Essential Architecture- The Midwest

Dr. Edith Farnsworth house


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe


Plano, IL


1945-51 (W:1946-50)


Early Modern


steel and glass


  a. view through trees, photo 1976, D. Stillman.
  b. plan
  c. entrance approach, photo 1997, R. Longstreth.
  d. long rear elevation, photo 1997, R. Longstreth.
  e. end view of entry porch and platform, photo 2000, M. Nilsen, U. Delaware.
  f. detail of kitchen, from rear, photo 2000, M. Nilsen, U. Delaware.
  g. detail of I-beam column and platform, from above, photo 2000, M. Nilsen, U. Delaware.
  A winter view of the house in 1971.
The Farnsworth House, designed and constructed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945-51, is a one-room weekend retreat in a once-rural setting, located 55 miles southwest of Chicago's downtown on a 60 acre estate site adjoining the Fox River (Illinois) south of the city of Plano, Illinois. The steel and glass house was commissioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a prominent Chicago-based kidney specialist, as a place where she could enjoy nature and engage in her hobbies, playing the violin, translating poetry, and enjoying nature. Mies created for her a 1,500 square foot house that is widely recognized as an iconic masterpiece of modernist architecture. The home was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, after joining the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.[2][4]

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was retained by Dr. Edith Farnsworth to design a weekend retreat at a dinner party in 1945. The wealthy client was highly intelligent, articulate, and intent on a very special work of modern architecture. The program was to design the house as if it were for himself. Farnsworth had purchased the riverfront property from the host of the dinner, Robert McCormick. Mies developed the design in time for it to be included in an exhibit on his work at MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1947.

After completion of design, the project was placed on hold awaiting an inheritance from an ailing aunt. Mies was to act as the general contractor as well as architect. Work began in 1950 and was substantially completed in 1951. The commission was an ideal one for any architect, but was marred by a very publicized dispute between Farnsworth and Mies that began near the end of construction. The total cost of the house was $74,000 in 1951, about $1,000,000 in 2006 dollars. A cost overrun of $16,000 over the approved pre-construction budget of $58,400, was due to escalating post-war material prices resulting from inflationary shortages arising from the mobilization for the Korean War. Near the completion of the construction, a soured personal relationship, rumored to be romantic in nature, between Dr. Edith Farnsworth and Mies, led to a lawsuit by the architect/builder for non-payment of $28,173 in construction costs. The owner then filed a countersuit for damages due to alleged malpractice. Mies' attorneys proved that Farnsworth had approved the plans and budget increases, and the court ordered the owner to pay her bills. Farnsworth's malpractice accusations were dismissed as unsubstantiated. It was a bitter and hollow victory for Mies, considering the painful publicity that followed. The conflict resulted in an unfinished site and an unfurnished interior. The construction of a teak wardrobe closet and bronze screened porch were completed to Mies’ designs by former employee William Dunlap and a local millworker who acted as go-betweens. Mies never spoke about his rumored relationship, nor communicated with Edith again.

Edith continued to use the house as a weekend retreat for the next 21 years, often hosting architectural notables visiting to see the work of the world famous architect. In 1968, the local highway department condemned a 2 acre portion of the property adjoining the house for a new raised highway bridge over the Fox River. Farnsworth sued to stop the project but lost the court case. She sold the house in 1972, retiring to her villa in Italy.

In 1972 Farnsworth House was purchased by British property magnate, art collector and architectural aficionado Lord Peter Palumbo.[5] He removed the bronze screen enclosure of the porch, added air conditioning, extensive landscaping and his art collections to the grounds, including sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy,Anthony Caro, and Richard Serra. After owning the property for 31 years, Palumbo removed the art and sold the property at auction to a group of local preservationists with support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in December 2003 for a reported $7.5 million, and public building tours are now conducted by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois.[citation needed] The house is listed in the National Register and is now designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior.[2]

The essential characteristics of the house are immediately apparent. The extensive use of clear floor-to-ceiling glass opens the interior to its natural surroundings to an extreme degree. Two disitnctly expressed horizontal slabs, which form the roof and the floor, sandwhich an open space for living. The slab edges are defined by exposed steel structural members painted pure white. The house is elevated five feet above a flood plain by eight H-shape steel columns which are attached to the sides of the floor and ceiling slabs. The slabs ends extend beyond the column supprts, creating cantilevers. The house seems to float weightlessly above the ground it occupies. A third floating slab, an attached terrace, acts as a transition between the living area and the ground. The house is accessed by two sets of wide steps connecting ground to terrace and then to porch.

The interior appears to be a single open room, its space ebbing and flowing around two wood blocks; one a wardrobe cabinet and the other a kitchen, toilet, and fireplace block (the "core"). The larger fireplace-kitchen core seems like a separate house nesting within the larger glass house. The building is essentially one large room filled with freestanding wood blocks that provide subtle differentiations within an open space, implied zones for sleeping, cooking, dressing, eating, and sitting. Very private areas such as toilets, and mechanical rooms are enclosed within the core.

Mies applied this configuration, with variations, to his later buildings, most notably at Crown Hall, his IIT campus masterpiece. The notion of a single room that can be freely used or zoned in any way, with flexibility to accommodate changing uses, free of interior supports, enclosed in glass and supported by a minimum of structural framing located at the exterior, is the architectural ideal that defines Mies' American career. The Farnsworth house is significant as his first complete realization of this ideal, a protoype for his vision of what modern architecture in an era of technology should be.

