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What they don't teach you in architecture school

When you go to architecture school, you are indoctrinated to appreciate certain projects, buildings, and houses. One of those pieces of architecture, at least for my generation, is the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, by Mies van der Rohe.

Completed in 1951 for Dr. Edith Farnsworth (a nephrologist), the house is one of the most celebrated midcentury modern houses in the United States. Today, the former weekend retreat is a museum owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (Information on how to visit can be found, here.)

But what they don’t teach you in architecture school is that the house never really worked all that well as, you know, an actual house. And that the client and architect ended up embroiled in legal battles toward the end of construction.

This is part of the story that is told in Alex Beam’s new book, Broken Glass, which was recently reviewed by Witold Rybczynski in the Wall Street Journal. Now, Witold isn’t a fan of modern architecture to begin with and so the Farnsworth House never stood a chance:

Despite the purposeful appearance of his architecture, Mies was not particularly interested in practical matters. The travertine on the terrace weathered badly, and a poorly designed heating system left sooty stains on the windows. The glass walls resulted in spectacular heating bills in the winter and hothouse temperatures in the summer—there were only two small openable windows. Then there was the problem of condensation on the glass in cold weather. “You feel as though you are in a car in the rain with a windshield wiper that doesn’t work,” Farnsworth complained. A film about the genesis of her house, starring Elizabeth Debicki and Ralph Fiennes, is currently in the works. It will be interesting to see if it will show the doctor squeegeeing her foggy windows.

On his blog, Witold calls Mies an aesthete. Appearance was everything. My personal view is that it’s generally good practice to design houses so that they function properly. But icons are icons and the Farnsworth House is certainly an icon. Maybe we should just call it a prototype.

Image: Farnsworth House (National Trust for Historic Preservation)

1 Comment so far

  1. Arno M

    Like everyone else, Mies wasn’t perfect and not all of his buildings functioned very well. That’s not to say all his buildings were the same. Having had the privilege to study on a Mies-designed campus for the better part of 3 years (IIT), a lot of his buildings function very well. Crown Hall, arguably his magnum opus, is a beautiful piece of architecture that also works very well. Not perfect by any means, but never as uncomfortable as Farnsworth may have been.

    It’s a bit disingenuous to judge someone’s body of work through the lens of one of his somewhat failed pieces. I really like your idea of the house being an experiment, I think it’s a much more accurate descriptor. Innovation means taking risks and sometimes these risks result in failure. It’s too easy to look at this with hindsight implying that he should have known better. The building technologies in the 40s were not what they are today. Werner Sobek built an all-glass house a few years back that was seemingly made very liveable thanks to technological advances.

    https://www.wernersobek.de/en/projects/focus-en/design-en/r128/

    Liked by 1 person

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