The Farnsworth House, part 1 / whose less is more?

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Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House design was publicly presented in a 1947 Museum of Modern Art retrospective of his work curated by Philip Johnson.  Mies had first conceived of a glass house in 1945.  Johnson later said, “I pointed out to him that it was impossible because you had to have rooms, and that meant solid walls up against the glass, which ruined the whole point;  Mies said, ‘I think it can be done’.”  The Farnsworth House was completed in 1951, Johnson’s own Glass House in 1949. 

In Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”  It might as accurately be said that all modern houses come from Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House.  The first of its many offspring was actually built before it.  Philip Johnson, who advanced Mies’s American career by mounting a Museum of Modern Art retrospective of his work in 1947 and by steering the Seagram Building commission his way, was so inspired by Mies’s concept for a glass house that he built one for himself, beating Mies to the punch.  

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Philip Johnson’s Glass House parts from the Farnsworth House in significant ways, including its position resting on the ground and the cylindrical shape of its service core.  These were both characteristics of earlier, superseded Farnsworth House schemes.  

Johnson was entirely gracious in acknowledging his debt, writing in an Architectural Review article of 1950, “The idea of a glass house comes from Mies van der Rohe.  Mies had mentioned to me as early as 1945 how easy it would be to build a house entirely of large sheets of glass.  I was skeptical at the time, and it was not until I had seen the sketches of the Farnsworth House that I started the three-year work of designing my glass house.  My debt is therefore clear, in spite of the obvious difference in composition and relation to the ground.” 

In what may have been history’s worst case of the anxiety of influence, Johnson went through 27 formally identified schemes before concluding his design process.  (His assistant Landis Gores put the actual variation count at 79.)  The schemes covered a wide range of forms, veering away from and returning to the prismatic.  After 25 tries, Johnson’s tortured resignation that the Farnsworth House was not to be improved upon is on full view in penultimate scheme 26′s nearly actionable plagiarism of its plan.  Johnson’s schemes are almost all illustrated in Stover Jenkins’ and David Mohney’s 2001 book, The Houses of Philip Johnson.  In testament to the rich vein of inspiration that Johnson was merely the first to mine in Mies’s concept, the book’s following chapter is titled “Progeny of the Glass House” and documents no fewer than 19 buildings.   

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Johnson and Mies at work on the Seagram Building in 1955, photographed by Irving Penn.

 

What did Mies make of such close imitation?  Franz Schulze, biographer of both men, states in Philip Johnson, Life and Work, that Mies belabored Johnson “not for having copied him but for trying to and failing.”  The occasion was what had been planned as an overnight visit by Mies to the Glass House in the winter of 1954-1955, during work on the Seagram Building.  After a night of drinking, Mies picked at the Glass House’s details until Johnson indirectly retaliated by challenging the greatness of one of Mies’s favorite buildings, Berlage’s Amsterdam Stock Exchange.  In a 1985 interview by Robert A.M. Stern published last year in The Philip Johnson Tapes, Johnson describes Mies’s quietly angry response:  ”I’m not staying here tonight.  Find me another place to stay.”  Johnson tells Stern, “I just think he felt that my bad copy of his work was extremely unpleasant.  He also deeply resented my inquisitive attitude, making him verbal when he wasn’t.  He was a groan-and-grunt man . . .”

At the time of this interview, thirty years later, Johnson still doesn’t seem to recognize, or has forgotten, his true affront to Mies that night; that in the Stock Exchange’s rude exposed brick lay the honest structural expression which was an article of faith for Mies, a faith lost on Johnson, who had already begun to drift into a more decorative direction.  The blow-up points to the fundamental difference between the two as types of architect; Mies the believer, to whom architecture is a religion based on eternal truths; Johnson the non-ideological style surfer always open to the next new thing.  Mies’s devotion was there in every utterance of “God is in the details”.      

