Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was retained by Dr. Edith Farnsworth to design a weekend retreat during a dinner party in 1945. The wealthy client wanted to build a very special work of modern architecture, however, toward the end of construction, a dispute arose between architect and client that interfered with its completion by the architect.
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Farnsworth House, the temple of domestic modernism designed by Mies van der Rohe as a weekend retreat for a Chicago doctor, is one of the most paradoxical houses of the 20th century. A perfectionist mirage, it floats like a pavilion in a park, but its history has been beset by plagues, floods and feuds. As the second installment of a series of three modernist classics presented by Archilogic, we’ve modeled the Farnsworth house so that you can see if—in spite of its austere reputation—it can be lived in after all. In this model you can explore the spatial arrangement of the house, and refurnish it with Eames chairs, deck it out with your IKEA favorites, or booby-trap it with children’s toys.
The Farnsworth House addresses basic issues about the relationship between the individual and his society. Mies viewed the technology-driven modern era in which an ordinary individual exists as largely beyond one’s control. But he believed the individual can and should exist in harmony with the culture of one’s time for successful fulfillment. His career was a long and patient search for an architecture that would be a true expression of the essential soul of his epoch, the Holy Grail of German Modernism. He perceived our epoch as the era of industrial mass production, a civilization shaped by the forces of rapid technological development. Mies wanted to use architecture as a tool to help reconcile the individual spirit with the new mass society in which the individual exists.
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In the twenty-first century, Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critics Paul Goldberger and Blair Kamin have both declared the house a masterpiece of modern architecture. Its timeless quality is reflected by the reverent fascination in the minimalist house shown by a new generation of design professionals and enthusiasts.
Cite: Adam Jasper & David Tran, Archilogic. “A Virtual Look Into Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House” 24 Jul 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed .
Mies applied this space concept, with variations, to his later buildings, most notably at Crown Hall, his Illinois Institute of Technology campus masterpiece. The notion of a single room that can be freely used or zoned in any way, with flexibility to accommodate changing uses, free of interior supports, enclosed in glass and supported by a minimum of structural framing located at the exterior, is the architectural ideal that defines Mies’ American career. The Farnsworth House is significant as his first complete realization of this ideal, a prototype for his vision of what modern architecture in an era of technology should be.
Farnsworth had purchased the riverfront property from the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Robert R. McCormick. Mies developed the design in time for it to be included in an exhibit on his work at MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1947. After completion of design, the project was placed on hold awaiting an inheritance from an ailing aunt of Farnsworth. Mies was to act as the general contractor as well as architect. Work began in 1950 and substantially, was completed in 1951. The commission was an ideal one for any architect, but was marred by a very publicized dispute between Farnsworth and Mies that began near the end of construction. The total cost of the house was $74,000 in 1951 ($648,000 in 2012 dollars). A cost overrun of $15,600 over the initially approved construction budget of $58,400, was due to escalating material prices resulting from inflationary commodities speculation (in anticipation of demand arising from the mobilization for the Korean War). Near the completion of construction, Mies filed a lawsuit for non-payment of $28,173 in construction costs. The owner then filed a counter suit for damages due to alleged malpractice. Mies’ attorneys proved that Farnsworth had approved the plans and budget increases, and the court ordered the owner to pay her bills. Farnsworth’s malpractice accusations were dismissed as unsubstantiated. It was a bitter and hollow victory for Mies, considering the painful publicity that followed.
Archilogic’s model allows you mess with Mies’ purity. You can refurnish the house like you’re an Eames in your dreams, or Dr Farnsworth herself. Click on the square brackets at the bottom right to go full screen. Build walls of cupboards to separate the bedroom from the living room, or improvise a sophisticated campsite on the terrace. Archilogic’s engine allows you to interact with the model, rather than just gawk at it, so go ahead and make your own domestic heaven or hell.
