Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography

Franz Schulz

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 253-7.

Photographs by Michel Kriebel and Ted Arleo unless otherwise noted

The house was unlike any conceived before it. It was a totally glassed-in rectangular box, consisting of roof slab and floor slab--the latter suspended five feet above the open ground, partly so as to ride above the level of the river's occasional floods.

Both roof and floor planes were supported by eight wide-flange columns, four of them welded to the fascias of each of the long sides. The spaces between the planes and columns--the walls, that is--were given over completely to single panes of one-quarter -inch-thick glass. The plan measured 28 by 77 feet. The long walls faced north to a gentle grassy rise, south to the wooded riverbank. A patio as wide as the house extended the length of one bay from the west end.

Access from ground level was gained by a low stair that rose to the long side of a rectangular terrace nearly as large in plan as the house. This lay parallel to the house while sliding somewhat west of it and was similarly suspended above the ground. Another low stair ascended from terrace to patio, where a 90-degree turn was required for entry into the sole portal of the house, located in the middle of the west wall.

The interior was a single space, one room, whose major subdivision was provided by a freestanding, longitudinal, asymmetrically placed core containing kitchen to the north, bathrooms to east and west-- separated by a utility space--and fireplace to the south. A freestanding cabinet-closet close to the southeast corner and parallel to the east wall bordered the sleeping area without enclosing it. The "living room" area, which spread before the fireplace with a view of the river, was equally suggested rather than defined. The roof and floor slab were cantilevered at both ends, so that the vitreous corners of the room were totally transparent. There was no air-conditioning. Cross ventilation could be encouraged by opening the portal and two hopper windows, the latter located at the base of the east wall at the other end of the house.

The floor, whose surface was laid out in a geometric grid, was deep enough to accommodate a coil system for heating as well as the pipes that served the kitchens, bathrooms, and utility space. An element extending upward from the core carried exhausts from the kitchen. The roof dipped slightly inward and downward from its perimeter to permit drainage, which, together with all pipes and utility lines, descended into a stack, the only connection--other than the columns-- between the house and the ground.

The minimalism of all aspects of Mies's design can be inferred from this description. Similarly, the treatment of structure and space reflected his changed attitudes toward both in his American years. What remained of Europe was chiefly the asymmetry, most noticeable in the sliding terrace and the placement of the core, and Mies's use of materials. He employed Roman travertine for all deck and floor areas. The primavera core was specially constructed by a German immigrant craftsman, Karl Freund. The steel frame, once completed, was sand-blasted to guarantee the smoothest of surfaces, then painted white. Mies personally supervised the selection of the travertine slabs and demanded uncommonly fine tolerances in the joining of all parts.

Thus, while the most evident components of the house--sheets of plate glass and lengths of wide-flange steel--were drawn from the inventory of modern technology, they were brought to completion by methods more suggestive of the crafts. This was quintessential Mies: matter accepted then transformed, temporal fact elevated to the level of ageless truth. The Farnsworth House is unmistakably "modern" in its abstracted geometry, yet it is history that Mies abstracted as surely as he did structure. The building has reminded some observers of an eighteenth-century country pavilion, others of a Shinto shrine. The white paint, not to mention the sandblasting that preceded it, denies the steel its rugged industrial origins while converting the supporting piers into something more akin to the classical column. The wide flange, that is, is made over into the sign of an architectural order, equivalent to the Doric or Ionic though expressive of Mies's "epoch." The empty space beneath the house is a volumetric inversion of Schinkel's podium.

Certainly the house is more nearly a temple than a dwelling, and it rewards aesthetic contemplation before it fulfills domestic necessity. Mies's technology, in fact, often proved unequal to it in a strictly material sense. In cold weather the great glass panes tended to accumulate an overabundance of condensation, due to an imbalance in the heating system. In summer, despite the protection afforded by a glorious black sugar maple tree just outside the south wall, the sun turned the interior into a cooker . The cross ventilation availed little and the draperies which could be drawn along the walls were hardly more effective in reducing interior heat. Mies rejected the idea of a screen covering for the door, and it was only his painful experience with the river valley mosquitoes that caused him to yield to Farnsworth's demand for a track on the ceiling of the patio from which screens could be hung, thus permitting comfortable outdoor sitting. Peter Palumbo, the London real estate developer who purchased the house from Farnsworth in 1962, and who confesses to a reverence for Mies's architecture, has accepted the master's will: he removed the screens and, during hot summer days, leaves the door and windows open, putting up uncomplainingly with the insect life that finds its way into the house. (Nonetheless, he keeps a large floor fan at work in each corner of the interior.) Similarly, he has followed Mies's instructions not to hang pictures on the exquisitely finished surfaces of the primavera core. Instead the art he keeps around him is sculpture.

Palumbo is the ideal owner of this house. He is wealthy enough to maintain it with the infinite and eternal care it requires, and he lives in it for only short periods during any given year. Thus he finds it easier to do what anyone must who chooses to reside there he derives sufficient spiritual sustenance from the reductivist beauty of the place to endure its creature discomforts.

That beauty in any case is immensely persuasive. The chaste geometry of the house and the impeccable proportions of its parts are expressive of a human presence held in counterpoise with the woody natural surround. From within and seen in 360 degrees through the transparent walls, nature, especially in the changes of light and the seasons, becomes a pervasive and integral part of the experience of any and all time spent there. The Farnsworth House is a classical design with romantic implications, a work of art that architecturally mediates between man and nature. In that sense it invokes again the spirit of Schinkel.

Yet Mies was content to dismiss the open plan of his European residences and their asymmetrical anatomies that reached out freely into space. The rigor of the rectangle axially oriented and the contained unitary interior volume make for a still, not a flowing space. The dweller feels little impulse to move inquiringly about within but rather prefers to sit and look. Nature may change; the house rests in its geometric certitude. In none of Mies's buildings did he come closer to the dematerialization of architecture leading to the expression of a fixed and supersensible order. the Farnsworth House is to his American career what the Barcelona Pavilion was to his European period: the apotheosis of a worldview, now changed from the conditionality of his early years to the objective finality for which he strove, no less than religiously hence with inplacable urgency, as he grew older.

Farnsworth Articles Menu