Commission brief: In winter 1945, Mies van der Rohe and Dr. Edith Farnsworth met at a dinner party near the end of the year. During their first encounter the two discussed Dr. Farnsworth’s desire to build for herself a retreat from Chicago on a large plot of land that she owned in Plano, Illinois. In the following days, Farnsworth secured Mies for the commission.
Design brief: By 1946, the basic design of the house was established. The house was intended to serve as a weekend retreat for Edith Farnsworth, a single Chicago doctor. The house is strategically placed yards from the banks of the Fox River. To cope with common rising tides that occur during the spring months, Mies designed the house to sit 5 feet 3 inches above ground level. The south elevation, from which the house is entered, faces the river. In addition, the house is framed by the presence of a large sugar maple, also on the south elevation. The house is essentially a single room in which the only visual barrier is the central mechanical core containing the kitchen, two bathrooms and all heating and electrical equipment.
The open composition was not at all common in domestic spaces and was admired almost immediately by architect Philip Johnson. In 1949, Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, which he openly admitted was inspired in part by the Farnsworth House, was completed. An early rendering of the Farnsworth house shows a narrow, cylindrical core very similar to the core of the Johnson house. Although the design process lasted for approximately two years (1945-47), very little change in the plan as noted after 1946.
Building/ construction: In September 1949, delayed due to financial constraints, construction on the house began. Construction was not completed until October of 1951. First, the steel frame was welded into place and sandblasted to remove all seam lines. Subsequently, pre cast concrete slabs were installed for the floor and ceiling, supported by a total of eight steel columns. A radiant heating system was installed in the floor, followed by travertine flooring and finally the large, plate glass walls.
The house, most simply described as a floating glass box, is 77 feet 33 inches long and 28 feet 8 inches wide and sits 5 feet 3 inches above the ground. The glass walls of the building stand between two rectangular pre-cast concrete slabs, supported in total by eight steel columns sandblasted smooth and painted white. The wall-to-ceiling glass was made possible by hanging the floor and roof from wide flange piers. With the exception of the steel columns, the building is connected to the ground by a small, cylindrical mechanical core. In addition, stairs and a secondary floating platform, 55 feet 3 inches by 22 feet 8 inches, lead to a porch in front of the entrance to the house creating an asymmetrical composition. This idea is perpetuated in the placement of the entrance to the house-slightly off center, giving the house an occult sense of balance. The travertine flooring inside and out is laid in an uninterrupted grid pattern of equally sized slabs with use of the material continuing in the stair treads that lead to both the platform and the porch. Although the length of the house runs parallel to the Fox River, the stairs to the porch, located on the south elevation, are perpendicular to this forcing a ninety degree turn in order to gain entrance to the house. The core of the house, faced entirely in primavera wood serves as the means for defining the various spaces of the house without internal enclosures. The house is located in a clearing, yards from the Fox River, reinforcing a connection with the natural environment. When the house was planned and constructed, the sugar maples present on the site were used to create a frame for the building. The placement of the house in a rural setting is important to the conception of the house, since Mies intended one to visually intermingle with nature throughout the year.
Surrounding area/ buildings: garage, pool and boathouse (non contributing)
Visual relations: The garage, pool and boathouse are located out of viewing range of house.
Functional relations: Dr. Farnsworth added the garage shortly after moving in while Palumbo was responsible for the pool and boathouse.
Completed situation: The house was built to take advantage of the beauty of the natural landscape. It is situated in a small clearing yards away from the Fox River and is complimented by the close proximity of several sugar maple trees and brush, creating for the inhabitant the sense of merging into the natural environment.
Original situation or character of site: In the design and planning of the house, Mies was careful to utilize the existing natural conditions of the property and alter as little as possible. To him, the house was meant to join with the landscape, not assert itself in opposition to it.
The clear span steel and glass structure allows for a breadth of space without the presence of columns internally. The use of this construction method marks one of the earliest examples of this idea later developed on a larger scale with projects such as Crown Hall at IIT in Chicago and The National Gallery in Berlin. In its minimalism, the self-supporting structure represents the realization of Mies’ treatise on design to a degree unachieved in his past and subsequent projects aided by the relatively small scale of the building. In addition to the tectonic quality achieved by the steel piers, they provide a sculptural aesthetic to the skeleton.