Take only one visual subtlety that Mies employed: the roof itself is exactly as thick as the floor plate, fifteen inches. Yet the floor, filled with aggregate and dressed in travertine, is much heavier than the roof. There’s no structural reason to make them the same depth, but it helps reinforce the illusion that the building floats in the landscape, that it is tethered to the ground by its white columns, rather than held up by them. The promise of the house to float is perhaps best fulfilled by its appearance during the floods that periodically cause the Fox river to burst its banks. When the initial plans were made, the stilts held the house safely above the highest recorded flood levels, but as Chicago has expanded and the climate has changed, it is a regular victim of inundation (and it’s been expensively restored several times after being filled with mud).
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The Farnsworth House stands as an independent structure. The house is in perfect harmony with nature – there is no garden architecture, no pathways, or flower beds. A large maple tree shelters the raised travertine marble terrace. The elements of the surrounding nature coincide with the panes of glass and the exterior of the house. The exterior includes materials of steel, natural stone, and glass. The steel, painted white, creates the structure that supports the floor and ceiling slabs. They are composed of concrete, along with radiant coil set in the floor used for heating purposes. The remainder of the exterior consists of the 1/4-inch-thick glass panels that enclose the space.
His answer to the issue is to accept the need for an orderly framework as necessary for existence, while making space for the freedom needed by the individual human spirit to flourish. He created buildings with free and open space within a minimal framework, using expressed structural columns. He did not believe in the use of architecture for social engineering of human behavior, as many other modernists did, but his architecture does represent ideals and aspirations. His mature design work is a physical expression of his understanding of the modern epoch. He provides the occupants of his buildings with flexible and unobstructed space in which to fulfill themselves as individuals, despite their anonymous condition in the modern industrial culture. The materials of his buildings, industrial manufactured products such as mill-formed steel and plate glass, certainly represent the character of the modern era, but he counterbalances these with traditional luxuries such as Roman travertine and exotic wood veneers as valid parts of modern life. Mies accepted the problems of industrial society as facts to be dealt with, and offered his idealized vision of how technology may be made beautiful and support the individual as well. He suggests that the downsides of technology decried by late nineteenth century critics such as John Ruskin, can be solved with human creativity, and shows us how in the architecture of this house.
Although the materials do not conceal their industrial origins, the precision of the composition, and the level of finish is designed to convey a sense of carefully controlled luxury. Everything is done to make the building appear weightless. The white metal stanchions do not reach the line of the roof, hinting at the aesthetic order of a Greek temple, whose columns sit below the entablature.
The poor energy efficiency of the Farnsworth House has been widely discussed as well.
Nearest cityPlano, IllinoisCoordinates41°38′5.96″N 88°32′8.6″W / 41.6349889°N 88.535722°W / 41.6349889; -88.535722Coordinates: 41°38′5.96″N 88°32′8.6″W / 41.6349889°N 88.
535722°W / 41.6349889; -88.535722Built1951ArchitectLudwig Mies van der RoheArchitectural styleInternational Style, ModernistNRHP reference #04000867Significant datesAdded to NRHPOctober 7, 2004Designated NHLFebruary 17, 2006
Mies found the large open exhibit halls of the turn of the century to be very much in character with his sense of the industrial era. Here he applied the concept of an unobstructed space that is flexible for use by people. The interior appears to be a single open room, its space ebbing and flowing around two wood blocks; one a wardrobe cabinet and the other containing a kitchen, toilet, and fireplace block (the “core”). The larger fireplace-kitchen core seems to be a separate house nesting within the larger glass house. The building is essentially one large room filled with freestanding elements that provide subtle differentiations within an open space, implied but not dictated, zones for sleeping, cooking, dressing, eating, and sitting. Very private areas such as toilets, and mechanical rooms are enclosed within the core. Drawings recently made public by the Museum of Modern Art indicate that the architect provided ceiling details that allow for the addition of curtain tracks that would allow privacy separations of the open spaces into three “rooms”. The drapery was never installed.
Archilogic’s model helps reveal the spatiality of the Farnsworth house in a way that photography cannot. The central core of the house, the opaque wooden obelisk that screens the kitchen and contains the bathrooms, shows itself in the Archilogic model to be a kind of grand daddy to the now ubiquitous kitchen island, the static centre around which everything circulates. Mies often favored a kind of pinwheel floorplan, in which the plan might look flexible, but came with strong serving suggestions, not only about what furniture to use, and what to wear, but also what direction to walk in. As a walk around the Archilogic model clearly shows, although all the zones of the house are interconnected, crucial lines of sight are blocked by the wooden core. As transparent as the house may be, the bedroom is not visible from the front door, nor can the living room be seen from the kitchen.
