To see the Farnsworth House in reality is to understand how perfection can be revealed in steel and glass. It is an understanding no visitor can resist. But to live in it — as I once did for several days — is to put every assumption of the modernist aesthetic to severe test.
It is an astonishingly beautiful building, as visceral as it is intellectual. The way in which elementary materials and ‘nearly nothing’ have a transcendent effect is profound. It floats, perfect proportions denying material weight. From outside it looks agreeably alien; from inside, its transparency makes landscape captive. And the architect’s attention to the logic of structure and to detail is revelatory. Rivet heads were painstakingly ground off at steel junctions to make visually perfect joints. The frame is made with such fanatical precision that it responds to impacts like a tuning fork. As a whole, the Farnsworth House improves upon nature, which was Voltaire’s definition of art.
Yet it is absurd. Mies insisted on building on the Fox River’s floodplain, the better to enjoy the local woods. He refused thermally efficient double-glazing. Only after protest was Farnsworth allowed a wardrobe; Mies said it was a weekend house and the necessary single dress could be hung out of sight behind the bathroom door. He was adamant that his own furniture designs were used rather than his client’s preferences. Moreover, his architectural training had not included Mechanical & Electrical Services, so he knew nothing of plumbing, heating, air-conditioning, drainage or power supply. Water seepage from above complemented the rising damp caused by the turbulent, intrusive Fox below. The house was an oven in summer and a freezer in winter. Ugly stains soon appeared. When Farnsworth complained about the exiguous fireplace, Mies said: ‘Get smaller logs.’
The original budget had been $10,000. But this ‘functionalist’ architect was notoriously sloppy in business, and the account came to seven times as much. Despite his managerial incompetence, Mies took Farnsworth to court over unpaid fees and won. Her revenge was to fill the house with unsuitable furniture — and eventually to go to live in Italy (where her relationship with the poet Eugenio Montale was another episode of Euro-flavored unrequited love).
Farnsworth House is a magnificent catastrophe, a manifesto of designer arrogance, a maintenance nightmare, an unlivable space where God fought with Satan over the details, especially the boiler and drains. And it is now a national monument, a pilgrimage site for architecture students from all over the world. Widely imitated (by designers whom Nikolaus Pevsner called ‘three blind Mies’), it has never been bettered. In a sense, it couldn’t be.
I wrote a paper in college about Mies van der Rohe’s directorship of the Bauhaus in the early 1930s, before it was closed by the Nazis, which assured its fame forever. Thus did most of the material that I consulted for that paper take a rather hagiographic approach to modernist architecture and its practitioners. It took Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) to expose their arrogance and even incompetence.