farnsworth house : a river runs through it…sometimes


You might have seen tons of pictures, but walking up to Farnsworth House surpasses every photographer’s best work.

Buy a plot of land on a river bank and ask Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to build a house for you. You wish! It’s what Dr Edith Farnsworth wished for in 1945. And it’s what she got in 1951.

No old Victorian mansion, not haunted nor the scene of a violent crime, but it does come with a story.

Unlike other Chicago citizens who could afford it, Ms Farnsworth did not want a retreat on Michigan Lake. She preferred the seclusion of the woods at a considerable driving distance on, back then, unpaved roads.

The story goes that she met architect van der Rohe at a dinner party. She told him about the land she had recently purchased along the Fox River near the little town of Plano, 60 miles west of Chicago. Was she too shy to directly ask him if he was interested in designing a house? It’s not very clear what her precise intentions were on that first encounter. And like every good story, this one is also drenched in some juicy speculations. But in spite of the transparency of the house itself, these speculations have never been met with hard proof. What we do know is that at the end of the dinner van der Rohe told her that he would build her a house.

And he did.

But when Ms Farnsworth moved in, she felt exposed in a house that had indeed only windows on all sides. And who wouldn’t feel exposed when in the morning you wake up to find a bunch of curious people peeking through your bedroom window? Nor did the remoteness of the house deter photographers from trespassing to see that strange and soon to be iconic house designed by Mies van der Rohe.

Ms Farnsworth was complaining about the livability of the house, hot in summer, cold in winter. It was not the kind of cosy country retreat that she had imagined.

The relationship between her and the architect ended in a lawsuit. It must have been unimaginable to Ms Farnsworth that the house she loathed so much was to become one of the most important residential constructions of modern architecture. Nor must she have dreamed that it would forever be linked to her name, even after it had changed owners.

But the biggest enemy of Farnsworth House has not been the lady who gave it her name, but the creeping monster next to it: the Fox River.

To avoid the risk of flooding, Mies van der Rohe built the house on eight pillars. But how was he to know that overdevelopment in the neighborhood was to have almost disastrous consequences? On a few occasions water levels rose to unprecedented heights, washing away even the furniture. It’s an ongoing threat for the house, still today.

Against all odds, Farnsworth House seems to resist, withstand and survive both its inhabitants and the inclement weather conditions. It has even been saved from being dismantled and shipped to another country altogether.

Tucked away in lush greenery, the house can only be approached by walking up a winding path. Expectations are stirred up where trees and shrubs allow only partial glimpses of the white structure.

Then, finally, you get a complete view of the house. The first thing that strikes is its bare simplicity. To some it might be an anticlimax. To others it’s proof that ‘overwhelming simplicity’ is not necessarily a contradictio in terminis. It’s pure, it’s light, devoid of all things superfluous. It’s an abstraction of a house. More an idea than a structure of steel and concrete. Because of the pillars, it’s almost literally floating on air.

The sunlight, bouncing back on the terrace, then reflected on the ceiling, invades the whole space. It turns the house into a light box where transparency and translucency play in unison.

On entering the house, it feels like the surrounding nature is walking in with you. The 360 degrees views make the boundaries between in and outside almost nonexistent.

The openness of the structure may raise questions about its practicality. Ms Farnsworth surely had problems with it. But that was back in the fifties. The way we live today, the mere idea of living, has shifted. The visionary concept of van der Rohe’s open floor plan was undoubtedly groundbreaking and perhaps not always met with great enthusiasm. But half a century later, his pioneering take on ‘living space’ is still standing. As is his house.


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2 thoughts on “farnsworth house : a river runs through it…sometimes

  1. marc says:

    just a pity that they constructed a road so close to the peaceful and quiet setting

  2. David says:

    If you get a chance, check out Michael Caldwell’s book Strange Details. He has a chapter on the Farnsworth House, putting it in the context of Mies’s other residential work.

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