Nonetheless, the Farnsworth House has continued to receive wide critical acclaim as a masterpiece of the modernist style, and Mies went on to receive the presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to American architecture and culture. Prominent architect and critic, Philip Johnson, was inspired by the design, designing and building his own Glass House in 1947 as his personal residence.
In 2001, Palumbo struck a deal with the state of Illinois, which agreed to buy the house for $7 million and open it full-time to the public, but state officials withdrew from the deal in early 2003, saying $7 million was too much to spend at a time of financial crisis.
This section needs to be updated. Please update this article to reflect recent events or newly available information. (October 2015)
In 1968, the local highway department condemned a 2-acre (0.81 ha) portion of the property adjoining the house for construction of a raised highway bridge over the Fox River, encroaching upon the original setting of the design. Farnsworth sued to stop the project, but lost the court case. She sold the house in 1972, retiring to her villa in Italy.
As Mies stated on his achievement, “If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed from the outside. That way more is said about nature—it becomes part of a larger whole.” Farnsworth House was created to display nature in a simple and pure form. 
Reconnecting the individual with nature is one of the great challenges of an urbanized society. The 60-acre (24 ha) rural site offered Mies an opportunity to bring the human relationship to nature into the forefront. Here he highlights the individual’s connection to nature through the medium of a synthetic shelter. Mies said: “We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and the human being to a higher unity”. Glass walls and open interior space are the features that create an intense connection with the outdoor environment, while providing a framework reduces opaque exterior walls to a minimum. The careful site design and integration of the exterior environment represents a concerted effort to achieve an architecture wedded to its natural context.
The Farnsworth House was designed and constructed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945 and 1951. It is a one-room weekend retreat in what then was a rural setting, located 55 miles (89 km) southwest of Chicago’s downtown, on a 60-acre (24 ha) estate site adjoining the Fox River, south of the city of Plano, Illinois. The steel and glass house was commissioned by Edith Farnsworth, M.D., a prominent Chicago nephrologist, as a place where she could engage in her hobbies — playing the violin, translating poetry, and enjoying nature. Mies created a 1,500-square-foot (140 m2) structure that is widely recognized as an iconic masterpiece of International Style of architecture. The retreat was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, after being listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. Currently, the house is owned and operated as a historic house museum by the historic preservation group, National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Don’t miss Archilogic’s Virtual Look Into The Eames Case Study House #8.
The day-to-day disadvantages of such houses are obvious, but rarely commented on. At night, the inhabitant of such a house is visible to everything that lives in the forest, but they see nothing. As House Beautiful reported, Dr. Farnsworth described feeling “like a prowling animal, always on the alert.” The plagues of mosquitos that attacked the house from the meadow probably didn’t help her sleep much, either.
The private residence was created in order to enable its inhabitant to experience the rural silence and the passing of the seasons. Open views from all sides of the building help enlarge the area and aid flow between the living space and its natural surroundings.
A winter view of the house in 1971, showing the original insect screening of the porch, and roller shades added by the owner after the curtains were damaged by flood waters
In 2016, the movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, featured a house modelled after the Farnsworth House. The follow-up film Justice League also features the same house in a trailer released at the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con.
One of the many features of the immediate site was a large Black Maple tree, which was integral for the placement and orientation of the house on the site. Incidentally, the same species of tree, which also is quite abundant in the state park to the south, was among the reasons for the land in the immediate vicinity of the house being designated as a state park in the 1960s. Due to disease and old age, the tree died in the early 2000s and subsequently, was removed, as most of the trunk of the tree remained and was being held in place through cables and bracing. The house’s close proximity to the tree, some ten feet, led to a feeling of oneness with nature, which was integral to the design aesthetic that Mies sought in designing the house.
