The Farnsworth House, part 2 / from the hearth to the field

Mies van der Rohe prepared renderings of two early versions of the Farnsworth House, one on the ground and the other raised above it.  The choice to elevate its floor five feet responded to potential flooding of the nearby Fox River, but also exalted the house, made it appear to float, and gave it the character of a discrete machined object in the landscape, an effect heightened by its abstract whiteness.  Raising the house also allowed the equally expressed floor and roof planes to suggest infinite extension of its interior into surrounding space, emphasized by their projection beyond the glass envelope into the open air of the porch.  While the house was technologically remarkable for its time, the arresting design mastery at work in such effects have made it an enduring touchstone.  
Philip Johnson planted his Glass House on the ground and painted its steel frame black, giving it a recessive quality.  Its brown brick floor contributes to the effect of standing on the ground.  The Glass House has a much more contained quality than the Farnsworth House, and was designed as part of a compound including a separate guest house.  While Johnson never claimed to be a “formgiver like Mies,” such distinctive qualities and the many wide-ranging studies by which Johnson arrived at his design mark the Glass House as an original work that stands on its own merits.  Johnson was perhaps most significantly original in being the first of many architects to draw inspiration from the Farnsworth House and take its ideas in new directions.  
Floor plans show Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (top) and Philip Johnson’s Glass House, in scale with each other.  The enclosed portion of the Farnsworth House is at its upper right, the covered porch to its left, and the lower terrace below the porch.  The core of the Farnsworth House includes its fireplace, centered on the grouping of chairs, and all of its services, giving the house a clear functional diagram.  The core is large enough to make the remaining space in the house read as continuous loop, suggesting an endless spatial flow, and it presses the surrounding space close to the glass envelope and nature.  The core of the Glass House includes the bathroom and fireplace but the kitchen is a separate element, treated as a piece of furniture despite being part of the house’s support machinery.  The cylindrical core’s small size and pure shape make it read as an object deposited within a much larger, static space.  The greater width and smaller core of the Glass House give it a deeper interior.   Johnson said his plan was influenced by a suprematist painting by Kasimir Malevich, and cited several architectural influences in addition to the Farnsworth House.

The underpinnings of “less is more” were laid out in Thoreau’s Walden in 1854 (as thoroughly observed in Theodore M. Brown’s essay, “Thoreau’s Prophetic Architectural Program,” in The New England Quarterly, March, 1965).  Walden‘s setting of the stage for a minimal, open, one-room house is uncanny.  Thoreau’s grasp of man’s unconscious attitudes toward shelter and of the inherent drawbacks of shelter and possessions goes far toward explaining the lasting appeal and influence of the two glass houses built nearly a century later.  ”We may imagine a time,” he wrote, “when, in the infancy of the human race, some enterprising mortal crept into a hollow in a rock for shelter.  Every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to stay out doors, even in wet and cold.  It plays house . . . having an instinct for it.  Who does not remember the interest with which when young he looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave?  It was the natural yearning of that portion of our most primitive ancestor which still survived in us.  From the cave we have advanced to roofs of palm leaves, of barks and boughs, of linen woven and stretched, of grass and straw, of boards and shingles, of stones and tiles.  At last, we know not what it is to live in open air, and our lives are domestic in more senses than we think.  From the hearth to the field is a great distance.  It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a roof, or the saint dwell so long there.  Birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots.” 

Based on this understanding, Thoreau advises anyone who “designs to construct a dwelling house” to “consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary,” and says “the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation:  now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.”  It’s hard not to think of the way the Farnsworth and Glass House substitute nature for walls, and Johnson’s observation that “I have very expensive wallpaper.”  The two glass houses’ use of nature for privacy is prefigured in Thoreau’s statement ”that it costs me nothing for curtains, for I have no gazers to shut out but the sun and moon.”   He almost seems to be idealizing his cabin into the future Farnsworth House when he writes, “This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallization around me, and reacted on the builder.  It was suggestive somewhat as a picture in outlines.  I did not need to go outdoors to take the air, for the atmosphere within had lost none of its freshness. . . . I found myself neighbor to the birds; not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them.”


