The Farnsworth House, part 3 / the progeny
When it was completed in 1951, the Farnsworth House was a window into the future. Still inspiring new interpretations, it has the open-endedness of great art.
The economy with which the Farnsworth House elicits its richness of response is one proof of “less is more.” With minimalism and technology the tines of its tuning fork, the house’s reverberations are as strong today as ever. While it has inspired countless glass houses, a handful may provide a rough outline of its still widening influence.
The steps and platform leading to Craig Ellwood’s 1961-62 Rosen House in Los Angeles are a nod to the Farnsworth House.
One of the contributors to California’s Case Study Houses, Craig Ellwood differed from the series’ other designers in being more influenced by Mies than by California architects like Richard Neutra. He wrote that “Mies’s thinking was never restrictive for me. Conversely it was inspiring . . . Mies of course reinvented architecture.” Ellwood was fascinated with technology and often expressed the prefabricated quality of his buildings’ components, while finding in Mies’s example the necessary transcendence of technology through art. Building on the intimation of house as industrial product that Banham saw in the Farnsworth House, Ellwood wrote in 1957 that “the American residence is becoming a product and eventually all homes – except those of the very wealthy – will be bought in prefabricated form.”
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Craig Ellwood in a photo that Ellwood included in every description of his career.
A conscious link between Thoreau’s Walden and the Farnsworth House can be found in the work of Glenn Murcutt, who cites both as major influences by way of his father. The 2002 Pritzker Prize winning Australian architect is viewed by many as the greatest designer of houses alive. As he described it in the 1999 book, Touch This Earth Lightly: Glenn Murcutt in His Own Words: “My father saw an article about the Farnsworth House. Amongst many issues it discussed the positive issue of ventilation for a single-depth-room house. Once a building is planned for two rooms deep you created ventilation problems, so to make buildings as thin as possible, they would breathe properly. The Farnsworth house did that only in part – it was in a way a roomless house. It was a house that was above the ground, not dissimilar in some ways to houses which dad had lived in, in Papua New Guinea. And he said of the Farnsworth house that it was not only one of the most interesting 20th century houses, he felt no one could live in it, and therefore . . . he referred to it being a theoretical building . . . a good theoretical exercise. He got me to read this damned article three or four times – I don’t recall how many – until I could answer every question he posed to me about that house. I was only thirteen years old and hadn’t shown any signs of interest in architecture . . .” Murcutt’s father was a prospector and a reader whose self-reliant forays into nature gave him an affinity for Thoreau. Murcutt notes that “most of the thoughts that I have are developments clearly from my family, and mainly, through my father, who was particularly interested in landscape and in economics. He was also particularly interested in what minimal type of building would serve as habitation. . . Dad saw what was in his mind when he read Thoreau.”
Glenn Murcutt’s 1996-98 Fletcher-Page House in New South Wales displays the one-room depth that has distinguished his acclaimed houses since the mid-seventies. This characteristic owes as much to the example of the Farnsworth House as to Thoreau’s dream of shelter minimally separated from nature. The simple shapes and humble materials of Murcutt’s houses express Thoreau’s sense of economy and aversion to the weight of possessions, ideals perfectly in sync with today’s carbon footprint awareness. While they appeal to the Walden dreamer in all of us and are derived from Mies’s universal concepts, Murcutt’s houses are distinctly of their place, adopting local habits of form and materials.
Shigeru Ban’s Curtain Wall House in Tokyo was completed in 1995. Its fabric enclosure is partly a rebellion against the weight and substance of the multiple glazing systems that have replaced the inefficient quarter-inch plate glass of Mies’s day. In a 2001 Princeton Architectural Press monograph of his work, Ban wrote: “One of my favorite buildings is Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. . . . However, the windows on the perimeter are all fixed, and though a visual continuity between the inside and outside is achieved, there is no physical continuity as in traditional Japanese homes, where spaces can be exposed or enclosed by the use of screens. . . . Curtain Wall House was formed with an actual exterior curtain wall. The idea was to create a contemporary interpretation of traditional Japanese spaces with contemporary materials.” (In winter, glazed sliding doors supplement the shading and privacy provided by the curtains.) Ban often brings ephemeral construction and the potential for nearly complete openness to Mies’s architecture of omission. His impulse in the Curtain Wall House would have been understood intuitively by Thoreau, who wrote in Walden: Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary. I have seen Penobscot Indians, in this town, living in tents of thin cotton cloth . . .”
Werner Sobek’s glass houses, R128 (top) and H16 were completed in 2000 and 2006, in Stuttgart. Entirely energy self-sufficient, they use triple glazing, geothermal heating and cooling, and horizontal rooftop solar panels to dispense with fossil fuels and emissions altogether. Sobek, who was appointed Mies van der Rohe Professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2008, has brought Mies’s poorly performing glass house into the realm of environmental comfort and responsibility. His conviction that “it is unethical to throw things away” is reflected in his buildings’ construction from modular elements that can be detached and reused elsewhere. This additional sustainable aspect of his work makes real the disassembly potential that was only suggested in Craig Ellwood’s work, and brings nearer the industrially produced house that the Farnsworth House seemed to promise.
Originally built for her parents in Chile, the LV Home was adapted by its architect, Rocio Romero, as a prototype for prefabrication after its completion in 2000. It has become perhaps the most acclaimed and widely published prefab house design within an exploding field. Romero credits Mies “for inspiring the design for this and almost every project I’ve designed. Modern architecture just doesn’t get much better than what he has already done.”
South Africa’s prefab Zenkaya Home clearly inherits its zen from the Farnsworth House (top). The opaque section at left houses an enclosed bedroom, an example of the many concessions to practicality Mies’s heirs have made in interpreting the Farnsworth House. Banham’s inkling and Ellwood’s prediction of the home as prefabricated product have come full circle.
The November 2006 issue of Dwell magazine featured Rocio Romero’s Mies-inspired prefab LV Home on its cover. Dwell has been published since 2000 and has a circulation of about 350,000. The nation’s oldest “shelter magazine,” House Beautiful, has been published since 1896 and has a circulation of about 850,000. It has lately been known to feature furniture designed by Mies which its pages once attacked.
An article by Elizabeth Gordon titled “The Threat to the Next America”, in the April 1953 issue of House Beautiful magazine, saw the Farnsworth House as an attack on traditional American values. It found Mies’s architecture and furniture “cold,” “barren,” “sterile,” “thin” and “uncomfortable,” and denounced the International Style and the Bauhaus as un-American. Today, magazines like Dwell and stores like Design Within Reach fuel and cater to a growing American taste for the spare forms and clean lines of modern design. The mid-century modernism that provides so much of their content is largely homegrown and has long been as ubiquitous and American as one of Charles Eames’ molded fiberglas chairs.
Displayed at New York’s Socrates Sculpture Park in 2006, an untitled piece by Mamiko Otsubo transplants the concept of the Farnsworth House from the Fox River’s banks to those of the East River. It is furnished only with a miniature of Charles Eames’ La Chaise chair, designed in the 1940s but not commercially produced until 1990 when growing regard for Eames and modern design summoned it into the marketplace. Otsubo’s piece conveys not just the white I-beams and nature-loving glass walls of the Farnsworth House, but the universal space and flexibility at the heart of Mies’s ideology. The near emptiness of her interpretation captures the freedom and potential Mies’s aesthetic made way for, the inviting receptveness to anything at all that keeps his work always current. The Farnsworth House’s identifiability even in such shorthand marks the place it has earned in the public consciousness.