Thursday, July 9, 2009

Austere Transparency

The Farnsworth House (1951), southeast elevation; Plano, Illinois; architect, Mies van der Rohe. Photograph taken about fifteen feet from the Fox River bank. Photograph courtesy of David Versluis, 2009.

View from the porch looking southeast through the entry doors to the living room. Photograph courtesy of David Versluis, 2009

The Farnsworth House is a self-contained icon of modernist domestic architecture. As early twentieth century German writer, Paul Scheerbart remarked, “Vermin is not neat and clean; in glass houses it’s never seen.”

As a graphic designer working to arrange visual information in two or three-dimensional space—I’ve always learned and looked at the work of architects, particularly Mies van der Rohe. I’m especially inspired by how architects approach proportion and spatial relationships. I also appreciate the refinement and honest expression of revealed structure and materials, including wood, of the Farnsworth House, which I think is still relevant for twenty-first century designers.

The Edith Farnsworth House was designed by Mies in 1946 and built by 1951. The House was built of glass and steel, as a weekend retreat, on the Fox River near Plano, Illinois; a small town about 60 miles southwest of Chicago. The structure rests about five feet above the flood plain on I-beam supports. However, flooding during the last fifteen years has proven that the elevation is inadequate because of excess snow and rainwater drainage due to urban sprawl.

The Farnsworth House (1951), north elevation. The interior space—left of center are the kitchen and bedroom areas. Photograph courtesy of David Versluis, 2009.

Chicago art historian, Franz Schulze explains: “Certainly the house is more nearly temple than dwelling, and it rewards aesthetic contemplation before it fulfills domestic necessity.” He adds, “Most viewers are arrested by their initial perception of the house. The disarmingly simple rectilinear geometry of its white piers and slabs creates an impression, which Mies fully intended, of architectural structure reduced to an abstracted essence, with the resultant image all the more striking as seen against the backdrop of a wooded natural environment”.

In the Encyclopedia of Modern Architecture (1964), contributor, William H. Jordy describes the house:
As three floating slabs—a terrace slab, and behind it floor and roof slabs—are lifted from the ground on metal I-beams supports. The welding of the supports to the sides of the slabs, as though magnetism kept the frame intact, enhances the floating quality of the spreading slabs. Smaller slabs, also seemingly floated, serve as stairs, from the ground to the terrace and from the terrace to the entrance porch of the rectangular glass-box living area. It is so apparently simple that the subtleties of this extraordinarily elegant frame are readily missed on casual inspection, as are the subtleties of a composition in which the evident asymmetry is countered by hidden symmetries.

In his American work especially Mies has repeatedly taken a basic building type—in this instance the open pavilion lightly supported around the perimeter… by suspending the roof slab from exposed girders [forming a wide open, clear-span interior space].
Mies was quintessentially a comprehensive designer for the modern industrial society. Again, as Jordy states: “To create a modern architecture with a neoclassical severity of means, purity of form, perfection of proportions, elegance of detail and dignity of expression is the underlying preoccupation of Mies’s career.”

Interestingly, Dutch art historian, Marty Bax offers this insight about Mies:
… Around 1921, his classic designs changed into towering glass structures based on crystalloid shapes derived from nature.

Presumably Mies’s interest for the utopia of St. Thomas Aquinas evolved at the same time. The approach of this church father to the beauty of daily life and his emphasis on objective, scientific study of nature as a source of all life, served to connect Mies’s religious background with his classic architectural training.… For Mies van der Rohe classical architecture with its universal aesthetics transcended any social, economic or political categorization of society. In practice, however, Mies’s architecture was not accessible to all levels of society.
Perhaps, if one could ask, what would Ms. Farnsworth say about living in a glass house.

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