In celebration of the 2018 Illinois Bicentennial, the Farnsworth House was selected as one of the Illinois 200 Great Places  by the American Institute of Architects Illinois component (AIA Illinois) and was recognized by USA Today Travel magazine, as one of AIA Illinois’ selections for Illinois 25 Must See Places.
In September 2008, the house was flooded by rains from the remnants of Hurricane Ike. Water levels reached approximately 18 inches (46 cm) above the floor and the 5 foot (1.5 m) stilts upon which the house rests. Much of the furniture was saved by elevating it above the flood waters. The house was closed to the public for the remainder of 2008 for repairs and reopened for public visitation in spring 2009.
After owning the property for 31 years, Palumbo removed the art and put the property up for sale at Sotheby’s in 2003, raising serious concerns about the future of the building. Preservationists and contributors from around the world, including the Friends of the Farnsworth House, began a concerted preservation and fund-raising effort to keep the house on its original site. With this financial support, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois were able to purchase the house in December 2003 for a reported $7.5 million. Now operated as a house museum, the Farnsworth House is open to the public, with tours conducted by the National Trust. The house is listed in the National Register and is designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior.
The Farnsworth House sits on a floodplain that faces the Fox River, differentiating the vast meadow and a variety of trees from its white exterior. The isolated, private residence establishes the architect’s concept of simple living.
External links Wikimedia Commons has media related to Farnsworth House. Wikinews has related news: Floods spared historic Farnsworth House in Illinois
Start the tour above, or via this link. The animation will guide you through different aspects of the building and will finally leave you to furnish your Farnsworth House.
The house is anchored to the site in the cooling shadow of a large and majestic black maple tree. As Mies often did, the entrance is located on the sunny side, facing the river instead of the street, moving visitors around corners, and revealing views of the house and site from various angles as they approach the front door. The simple elongated cubic form of the house is parallel to the flow of the river, and the terrace platform is slipped downstream in relation to the elevated porch and living platform. Outdoor living spaces were designed to be extensions of the indoor space, with an open terrace and a screened porch (the screens have been removed). Yet the synthetic element always remains clearly distinct from the natural by its geometric forms that are highlighted by the choice of white as their primary color.
The standard account of the Farnsworth House is well known. Edith Farnsworth, a prominent nephrologist, commissioned the house from Mies for a property on a (then) relatively isolated floodplain on the Fox river. As the early letters between client and architect attest, the house was to be a relaxed refuge for the cultivation of the self—for translating poetry, playing music, that kind of thing.
In 1972, the Edith Farnsworth House was purchased by British property magnate, art collector, and architectural aficionado Peter Palumbo. He removed the bronze screen enclosure of the porch, added air conditioning, extensive landscaping, and his art collections to the grounds, including sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy, Anthony Caro, and Richard Serra. At the time, the interior was furnished with furniture Mies designed in the 1930s, but that was produced more recently by Knoll, as well as designs by Mies’ grandson, Dirk Lohan, a Chicago architect Palumbo commissioned specifically for the house.
The essential characteristics of the house are immediately apparent. The extensive use of clear floor-to-ceiling glass opens the interior to its natural surroundings to an extreme degree. Two distinctly expressed horizontal slabs, which form the roof and the floor, sandwich an open space for living. The slab edges are defined by exposed steel structural members painted pure white. The house is elevated 5 feet 3 inches (1.60 m) above a flood plain by eight wide flange steel columns which are attached to the sides of the floor and ceiling slabs. The slab ends extend beyond the column supports, creating cantilevers. A third floating slab, an attached terrace, acts as a transition between the living area and the ground. The house is accessed by two sets of wide steps connecting ground to terrace and then to porch.
Mies conceived the building as an indoor-outdoor architectural shelter simultaneously independent of and intertwined with the domain of nature. Mies did not build on the flood-free upland portions of the site, choosing instead to tempt the dangerous forces of nature by building directly on the flood plain near the edge of the river. Philip Johnson referred to this type of experience of nature as “safe danger”. The enclosed space and a screened porch are elevated five feet on a raised floor platform, just slightly above the 100-year flood level, with a large intermediate terrace level. Twice, the house has flooded substantially above the living level floor level, in 1956 and 1996 (both in excess of FEMA 500-year flood levels), causing significant damage to utilities, wood veneers, glass, and furnishings. The site experienced heavy rains and floodwaters rising to within two feet of the main floor in August 2007, setting curators scrambling to protect the house and its contents from any further rise in the flood level.