A replica of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.  Building from discarded shingles, second-hand windows and used bricks, and providing his own labor, Thoreau built his house for twenty-eight dollars, twelve and a half cents.  (The Farnsworth House cost $73,000 in 1951.)  Thoreau’s spirit has guided many of the architects who’ve carried forward ideas from the Farnsworth House, often in more sustainable directions.  

Comparing their one-room houses, Thoreau’s measured 15 by 10 feet; Johnson’s 56 by 32 feet; and Mies’s 56 feet by 28 feet, 8 inches (without the porch).  Thoreau conceded that “one inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter big thoughts in big words.”   He also wrote that “I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in a golden age, of enduring materials, and without gingerbread work, which shall consist of only one room . . . A house whose inside is open and manifest as a bird’s nest. . . .”    

By limiting the Farnsworth House to a single room, Mies answered the concern Johnson had raised about interior partitions colliding with a pristine glass perimeter, but he also realized Thoreau’s dream of a one-room house, a dream that many architects have found compelling.  In his biography of Johnson, Franz Schulze describes his response to this aspect of the Farnsworth House:  “Philip was moved by the exquisiteness of the design but just as instructed by Mies’s simple decision to consolidate all interior elements – kitchen, closets, a pair of bathrooms – in a core, no part of which abutted the outer walls.  The walls could thus be composed of a material as fragile as glass; the only cost would be an unpartitioned interior, a condition Philip found less a defect than a boon.” 

The Farnsworth House’s core doesn’t present itself as an island cluster of separate rooms, but as a discrete object.  By rising to a level just short of the main space’s ceiling, it suggests a piece of freestanding furniture.  In similar fashion, Johnson’s bathroom enclosure, by also housing a fireplace, is made to read as a chimney.  These effects disguise the presence of interior rooms and enforce the sense of a one-room house. 

The appeal of one-room buildings lies in their direct relationship between envelope and content, in the primally satisfying simplicity of a one-to-one relationship between exterior and interior.  Their lineage includes ancient temples, the PantheonBramante’s Tempietto and Thoreau’s cabin.  In the 1980s, Frank Gehry tried to capture the integrity of such buildings in projects like his 1981 ”House for a Filmmaker”, which adopts the form of a cluster of individual buildings.  Describing his motive for the house’s design in the 1986 Walker Art Center book, The Architecture of Frank Gehry, he wrote, “I thought that by minimizing the issue of function, by creating one-room buildings, we could resolve the most difficult problems in architecture.  Think of one-room buildings and the fact that historically, the best buildings ever built are one-room buildings.”  The idea formed the basis of the “village of forms” model on which Gehry would design many projects.   


An illustration from Lester Walker’s American Shelter (Overlook Press, 1997) shows early American house construction that prefigures the core-and-envelope formula of the Farnsworth House and Glass House.  “I lingered most about [building] the fireplace, as the most vital part of the house,” Thoreau wrote in Walden.  “The chimney is to some extent an independent structure, standing on the ground, and rising though the house to the heavens; even after the house is burned it still stands sometimes, and its importance and independence are apparent.”  In his 1965 essay, “A Home is Not a House,” Reyner Banham saw a source of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in “the admitted persistence in Johnson’s mind of the visual image of a burned-out New England township, the insubstantial shells of the houses consumed by fire, leaving the brick floor slabs and standing chimneys.” 


If Mies’s and Johnson’s one-room houses appeal to our inner cave-seeker, their hearths are likewise compelling on a primitive level.  As in Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, a focal hearth is balanced by an outwardly oriented enclosure, tapping into the ingrained rhythm by which our forebears went out in search of food by day and turned back inward to a communal fire at night.  Although Mies placed the Farnsworth House’s fireplace back-to-back with its kitchen, invoking the massive colonial American chimney with a parlor fireplace on one side and cooking hearth on the other, Johnson in fact made a great deal more of his fireplace, in the spirit of Wright.


Reducing the Farnsworth House to a single room, Mies kept his glass envelope pure, appealed to innate domestic desires, and minimized the distance Thoreau regretted had grown “from the hearth to the field.”  continued

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