Saturday, June 17, 2006

beinahe nichts – almost nothing

floating terrace
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo.
I’ve been working up to this all week, and I still don’t know how to write about Plano and what I saw there.

Like Crown Hall, Mies’ Farnsworth House made a tremendous emotional impact. But this one didn’t leave me giddy.

The spare rectilinear form of Farnsworth has been likened to a Zen temple – but I think it’s more Shinto than Zen, more deeply connected to the landscape and the spirits that dwell within it -- and completely unafraid to want something more.

That same spark of desire that hit me at Crown Hall visited me at Farnsworth: But I wanted something different here. Crown Hall is about doing, making, and achieving. Farnsworth filled me with a desire to be still. A desire to be simple. A desire to move carefully and pay attention to each living thing that shared that moment with me.

It is beautifully and completely what it was designed to be: a place for one individual to get away on the weekend. I can’t imagine that it could be occupied more fully than that. It can be visited, of course, and there’s room to share a meal and drink on the patio with dear friends. To talk long into the night, to stoke the fire and share stories on that boundary-less travertine that stretches like a far horizon into the landscape that surrounds it.

But then the guests must go, and the single occupant will bed down in the far corner, which really isn’t far from anything, the house is so compact – to fall asleep under the trees and wake again, with the sunrise. (There could be no escaping the sunrise in a house where the walls are all glass.)

I’ve never slept so deeply and completely as I have on extended camping or sailing trips, in large part because my body soon acclimates to the rhythms of the sun, waking with the sunrise. Sleeping in a tent, of course, the sun finds you regardless of the tent walls. Sleeping on a boat I’ve always been miserable in the close confines of a cabin, so I usually manage to find my way up to the deck and the stars. And of course the sun finds you there too – but that’s as it should be. I imagine sleeping at Farnsworth would be something like that.

The stories about Farnsworth’s commission and Mies’ execution vary according to who serves them up. One of the rumors is that Farnsworth, a kidney specialist from Chicago and a single woman, took a liking to Mies and he took a liking to her – for the duration of the project. Then, as costs ran high – he used only the finest travertine, the most exceptional Primavera wood, and spent many, many hours of design and fabrication time on the doorknob for the front door (just one example) – they grew tired of one another, and then irascible. They wound up in court before all was said and done. Mies won and Farnsworth wound up paying more than double the original $40K that she had budgeted for the expense.

She called the house her Mies-conception (her journals about the experience are online at the Farnsworth house site) – but can you blame her? She wanted a weekend getaway – she wound up with a masterpiece.

A masterpiece without central air, only one working window and no mosquito screens – which anyone who’s spent any time in Illinois in the summertime will explain to you borders on inhumane.

She had to bully Mies into building her a storage cabinet to house her stereo equipment and, on the reverse, a few pieces of clothing. (Mies had offered her only a hook in the bathroom for her clothes – because who could want more, for a weekend, than what would fit on a single hook?)

She was surrounded by a structure that – while being almost nothing (Mies’ beinahe nichts), enforced a rigorous simplicity – and simplicity is something you have to want.

Ascetics want simplicity because they expect to be transformed by it. If transformation isn’t on your shopping list, simplicity is penal. Deprivation dominates.
The architecture of the Farnsworth House celebrates technology – at least the technology of the late 1940s, when it was designed – and yet it seems even more to honor the impulses of softness and peaceful coexistence. Modernity and technology, it tells us, are not inconsistent with modesty, serenity, and the most humane aspects of civilization. It is difficult to describe the sense of peace that you feel when inside the house, in part because it is somewhat unexpected.

We think of Mies’architecture as rigid. It is certainly not casual, but neither is it controlling. His clean, clear lines and planes are not there to make us straight and pure as they are. Yes, they enforce a certain discipline – no one in a Miesian space feels right giving in to the chaos – but you feel that the precision, far from confining, is what liberates you. Every person who enters becomes a natural foil for the rational structure, conscious of the fact that your body, like the great maple tree out front, is itself a piece of nature.

Paul Goldberger writing in Farnsworth: The Lightness of Being in the July | August 2004 issue of Preservation

It was impossible to capture the house in photography, but I tried anyway. Here’s a brief slideshow for the brave and the forgiving »

And here's the address to the house. (Just go.):

The Farnsworth House
14520 River Road
Plano, IL 60545
Tel (630) 552-0052


patrick said...

What a write-up!

I had this feeling of reverence when I was there that was quite a bit more powerful than the feeling I get when I'm in a European cathedral. The tour guide really didn't have to tell me not to touch anything, there was no way I could have done that anyway.

I can see why it would be infuriating to live'd feel like Mies was watching your every move, that he'd see every little change you made, any furniture you brought, everything. It would be a beautiful glass prison.

I was almost afraid to even speak inside it...

Remiss63 said...

Your description of the house, its sensibility, history, aura, and physicality are incredibly accurate. I've had a love/hate thing with Mies that goes back a long ways. In visiting the Farnsworth House, I fell in love all over again.

Thank you for reminding me. Your photographs are fantastic (no replacement for being there, of course, but wonderful nevertheless).

Samot said...

The stories about the lack of screens, windows, lack of privacy, and closet space are completely false. Mies provided each of these in his design, everything neccessary for a weekend pavilion intended as a place from which to contemplate nature, and our place in the universe.

Poor Edith was a tragic figure, lonley, searching for love and acceptance. An extremely intelligent woman, her anger at Mies for rejecting her led to regrettable and untrue statements that hurt herself as much as the architect.

And unfortunately for Mies, opponents of modernism (or perhaps conservative proponents of traditional ways is the fair and balanced description) used Edith in their public efforts to stem the rising popularity of modern design and lifestyles.

It was a lose-lose situation for the client and architect, and a big PR win for traditionalists.

But this sad story of flawed human character only strenghtens the power of the house, which I see as a declaration of our utopian aspirations about how we would like to live, and the promises offered by technology to make it possible.

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