Sunday, July 26, 2009

TOURIST FOR A DAY: The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe

While most of us want to live with pieces of art, my question to you is could you live in a piece of art?

This is a question that I have to believe Dr. Edith Farnsworth may have been asking herself between 1946- 1951 when Mies van der Rohe designed and built her weekend retreat. I recently joined a tour of the Farnsworth House and grounds and discovered the beauty, tranquility and potential folly of living a truly minimalistic life.

Edith and Mies’s endeavor began at a dinner party in 1946. Edith mentioned the several acres of land, along the Fox River, she had recently purchased. She asked Mies, a highly celebrated modern commercial architect, if he could recommend an architect that could design a weekend home on the site. When Mies suggested himself I am sure Edith thought she had just struck gold. Her possibly predictable and solitary life had just gotten a jolt of excitement. Well, her life certainly changed from that night on and only Edit can tell us if it was for the better.

Reportedly they developed a very close relationship (to put it delicately). The designing of the home brought major publicity and they worked well together....for a time. Then Edith began to realize there were no closets for her clothes. Mies advised that she was there for weekends only, a suitcase should suffice. If pushed he could put a hook on the bathroom door for her. Edith was not about to have only one hook for her clothes. Simply adding a wardrobe created a bitter battle, which she won.

Inflating costs to build the home drove the deteriorating personal relationship into the ground. Regardless, the home was finally built in 1951 and is touted as Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece and monument to his visionary designs. When you walk up to the house, through heavily wooded fields, the structure suddenly reveals itself. It appears like a modern Greek temple and holds your attention.
When you enter the home you can’t help but be mesmerized. This structure was so precisely designed and constructed that when you stand in the home you honestly feel as though you are floating. This effect is created by there being no solid walls, only glass, and as you look out of the home you purposefully cannot see any steps leading up to the home. It’s a wonderful and peaceful sensation. The grounds are amazingly beautiful and you truly feel as though you are at one with nature. This is coming from the viewpoint of a visitor.

But what about Edith? You may admire the structure; personally yearn for its simplicity and quiet. But what is it like to actually live in monument to minimalism? What do you do with the magazine or book you were reading? To simply lay it about would be a blemish on smooth surface of peace. Mies definitely did not plan for Edith to be a muli-tasker. Actually living in a piece of art is illustrated by a rather famous story of what occurred when Edit woke and sat up in her bed on one of her first mornings in the glass structure. She threw back her covers to beautiful day streaming through the windows and also found herself feet away from two Japanese tourists taking photos of her and her famous home.

Well, curtains were certainly purchased soon after....And how did Mies feel about her drapery choice in his precise design? ..... Mies was not pleased ....


Anonymous said...

Mies was very pleased that Edith added the curtains he had selected, that is how he designed his previous houses, his residential high rises, and his museums.

All-glass walls, which now dominate the market preference for condos, allow the occupant total control of where the "windows" are placed, by positioning track-mounted curtains. Even when fully closed, curtains allow the room to be illuminated with the natural glow of daylight.

The glass house was a major transfer of freedom and control to those who live in the house, compared to traditional homes where the window locations are chosen and fixed by the architect, permanently.

PrairieGarden-Liane said...

Thanks for your comment!

I believe you may be referring to the curtains currently in the house and what may have evolved later. The curtains Edith had chosen, according to our tour guide, had been a very heavy fabric. Nothing like what there today.