Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Form without function.

Farnsworth house is truly beautiful architecture. Designed by Mies van der Rohe for a prominent urologist, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. The house is a triumph of aesthetic design. Architecture books sing the house's praises and the architect's vision. And who can argue? It's complimentary relationship with the environment, the way the structure is approached, how it sits above the ground, its clean lines all validate the greatness of its design. So I suppose it should not be to impolite to ask, what was it like to live in this triumph of modernism?

Crap actually.

According to Dr Farnsworth:
The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert. I am always restless. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night. I can rarely stretch out and relax…What else? I don’t keep garbage under my sink. Do you know why? Because you can see the whole “kitchen” from the road on the way in here and the can would spoil the appearance of the whole house. So I hide it in the closet further down from the sink. Mies talks about “free space”: but his space is very fixed. I can’t even put a clothes hanger in my house without considering how it affects everything from outside. Any arrangement of furniture becomes a major problem, because the house is transparent, like an X-ray

A night, lit up like a lantern and situated as it was in a forest, the house was a beacon to insects from miles around. Fly screens were not designed for the house, as it would have spoiled the purity of the design, so you couldn't open a window. In winter it was freezing, in summer a furnace. The personally selected marble on the entry steps needed to be scrubbed regularly since the falling leaves tended to stain it. It was unlivable.

A house's primary reason for being is to provide us with shelter and comfort. If a house is unable to do this it has failed in its function. As a machine for living in, it is broken. Yet architects continue to praise this house lavishly. A beautiful house that cannot be lived in; a triumph of form over function. The triumph of Modernism, the failure of modern Architecture.


Anonymous said...

On the other hand, the second owner (for 30 years ) did nothing but lavish praise on the poetic experience of living in this weekend house.

Some people whine about everything, and others enjoy the really special things in life.

The Social Pathologist said...

From the Jetset modern website:

"Dr. Farnsworth settled into her perfect/imperfect house in a disgruntlement that lasted until 1972, when she sold the house to its current owner, Lord Peter Palumbo. Lord Palumbo has worked very hard to maintain the house in an original condition; one of his first acts was to remove the Dunlap-designed screens. After suffering for some years with the mosquito problem and ventilation difficulties, he finally added a discreet air-conditioning system: Mies' design was truly habitable at last.

It's beautiful no doubt, but it failed as a home, even a weekend one, until modification. It's great art, but it isn't great architecture. Finally as a house, its very unforgiving of the inhabitants personal touches, it only works if one lives one life strictly according to the vision of the architect. Traditional architecture is more forgiving.

Anonymous said...

Dunlap did not design anything in the house, he just did technical drawings for Mies. Mies had already purchased the bronze screens before the client relationship went sour.

I dont know where these false stories come from, but they are repeated endlessly on the internet. The fact is the weekend house was very livable, with great ventilation systems, until Palumbo removed the screens from the porch. It was sited in the shade of three large trees, and it had infinitely adjustable full height drapery to keep the sun out on hot days.

It is certainly possible to decorate any house poorly, as Farnsworth did, But Palumbo and his architect made it beautiful, even though he filled it with numerous personal items. Palumbo added the AC only for keeping the humidity under control, to protect his very valuable art and collectables.

The main flaw of the house is that it is only affordable to wealthy individuals, both in initial cost and upkeep. But still far cheaper than a typical McMansion. Fortunately for the rest of us, a preservation group worked hard to raise the money to buy it and open it for the public to enjoy.

The Social Pathologist said...

The fact is the weekend house was very livable, with great ventilation systems

That's not what Farnsworth said. Are the bronze screens still there? I mean was this a concession to Farnsworth, or a deliberate part of the design? If so, why arn't the screens still there.

Full length curtains do block out the sunlight but they trap the heat. Sunlight passes through glass onto the curtains, the curtains then re-radiate the heat at a longer wavelength, to which the glass is not transparent. The principle of the greenhouse effect.
Drawing the curtains on a sunny day gives you a dark, hot, house.

With modern construction techniques, a similar house could be built quite cheaply, especially if you were prepared to do the work yourself. The problem is, take this house out of its wooded pasture and plant it in a suburban lot, it would fail. No privacy, no storage, no partitions, poor climate control. It works only in context of the site.

One of the exercises I plan to do one day is to take the house and photoshop it into a suburban context. Then I would put a car in the living room. What you would get is basically a car dealers show room.

Once again, the house is beautiful in it's context, and it permits decoration in a certain style, as determined by the architect. But as prototype for domestic housing it fails. It's a millionaires plaything, much like Johnson's glass house.

Have you had any dealings with the house itself?

Anonymous said...

According to the court led investigation, Edith lied in everything she said in her legal complaint.

Palumbo removed the screens and frames when he bought the house in 1972. Mies designed them into the project from the beginning, they are shown in his first sketch of the house, and in the 1946 models he exhibited at MOMA.

His sketch shows a traditional wing chair in the living room. The whole idea was to create a framework for flexible space that could accommodate anything, ugly or beautiful, left to the occupant

The screened porch functioned as a sleeping porch in hot weather, and cross ventilated the entire house, supplemented by a whole-house exhaust fan. The trees on the south are very large and dense, providing almost complete shading.

The building is very much designed for its context, on a private rural site, in a floodplain. It would never make any sense in a suburban setting.

There was a fine glass house built by a fabric designer in a wooded suburb of Chicago, who used it for his car collection. He too was a millionaire. It is prominently featured in the film "Ferris Buelers day off".

Yes, Farnsworth was wealthy, and later purchased an Italian villa to retire to.

The Social Pathologist said...

I've done a bit more reading on the issue, and yes, you're quite correct, Mies did design the bronze screens. What I don't understand is why aren't they shown in the photos of the house? Do they detract from the purity of the design?

The whole idea was to create a framework for flexible space that could accommodate anything, ugly or beautiful, left to the occupant

It's as much a period piece as any Empire or Victorian house. Only certain pieces of furniture will work with it harmoniously. Palumbo had better taste than Farnsworth.

As to Edith's lying in court, as I understand it, the case was dismissed on the grounds that she was fully informed and consented with regard to the nature of the works. Mies didn't spring any surprises on her. But isn't that like many amateur home builders, who design the house of their dreams, only to find out that it does not work, and then blame everyone else but themselves?

By the way, another good article--it mentions the screens as well--on the house. Please note the practical problems of living in it.

Please note, I do think it a beautiful structure, but not a practical house. Form without the function.