Socially, the most notable aspect of the Farnsworth House is in the implicit connection with nature that Mies conveyed through the house. The placement of the house in a bucolic setting against the Fox River is integral to Mies’ composition. It is meant to completely immerse the inhabitant in the environment. The architect is quoted as saying, “when one looks at Nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth house, it takes on a deeper significance than when one stands outside. More of Nature is thus expressed—it becomes part of a greater whole.”
The aesthetic merits of the house are intrinsically tied to its structure. Structural clarity, expressed through the steel columns and the horizontal, cantilevered planes they support enhances the serene, floating image of the house at the edge of the Fox River. In addition, the heightened transparency of the glass between the cantilevered planes dissolves the barriers between internal and external environments. The vibrant vegetation surrounding the house is responsible for its subdued tones—painted white steel, natural stone and glass acting as the palette onto which an ever-changing picture is displayed. Canonical Status: Upon its completion, the house was featured in Architectural Forum, where it was not only described in terms of its “precise and detailed” construction but also in terms of “pure simplicity of concept.” Most importantly, this was recognized as “the will of an epoch translated into space,” serving as a physical manifestation of Mies’ ideas regarding architecture and the individual, namely that architecture should be “an objective, impersonal backdrop against which an individual...can develop freely.” Since its construction, the house has been considered an achievement of modern architecture, melting away the boundaries that differentiate inside from out and dissolving the entire building down to only that which is absolutely essential, achieving a maximum of transparency in the process.
During its design phase, the Farnsworth House became the inspiration for another critically acclaimed work, Philip Johnson’s glass house,which also capitalizes on a minimal use of materials and a connection with the environment. These two houses have become iconic examples of the ascetic ideals in mid-century modern architecture. Although similar in design ideals, there are important differences in construction and meaning between the two, particularly that unlike the Farnsworth House the Glass House is “symmetrically balanced” and “firmly rooted to the ground.” The Farnsworth House is a progression of Mies’ earlier work in Europe including the Barcelona Pavilion (1929) and the Tugendhat house (1930). Here, the reduction of elements in the composition serves as the synthesis and refinement of these earlier works into the style and ideas that Mies van der Rohe became recognized for.
Sarah J. Hahn Resource Center, Farnsworth House Visitor Center, 14520 River Road, Plano, Illinois, 60545, contains written records, correspondence, and photographs pertaining to the Farnsworth House
5.2 Principal publications (in chronological order)
“This is the First House Built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe”, Architectural Forum, v.95, 1951, pp. 64-67
SCHWEIKHER, Paul, “One Hundred Years of Significant Buildings,” Architectural Record, February, 1957, pp. 199-210
BLAKE, Peter, The Master Builders: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, New York; Knopf; 1960
PRATT, Steven, “ ‘Glass House’ Owner Asks for New Hearing,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 15, 1998, p. W4
PALUMBO, Peter, “Farnsworth Impressions,” Inland Architect, vol. 30 no. 2, 1986, pp. 42-47
SPAETH, David, “The Farnsworth House Revisited,” Fine Homebuilding, Apr./ May, no.46, 1988, p. 32-37
FRAMPTON, Kenneth, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, New York; Thames and Hudson; 1992; ISBN: 0500202575
SCHULZE, Franz, The Farnsworth House, Chicago; Lohan Associates; 1997; ISBN: 0966084004
BLASER, Werner, Farnsworth House Weekend House/ Wochenendhaus, Boston; Berkhauser; 1999; ISBN: 3764360895
FLAMINI, Roland, “The Farnsworth House Restored: Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Icon Survives the Flood,” Architectural Digest, v.56, 1999, pp.66-68
ABERCROMBIE, Stanley, “Much Ado About Almost Nothing: Rescuing Mies’ Farnsworth House, a Clear and Simple Statement of What Architecture Can Be,” Preservation: The Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Sept./ Oct., v.52, n.5, 2000
“Lord Palumbo puts Farnsworth up for Sale After City Deal Collapses,” The Architect’s Journal, v.218, 2003, p. 4
SWANSON, Stevenson, “Preservationist Groups Use Donations to Win Bidding for Chicago-Area Landmark,” Chicago Tribune, 14 Dec., 2003, p. 1
GOLDBERGER, Paul, “Farnsworth: The Lightness of Being,” Preservation: The Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, July/August, v.56, n.4, 2004, pp. 36-39.
RAYNSFORD, Anthony, “National Register Nomination Report for Farnsworth House,” 2004, pp. 1-23
CLEMENCE, Paul, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Atglen; Schiffer Publishing; 2006; ISBN: 0764324438