The conflict between the architect and the client resulted in an unfinished site and an unfurnished interior. The construction of a teak wardrobe closet and the system of bronze-framed screens to enclose the deck porch were completed to Mies’ designs by his former employee, architect William Dunlap, and a local millworker who mediated between them. Mies never again communicated with Edith, nor spoke publicly about their rumored relationship. Edith continued to use the house as her weekend retreat for the next 21 years, often hosting architectural notables visiting to see the work of the world-famous architect.
Like Philip Johnson’s Glass Hhouse, which it directly inspired, the Farnsworth house is exceptionally photogenic. It lives in perfect symbiosis with photography, the interior revealing itself to the voyeuristic x-ray eye of the camera. However the most interesting photographs of the Farnsworth house might not be those that show it in its purist glory. Rather, they are those from the later occupancy of Dr. Edith Farnsworth herself, struggling to assert her identity over that of the buildings. Those photographs that show the insect screens and TV aerials, the flood damage and rust, like the classic photos of the Villa Savoye as a ruin, perhaps carry more appeal than the building in its current uninhabited perfection.
The building design received accolades in the architectural press, resulting in swarms of uninvited visitors trespassing on the property to glimpse this latest Mies building. As a result of the accusations contained in Edith Farnsworth’s lawsuit, the house soon became a prop in the larger national social conflicts of the McCarthy era. The weekend house became a lightning rod for anti-modernist publications, exemplified in the April 1953 issue of House Beautiful, which attacked it as a “communist-inspired effort” to supplant traditional American styles. Large areas of glass wall, flat roofs, purging of ornament, and a perceived lack of traditional warmth and coziness were characteristics of the International Style that were particular talking points of attack.
It was announced in 2011 that the Illinois Institute of Technology, for which Mies restructured and designed its Master Plan was going to build a permanent exhibition space for the huge wardrobe that was formerly in the house. The wardrobe had been extensively damaged in the 1996, 1998, and 2008 floods, with its large size rendering any possible evacuation attempt costly and difficult. In an attempt to protect the wardrobe, curators of the Farnsworth House decided to have the wardrobe put on permanent display near the visitor center on the site, which is well above the 500-year flood plain. Under the direction of Professor Frank Flury, students of the Illinois Institute of Technology have been involved in the design and construction of the structure to contain it so that the wardrobe will be better protected for future visitors. The students have nicknamed the building “Barnsworth”. It was scheduled to be completed in September 2012.
Flood waters surround the Farnsworth House. Image via National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The architectural ambitions for the house, however, were pitched high from the beginning. Even before construction the plans were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947 (by Philip Johnson, who later did his own knock-off). All the elements of a story are there: a rumored romance between architect and client, a public falling out, and a controversial court case (see Sex and Real Estate, Reconsidered: What Was the True Story Behind Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House?).
In 2013, Lego Architecture series produced a model of the Farnsworth House as a part of their landmark series.
Dr Edith Farnsworth’s furnishings on the upper terrace of the House. Courtesy and copyright of Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois
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Underside of house. Note the tube in the center of the house designed as a single point of entry for all the buildings utilities.
Writing about the conflict in 1998, author Alice T. Friedman asserted that “[t]here is no evidence to suggest that [Farnsworth] sought to have her behavior challenged by the ‘inner logic’ of Mies’s unyielding architectural vision; on the contrary, she seems to have had a clear idea about how she wanted to live and she expected the architect to respect her views… [S]he soon discovered that what Mies wanted, and what he had thought he had found in her, was a patron who would put her budget and her needs aside in favor of his own goals and dreams as an architect.”
The house has a distinctly independent personality, yet also evokes strong feelings of a connection to the land. The levels of the platforms restate the multiple levels of the site, in a kind of poetic architectural rhyme, not unlike the horizontal balconies and rocks do at Wright’s Fallingwater.