What has history made of the relative merits of the two glass houses?  In a 1977 profile of Johnson for The New Yorker, the art critic Calvin Tompkins wrote that “the two houses are very different . . . and the differences are revealing.  The Farnsworth House is a floating glass rectangle, narrower than Johnson’s, raised on metal columns and sandwiched between two horizontal planes of white-painted steel.  Johnson’s house rests on the ground, on the shelf of a hill, and its steel frame is painted black.  The Farnsworth House is a sculptural object in a landscape; Johnson’s is part of the landscape . . .  Most people who have seen both consider Johnson’s house infinitely the more hospitable, and it has certainly had more influence on architectural history.”  Tompkins quotes the great Yale art historian Vincent Scully as saying, “I think it’s one of the most important buildings in America.  The glass house is a real archetype – a fundamental piece of architecture, like a life support pod – and as such it is full of suggestions for the future.”  Thirty-two years later, it’s hard to see how the Glass House – as distinctively satisfying as it is – might be said to be more influential, not least because it is itself part of the Farnsworth House’s influence.  If Johnson’s house seems more hospitable, it may be entirely because its broader proportions and contact with the ground are more familiarly domestic.  As for Scully, it seems impossible that he’s describing Johnson’s glass house and not Mies’s.  From Glenn Murcutt to Shigeru Ban to the aesthetic of today’s exploding modular house scene, it’s clear that the Farnsworth House was the archetype ”full of suggestions for the future.”

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A historian checks the rear view mirror.  Reyner Banham (captured from his film, Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles) had his own take on the originality of one piece of the Miesian legacy.  

 

The architectural historian and critic Reyner Banham knew both Mies and Johnson and would recall times spent pushing Mies in the wheelchair of his last years as well as stays with Johnson at the Glass House.  ”Philip Jawnson pees in his fireplace,” he would gleefully tell students in his English accent while showing a slide of the Glass House’s floor plan, with its cylindrical fireplace/bathroom enclosure.  Banham despised the postmodernism headlined by Johnson’s AT&T building and, as a Jew, had every right to resent his youthful fascism, but never missed a chance to say how decent Johnson was in person, an almost universal view among those who knew him.  Johnson was especially generous to architects, starting with Mies, whom he hired to design his own apartment in 1930.  If Mies gave Johnson the inspiration for the Glass House and the other early, crystalline houses that his reputation as an architect will endure upon, Johnson paid Mies back out of his talent for discernment and promotion.  Banham was dead certain Johnson had made one gift in particular to Mies, and was too big to ever take credit for it.  A sharp observer and a good man with a word himself, Banham shared Johnson’s take on Mies as a grunting communicator.  This would seem to contradict Mies’s summoning up of aphorisms like “God is in the details” or architecture’s ultimate epigram, “Less is more”, a creation as perfect, pure, balanced and minimal as the Farnsworth House itself.  “God is in the details“, though, had been around for some time before Mies.  His oft stated design goal of “beinahe nichts” – almost nothing – is concise but hardly clever.  (Touring Johnson’s 1947 Mies retrospective, Frank Lloyd Wright was heard to sniff, “much ado about almost nothing.”)  But what of “less is more”?  Its perfectly balanced equation of letters and monosyllables in English makes of Mies’s typically German rendition, ”weniger ist mehr,” a reminder of the shortcomings of translation, except that the original in this case would be the clumsier version.  Banham had some light to shed on this mystery.  “Less is more,” he always told his students, ”was nothing Mies could ever have said, but was exactly the sort of thing Philip Johnson would say”.     

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A tour of the Glass House on a weekday in the Spring of 2008 was fully booked and had to be arranged well in advance.  Located in tony New Canaan, Connecticut, about an hour from Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal by commuter train, it receives about 15,000 guests per year.  

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Although a tour of the Farnsworth House on a weekday in the Fall of 2007 found it absent of other guests, the house receives about 10,000 visitors a year.  While this is only two-thirds the visitorship of the Glass House, the number is impressive given the Farnsworth House’s location in what is still farm country about a 60 mile drive southwest of Chicago.   continued 

One Response to “The Farnsworth House, part 1 / whose less is more?”

  1. Roger Cumming Says:

    The two houses really are very different, Farnsworth more gracefully occupying its site with its symmetrical cantilevers, without columns at its corners, its columns just kissing its roof and floor planes and its glass seeming to slide by its columns.  Its entrance sequence of terrace / stair / porch / door is so much more gracious, notwithstanding the interposition of the stair, than Johnson’s doorstep / door arrangement.  One realizes the many differences are not so much due to Johnson’s failings as to Mies’s genius.

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