Farnsworth: The Lightness of Being

At one with its setting, Mies van der Rohe's serene creation retains the spiritual simplicity of a Zen garden.

By Paul Goldberger

The Farnsworth House overlooks the Fox River in Plano, Ill., 50 miles south of Chicago.

Credit: Jon Miller, Hedrich Blessing

The 20th century produced a handful of houses that deserve to be ranked with the greatest buildings of all time, and the Farnsworth House is one of them. In this small pavilion Ludwig Mies van der Rohe created a sublime architectural experience of extraordinary power, as exhilarating as a skyscraper and as profound as a cathedral. Mies teases us with the pretense of simplicity—you could think this is nothing but a glass box with a white frame—but this house is about as simple as a Zen garden: utterly spare, perfectly composed. Some people will never understand it, and others will find within it something that can only be described as spiritual.

I had never been to the house until last year. I waited so long to see it partly because it was in private hands and not easy to visit, but also because, like so many people, I took Mies rather too much for granted. I suspect that some part of me thought that for all the hoopla, the Farnsworth House was still just a glass box, a slice of the Seagram Building or one of Mies' other skyscrapers, painted white and dropped in a field beside a river. Elegant, pristine, even stunning, but hardly worth the 60-mile drive from Chicago.

I have never been so wrong about a piece of architecture. This house possesses all of the majesty and power of Mies' tall buildings, compressed tightly and therefore made all the more intense. And just as Mies' towers were not really abstract objects dropped into the middle of a city, but were integrated with great subtlety into their very different surroundings, the Farnsworth House was created specifically for the site, in a meadow beside a river. Floating gently in the grass, its serene facade an exquisite counterpoint to the embracing arms of an immense sugar maple, it was designed for this place just as much as Fallingwater was designed for its perch above a waterfall. If the Farnsworth House were to be removed and reconstructed somewhere else, which was a real possibility before the National Trust's recent purchase, it would still be a beautiful object, of course, but that is all it would be—a piece of sculpture, not a work of architecture.

Mies' achievement resulted from his chance meeting with Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago doctor, at a dinner party in the 1940s. She took an immediate liking to him and commissioned him to design her a weekend house on some land she had inherited from her family near the town of Plano.

She and Mies were both strong-willed people who might have had a difficult client-architect relationship under the best of circumstances, but the romantic overtones of their involvement made it more troubled still. Farnsworth was deeply attracted to Mies, who appears to have reciprocated her affections during the period the house was being designed, but not afterward, and the two parted not as lovers but as litigants, arguing over alleged defects in the house as well as finances. Farnsworth eventually settled the case in Mies' favor, but her nearly two decades in the house were less than happy, and they were made more difficult still when she fought Kendall County, without success, to block the construction of a bridge across the river that would affect her view.

Today you approach the house on foot, an improvement made by Lord Peter Palumbo, who bought the house from Farnsworth in 1968 for $120,000 and had the driveway redesigned so that cars would be out of the lines of sight from the house. (The original property had been only seven acres; both Farnsworth and Palumbo added additional acreage, and the National Trust acquired 58 acres when it purchased the house in December 2003.) The Fox River is off to the left, and there, on the right, facing the river, sits the house—sleek and white and pristine and transparent, its very lightness in curious contrast to the vastness of its reputation. It seems as if it could almost drift away, and at the same time it is as tethered to its place as the pyramids.

My first thought was that everything about this structure was at odds with the soft, wavy lines of the grass, trees, and muddy riverbank. My second was that this was exactly as it should be. This building is more at home in nature, paradoxically, than a log cabin. The contrast between the rectilinear architecture and the natural surroundings is not a means of pulling away from nature, but of reaching toward it. Farnsworth recalled Mies' saying that on this site, "where everything is beautiful and privacy is no issue, it would be a pity to erect an opaque wall between the outside and the inside. So I think we should build the house of steel and glass; in that way we'll let the outside in."

And so the Farnsworth House does not try to imitate nature but rather to coexist with it, its base hovering over the land as if the very point of this building were to show how architecture can tiptoe gently over the earth. The whole notion of a floating building has a kind of magic, as if it were an act of architectural levitation. But Mies indulges in no cheap illusionist's trick here; he shows us quite clearly how the supporting columns come down to the ground, and indeed makes them more prominent than he might have. No matter; the house still seems to float, and the space around it is a kind of halo, as much a part of the house as the space within.

