary uses. Museum houses must be few and far between, and even then they need – and have always needed throughout history – strong endowments or extensive subsidy. So what of the Farnsworth House?
At this morning’s meeting we approved a mission statement that strayed significantly – and I think correctly – from the older restoration mission. The statement acknowledged the primacy of Mies’s 1951 design and the original client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, but also included the ownership from 1969 to 2003 by Lord Peter Palumbo, which brought some changes to the site and building, as well as a massive restoration following devastating floods in 1996.
The distinction is subtle, but contrast it to the 1980s restoration of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio – which was brought back to its 1909 appearance. I serve as Chair of the Site Council for the Gaylord Building, restored to its 1880 appearance. In these cases a more coherent interpretation was made available by choosing a “date” to return the building to, and each had been fairly extensively altered over the years.
The Farnsworth House has never had such alterations. Still, it is significant that the mission statement this morning considers the Farnsworth from 1951 to 2003 – until the time Palumbo sold it. That entire period is thus open for interpretation, an even richer story than the design and construction of an architectural masterwork.
Longer dates let more history in. Preservation is not about freezing a certain moment in time. Preservation is about letting time speak and making sure its voice is not stilled.
What a building does in time can be incredibly rich. When we say “if these walls could talk” we do not restrict their talk to architects and bricklayers, but everyone who has spent time and suffered humanity within those confines. It doesn’t make a huge difference for the Farnsworth House, that sculptural perfection perched on the prairie that attracts architects from all over the planet; but for most buildings it is the difference between an essay in design and engineering and a human epic that inspires us to invest time and energy into keeping aspects of our built environment.
blog dated November 3, 2005. Images from 2008 and 2005 added 2010.