I have been involved with Mies van der Rohe’s famous Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois for over a decade. I recall vividly the day (December 12, 2003) Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation successfully bid on the house at Sotheby’s in New York, saving it from the possibility of being dismantled and moved to another place. Like all great architecture, the Farnsworth House was designed for its specific location along the Fox River, and this context is part of its significance.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou are more lovely and more tempered…
Now, that context has been altered many times. Dr. Edith Farnsworth, who commissioned the house in 1946, moved in (weekends) in 1951 and used it for twenty years, basically kept the wild landscape. When the state condemned part of her land and built a noisy road and bridge near the house in the early 1970s, she sold it to Lord Peter Palumbo, who planted trees to screen the road, landscaped the whole grounds with Lanning Roper into more of the traditional lawn we see today. Then, to top it off, the tree that framed the house from the river side finally totally died and was removed.
But the biggest problem has been the flooding, which thanks to development upriver, has seen the houses inundated by three 100-year floods in the last 18 years. So, we at the National Trust assembled the best minds in the business in terms of architecture and engineering, to come up with a plan to help protect the house from flooding. My initial response, seen in my blog last November, was: it’s a submarine. Mies designed it for a floodplain. Let it flood and keep fixing it. As Mies’ grandson Dirk Lohan, who restored the house after the most disastrous flood in 1996, said, the house makes no sense if it is in a location that doesn’t flood.
It was Lohan who suggested what has now become the preferred alternative: To create a system of hydraulic jacks that would raise the house out of harm’s way with the onset of Fox River flooding. In short, to turn it into a lowrider.
Another option was to move it to higher ground. The biggest problem with this option is that higher ground is pretty far away and thus you lose the context which caused you to save it in the first place. You get back to the Dirk Lohan problem: the building makes no sense if it is located in a place that doesn’t flood. That’s why it is sitting on stilts.
The other option, which some preservationists prefer, is to raise the ground it is sitting on, so it is closer to the river but 7 feet higher. This is actually just as expensive as the other options, if not more so, and arguably changes the context much more. Plus, you get the classic problem involved in all restoration decisions: what are the logistics of doing it? Preliminary investigations show that that much landfill isn’t even available, and the slope down to the river would alter the view from inside, which is kind of the whole point.
i want a doctor to take your picture
All three options pretty much involve some disassembling and moving of the building. The submarine option is the only one that doesn’t, and given that floods will only get worse given all the factors causing them, constant restoration could easily cost more over the long run. So I was persuaded that Lohan’s plan, which has now been studied by Bob Silman, who is the best, is the preferred option. I gave up on the submarine.
but I will never give up on my love…
If we have to pull it apart and reassemble to some degree, it should be on the same spot and ideally in the same context. The hydraulic option offers this, although as always the devil will be in the details, such as do you leave the terrace under water or raise it too? If so, how do you deal with the point where the house joins the terrace?
how do I love thee? let me count the welds…
Another option discussed has been a bladder system that would use the power of the flooding water to raise the house, kind of like the giant styrofoam tubes that keep boat docks floating. Again, the excavation requires temporarily relocating the house, but there is another problem – a bladder system – like a temporary dike that would rise up and surround the house – would be subject to 600 psi of pressure from the floodwaters – not true for the hydraulic jack and truss system.
I came into this project a skeptic (as did many others on the panel) and I am now convinced that the best preservation solution that conserves both the architecture and the site that the architecture was designed to feature is the hydraulic jack option. The others seem less secure (bladder/dam) or more damaging to the design (raising/relocating).
The decision has already gone through several fora and will go through several more before it is finalized. Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune summarized the options and the Trust approach in an excellent article a few weeks ago. Beyond the decision is of course the very big question of funding what will be a multi-million dollar project. Who knows, the result may prove useful for other architectural icons as the world’s oceans rise…