Compared with other icons of the time, the Farnsworth House has neither the structural bravado of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater nor the brilliant intricacy of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye. And it is quite different from the great structure with which it is so often compared, Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., which Johnson designed after seeing Mies' plans for the Farnsworth House but managed to complete in 1949, two years before Farnsworth was done. The Glass House sits foursquare on the earth, as solidly as a Greek temple. Where the Farnsworth is white, the metal structure of the Glass House is painted black, all the more to connect it to the earth. It is anchored and grounded, whereas the Farnsworth is light and ethereal.

The architecture of the Farnsworth House celebrates technology—at least the technology of the late 1940s, when it was designed—and yet it seems even more to honor the impulses of softness and peaceful coexistence. Modernity and technology, it tells us, are not inconsistent with modesty, serenity, and the most humane aspects of civilization. It is difficult to describe the sense of peace that you feel when inside the house, in part because it is somewhat unexpected. We think of Mies' architecture as rigid. It is certainly not casual, but neither is it controlling. His clean, clear lines and planes are not there to make us as straight and pure as they are. Yes, they enforce a certain discipline—no one in a Miesian space feels right giving in to chaos—but you feel that the precision, far from confining, is what liberates you. Every person who enters becomes a natural foil for the rational structure, conscious of the fact that your body, like the great maple tree out front, is itself a piece of nature.

When you come into the house, you move in stages into Mies' environment—first via four travertine steps to an open platform, about two feet above the ground, and then up five more travertine steps to an area that is on the same level as the floor but open on the sides, an abstract version of a traditional porch. (After Mies and Farnsworth parted company, she commissioned another architect to install screens here, which Palumbo removed.) It is a 90-degree turn into the house itself, which consists of a single large, rectangular room divided by an off-center core of primavera—a rich, light-toned wood—that contains two bathrooms and a utility room. There are a dining table and desk in the entryway, a living area to the right of the core, a long galley kitchen to the left, and a bedroom beyond. The furniture is mostly of Mies' own design, and it is placed with as much exactness as the walls and doors. Each chair, table, lamp, and rug becomes not only part of an overall composition but also a potent object in itself.

When he first bought the house, Palumbo asked Mies what he should do with the interior. "Do whatever you want, except with the primavera core. Never hang anything on it, because it is so beautiful," Palumbo recalls Mies' telling him. It is hard to believe that the architect meant to be quite as relaxed about the interior as his remark implied. Edith Farnsworth, however, had been somewhat easygoing about the interior, which she furnished with a mix of modern pieces, some of which may have been chosen in deliberate defiance of the architect. Mies had hoped to design furniture specifically for the house but never did because of his falling out with Farnsworth.

In contrast, Palumbo saw his mission as allowing the design to meet its original potential. He filled the house with furniture of Mies' design, and he added a few new pieces by Dirk Lohan, a Chicago architect who is Mies' grandson, all of which remain. The effect was that of a Miesian temple, pure and correct, but personalized during the more than three decades of Palumbo family residence by a plethora of photographs and some carefully placed pieces of sculpture both indoors and out. (The number of objects the Palumbos had in the house gives the lie to the argument that absolute spareness was required. Precision yes, but spareness, no.)

The photographs and sculptures are now gone, but other parts of the Palumbo legacy remain. Palumbo and his wife, Hayat, were in every way the house's curators. They worked with Lohan to restore it after they took ownership and were forced to restore it again after a flood in 1996. The river crested five feet above the floor, severely damaged two of the glass window walls, much of the furniture, and all of the primavera wood core, requiring their replacement. Outside, assisted by landscape architect Lanning Roper, the Palumbos redesigned the grounds to open up some of the acreage, work that began in the early 1970s and continued for many years.

Indeed, it is difficult to know what would have become of the house had Palumbo not taken it over when he did. Farnsworth, even if she had not been full of conflicting feelings about what the house represented to her, did not give it the care it required. The house needed an owner who was, at least in part, a devoted preservationist. (Not the least of the things that Palumbo preserved was the house's identity: He insisted it be called the Farnsworth House, even though he owned it far longer than Farnsworth did.) Farnsworth abandoned Mies' creation to spend her retirement years in a villa she owned in Italy. She died there in 1977, across the world from the house that will always bear her name, and that has given her an essential role in the architectural history of our time.

Paul Goldberger is architecture critic for The New Yorker and dean of Parsons School of Design.

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