Architectural Character

A winter view of the house in 1971.The Farnsworth House addresses basic issues about the relationship between the individual, society, and nature. Mies viewed the times in which an ordinary individual exists as largely beyond his control. But he believed the individual can and should exist in harmony with the culture of his time while still fulfilling himself. His career was a long and patient search for an architecture that would be both a true product of his epoch, and a statement about the place of the individual in that era. He perceived our epoch as the era of industrial production, shaped by the forces of rapid technological development. Mies wanted to use architecture as a tool to reconcile the individual spirit with the culture in which he exists. His solution is to accept the need for an orderly framework as necessary for existence, while making space for the freedom needed by the individual human spirit to flourish. He created free and open space within a minimal structural framework. He did not believe in the use of architecture for social engineering of human behavior as many other modernists did. His mature design work is a physical expression of his understanding of the modern epoch. He provides the occupants of his buildings flexible and unobstructed space in which to fulfill themselves as individuals, despite their inherent condition in the modern industrial culture. The materials of his buildings, no-nonsense industrial manufactured products like steel and plate glass, represent the character of the era, but he also accepts luxuries such as roman travertine and exotic wood veneers as valid parts of modern life.

The 60 acre natural site offered Mies an opportunity to bring man's relationship to nature into the picture. Here he highlights the individual's connection to nature as a respite from the stress of modern life.[citation needed] Glass walls and open interior space are the features that create an intense connection with the outdoor environment, while the exposed structure provides a framework that reduces opaque exterior walls to a minimum. The careful site design and integration of the exterior environment represents a subtle yet concerted effort to achieve an architecture wedded to its natural context.

Mies conceived the building as an indoor-outdoor architectural shelter simultaneously independent of and intertwined with nature. Mies did not build on the upland or sloped portions of the site, choosing instead to tempt the dangerous forces nature by building on the flood plain near the rivers edge. The enclosed space and a screened porch are elevated five feet on a raised floor platform, just slightly above the 100 year flood level, with a large intermediate terrace level.[5] The house has flooded above the living level floor level twice, in 1956 and 1996, causing significant damage to utilities, wood veneers, glass and to furnishings.[5] The house was threatened again in 2007, with curators rescuing invaluable furniture by boat.[6]

The House has an distinctly independant personality, yet also evokes strong feelings of a connection to the land. The levels of the platforms restate the multiple levels of the site, in a kind of poetic architectural rhyme, not unlike the horizontal balconies and rocks do at Wright's Fallingwater. The house is anchored to the site in the cooling shadow of a large and majestic black maple tree. As Mies often did, the entrance is located on the sunny side, facing the river instead of the street, moving visitors around corners and revealing views of the house and site from various angles as they approach the front door. The simple elongated cubic form of the house is parallel to the flow of the river, and the terrace platform is slipped downstream in relation to the elevated porch and living platform. Outdoor living spaces are extensions of the indoor space, with a screened porch (screens now gone) and open terrace. Yet the manmade always remains clearly distinct from the natural by it's geometric forms, highlighted by the choice of white as its primary color.

The building design received accolades in the architectural press, resulting in swarms of uninvited visitors trespassing on the property to glimpse this latest Mies building. But as a result of the accusations contained in Edith Farnsworth’s lawsuit, the house became a prop in the larger national social conflicts of the McCarthy era. The weekend house became a lightning rod for anti-modernist publications, exemplified in the April 1953 issue of House Beautiful, which attacked it as a communist inspired effort to supplant traditional American styles. Even Frank Lloyd Wright denounced the house along with the Bauhaus and International Style as un-American.

Large areas of glass wall, flat roofs, and a perceived lack of traditional warmth and cozy-ness were International Style features that were particular targets of attack. Still, the Farnsworth House has continued to receive wide critical acclaim as a masterpiece of the modernist style, and Mies went on to receive the presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to American architecture. Prominent architect and critic Philip Johnson was inspired by the design to build his own Glass House in 1947. In the 21st Century, Pulitzer Prize winning architectural critics Paul Goldberger and Blair Kamin have both declared the house a masterpiece of modern architecture. It's timeless quality is reflected by the reverent interest in the house shown by a new generation of design professionals and enthusiasts.

^ History, Farnsworth House. Retrieved 10 February 2007
^ a b c Farnsworth House, NHL Database, National Historic Landmarks Program. Retrieved 10 February 2007.
^ Farnsworth House, Property Information Report HAARGIS Database, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Retrieved 10 February 2007.
^ a b NRIS Database, National Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 10 February 2007.
^ a b c Farnsworth House, (PDF), National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, HAARGIS Database [1], Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Retrieved 10 February 2007.
^ Dan Strumpf. "More Flooding Possible in Soaked Midwest", Associated Press, August 25, 2007. Retrieved on 2007-08-26.
Franz Schulze, "Mies van der Rohe, a Critical Biography", The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1985, ISBN 0-226-74059-5
Paul Goldberger "Farnsworth: The Lightness of Being" July-August 2004 issue of Preservation
Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Ill.: Jan 29, 1998.
Maritz Vandenberg, "Farnsworth House: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe", Architecture in detail, 2003, ISBN 0 -148-3152-2
Dieitlef Mertins, "The Presence of Mies", 1994,ISBN 1-56898-013-2
Werner Blaser, "After Mies: Teaching and Principles", 1977, ISBN 0-442-20820-0
Arthur Drexler, "Ludwig Mies van der Rohe", 1960

Society of Architectural Historians

Special thanks to the Society of Architectural Historians
for some of the images on this page (copyright SAH).