Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, completed 1951
Piano, Illinois
Commissioned in 1945 and finished in 1951, the Farnsworth House is generally
regarded as one of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s most elegantly conceived and precisely
constructed buildings, easily the finest residence he put up in his later, American career.
Among his completed house designs, only the Tugendhat House (1930) in Brno, which
dates from his years in Germany, is considered comparable in quality.
The most striking feature of the Farnsworth House is its outer aspect. The walls
consist of floor-to-ceiling glass mounted behind a simple frame made up of eight steel
wide-flange piers, four to a side, that support a roof slab and a floor slab, the latter raised
some five feet above the ground. The plan is rectangular, with the axis running east and
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west and the interior giving on to a deck on the west. Symmetry is qualified by a terrace
located next to the main structure along the western edge of the south, or front, elevation.
The house surveys a lawn that extends 50 yards to the north bank of the Fox River. A
short flight of cantilevered steps provides access from the ground to the terrace, whereon
a second flight, parallel to the first, rises to the deck. At that point, the visitor turns right
to enter the double-door portal. All steel components of the house have been sandblasted
and painted white.
Much of this description seems a reasonable confirmation of Mies’ reputation as a
classicist, although his inclination to deviate from that classification is apparent in the
asymmetrical position of the terrace and in the subtlety—which has escaped the attention
of many—of locating the portal closer to the south wall than to the north.
Mies’ reason for the latter device stems from his layout of the unpartitioned interior.
The single volumetric element is a core that contains two bathrooms, the kitchen
facilities, and a tightly packed space through which all utilities descend via a cylindrical
tube to the ground. Since the core has been deflected slightly to the northeast, the
surrounding space is implicitly divided by varying sizes: the largest, a parlorlike area,
with a fireplace, to the south (overlooking the river); a smaller, dining area to the west; a
long, narrow kitchen to the north; and a sleeping area to the east. By placing the portal
slightly closer to the south, the visitor on entry is likely to concentrate his attention on the
living area, while the dining area appears to gain more space for itself. The principal
articles of furniture now in place were designed by Mies, although with the exception of a
large teak storage cabinet done specifically for the house, they are reproductions dating
from his German years. The floor is heated by radiation facilitated by a small forced-air
furnace in the utility space. The house is now air conditioned, although originally the
only ventilation was provided by opening the entry door and/ or a pair of hopper
windows on the opposite, or east, elevation.
Such a summary should suffice to suggest the reductivist simplicity of the design.
Words, however, do not convey the certainty of the proportions and the excellence of the
materials, most notably the travertine floors and the prima-vera wood cladding the core.
One of Mies’ most impressive effects is gained by his decision to raise the structure
above the ground. While the functional purpose of that move was to protect the house
from the floods that occur regularly along the river, the elevated height simultaneously
and indivisibly accomplishes an aesthetic end, leaving the house—especially in view of
the transparency of its window walls and the whiteness of its framing members—in a
seeming state of levitation.
The house exerted an impact on Mies’ later work and on the larger,
American architectural scene as well. It was one of the first examples of a building type, the clear-span pavilion, that, perhaps more than any
other, preoccupied Mies throughout his post-World War II career. In addition, it attracted
a huge amount of attention from critics and designers alike, some of it negative—
especially from observers who found the very idea of a steel-framed glass house a
grievous departure from traditional concepts of domesticity—but most of it
enthusiastically affirmative. Philip Johnson, long an admirer of Mies, offered up the
ultimate compliment by fashioning his own house in a manner perceptibly indebted to the
Farnsworth House. The Johnson design diverged from Mies’ in several respects: it was
built on a symmetrical plan, with neither a terrace nor a deck nor even a substantial core,
but its very form (not to mention its excellence) rested in large part on Johnson’s
imitation of the Farnsworth model.
The Farnsworth House cannot be fairly discussed without some consideration given its
client and its subsequent owner. In requesting Mies to design the house in 1945, Dr. Edith
Farnsworth, a distinguished Chicago nephrologist with a substantial knowledge of the
arts, knew full well the merits of the architect whom she had chosen to produce a
weekend retreat for herself just south of the town of Piano, about 60 miles from Chicago.
Mies in turn appreciated the fact that Farnsworth, as a single woman using the house only
intermittently, would impose relatively few complicated domestic requirements on him.
Client and designer worked easily and cordially together in the early stages of the project.
It was Farnsworth, in fact, who voted to employ travertine, one of Mies’ favorite stones,
for the floor surfaces, and the quality of the house profited further from her willingness to
increase the budget, thus enabling Mies to use not only finer materials but also more
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expensive construction devices than had been anticipated in his first sketches (piers
welded rather than bolted to the floor and roof slabs, among other things).
Nonetheless, a relationship that began on a warm footing grew chilly as the 1940s
wore on, and eventually a degree of hostility was reached that ended in a legal battle. The
reasons have never been made completely clear, but to all appearances Farnsworth at one
point decided that Mies not only had gone too far in overspending the means she
provided him with but, in her view, also had disregarded some of her more pressing
requests in the process. Mies had his own opinion about both charges, and when he sued
her for underpayment, she countersued him for professional incompetence, and the matter
ended only when the court ruled in his favor.
Despite the rupture of their friendship, Farnsworth kept the house until
1968, when she sold it to a man who turned out to be its ideal owner. Lord
Peter Palumbo, a wealthy British real estate developer, had known and admired the house and its architect since his schoolboy
years. In 1968, having commissioned Mies to design an office building on a site he
owned in London, Palumbo learned that Farnsworth had put her Fox River house up for
sale. He approached her directly, and by 1972 he had taken full command of the property.
He made all the changes necessary to put the house in premium condition and to keep it
that way. It was he who elected to outfit it with Mies’ furniture, to install air
conditioning, and to hire the landscape architect Lanning Roper to improve the grounds.
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Hardly least, Palumbo bore the enormous cost of repairing the house following a
disastrous flood in 1996 that rose unexpectedly well above the five-foot level, ruining all
the prima-vera wood of the core, breaking two of the window walls, and destroying all
the furniture.
After a half century of existence, the Farnsworth House has assured itself a lofty place
in the annals of modern architecture, testimony both to the gifts of Mies van der Rohe
and to his ultimate good fortune in having had a client as knowing (notwithstanding her
eventual displeasure) as Edith Farnsworth and as sensitive, conscientious, and generous
as Peter Palumbo.

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