The Farnsworth House: Mies Van Der Rohe's Iconic House of Glass
Keywords: International Style, Modernism, Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, Edith Farnsworth, Chicago, glass house, house of glass
In the post-war period, Modernist architecture spread beyond Europe and came to be known as the International Style. The Bauhaus had been one of the nerve-centres of Modernism. This was a radical academy of design in Germany, but the Nazis came to power in 1933 and closed the Bauhaus down. They were opposed to Modernism on the grounds that it was too left wing and too intellectual. Many of the Bauhaus designers were forced to flee Germany for fear of persecution. There was an exodus of artists and designers, most of whom went to America. The most successful of the émigré Modernists was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who had been a principal of the Bauhaus, but moved to America after trying and failing to get work from the Nazis. He got a job at the Illinois Institute of Technology and began designing office blocks for large corporations and luxury apartments for the rich.
Collage depicting the closure of the Bauhaus
The Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago (1949) are an example of the latter. They are luxury apartments on the shores of Lake Michigan. The design reiterates the Modernist iconography of steel and glass. The interior features original Mies van der Rohe furniture, including the Barcelona chair, another classic design. The aesthetic is minimalist, but it is not generally known that Mies van der Rohe used expensive materials like aluminium and bronze. As the son of a stone mason, he had a deep love of materials and craft; and this is evident in all of hos mature work. As dwellings for the elite, however, the Lake Shore Drive Apartments represent a departure from the Modernist ideal of architecture for the masses. In relocating to America, it could be argued that Mies van der Rohe was sacrificing his early idealism.
Mies van der Rohe’s most famous, or perhaps I should say notorious, building was the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois – 50 miles west of Chicago. This was designed in 1945-51 as a country retreat for Edith Farnsworth, an unmarried doctor from Chicago who wanted the house for weekends as an escape from the city.
This is an iconic design and one of the classics of Modernism. It is an exercise in pure minimalism and embodies Mies van der Rohe’s famous maxim ‘less is more’. As you can see, it consists of two planes raised off the ground with glass walls suspended between. A cascade of planes floats down to the ground. The interior is completely exposed except for a central service core. Mies van der Rohe has dematerialised the house to produce a pure spatial arrangement defined by nothing more than a thin glass membrane. The interior is open and unbounded, giving an unrestricted flow of space. The furniture is all by Mies van der Rohe and is equally spartan.
It has been argued that Mies van der Rohe saw the house as a chance to indulge his dreams as an architect and forgot his duty to the client. Reputedly, he did not tell her that he was going to use glass for the walls and instead of providing a space that was actually inhabitable, he followed his search for ‘pure’ architecture to the absolute extreme. The house represents pure formalism; it gives no thought to the practical needs of the owner.
The Farnsworth House provoked a media storm. People came to see it, which made it impossible to live in. It was used by journalists to denounce Modernism as an architectural orthodoxy. Writers compared it to Fascism, saying Mies van der Rohe wanted to tell Americans how they should live. The controversy was exacerbated by the complex issues of gender and domesticity. In the 1950s there were very definite gender roles: the domestic ideal was the male breadwinner who went out to work and the economically-dependent housewife who maintained the home as a haven from the world of work. This division of labour was promulgated in advertising and via the new medium of televsion. Women were frequently depicted as domestic guardians within their limited, and limiting, roles as housewife and mother. Feminist design historians such as Alice T. Friedman have argued that the radical design of the Farnsworth House and the fact that it was built for a single, independent woman challenged the conventional gender divisions of 1950s society, and that was why the house had to be ridiculed within the media. It was necessary to suppress the threat to conventional gender divisions.
The house's relationship with nature is also important. Traditionally, nature has been seen as feminine and rationality as masculine. The Farnsworth House is sealed off from nature – it is raised disdainfully above the ground and enveloped in an impermeable glass skin with only one door and two small windows. Inside, it reduces the natural world to two-dimensional images seen through the architectural framework. It could be argued that the design imposes a sense of order and rationality on nature. Reading from a feminist perspective, the house embodies a masculine rationality being used to control and contain feminity.