Case Study: Farnsworth House
The Farnsworth House, built between 1945 and 1951 for Dr. Edith Farnsworth as a weekend retreat, is a platonic perfection of order gently placed in spontaneous nature in Plano, Illinois. Just right outside of Chicago in a 10-acre secluded wooded site with the Fox River to the south, the glass pavilion takes full advantage of relating to its natural surroundings, achieving Mies' concept of a strong relationship between the house and nature.
Two parallel planes held in suspension between the earth and sky by only eight steel columns—seems simple, but Mies worked through 167 drawings to come to his final, fearless design. Like Einstein’s equation, its simplicity exudes an elegance through a thorough attention to detail. However, Mies did not create the Farnsworth House to be an iconic glass box viewed from afar. Rather, he hoped to create a space through which life unfolds both independently and interdependently with nature.
Edith Farnsworth, a brilliant doctor, first met Mies at a cocktail party in Chicago. Familiar with his work, she asked if he would design a small weekend retreat for her on the banks of the Fox River. Upon visiting the 64-acre site, largely within a flood plain, Mies perceived the true power already present within the natural landscape. Thus began his quest for a transparent structure that would minimize the boundary between man and the natural world. With an open floor plan of only 2400 square feet, he created three distinct spatial interfaces: a transparent house, a covered terrace, and an open deck. His budget was $40,000.
Edith Farnsworth nurtured a sophisticated intellect and daring stance. Though charmed by Mies’ quiet, bold genius, she was certainly aware of his minimal form and bravely gave him freedom to create—a visionary and rare move which allowed Mies’ own vision to grow. For some time, she and Mies enjoyed a deep friendship fused by common interest and parallel intellect, often spending days and evenings together both on and off site. But as time wore on and expenses skyrocketed, Edith’s patience and enthusiasm waned. She sold the house in 1975 to a British Lord after living there periodically for several decades. In 2003, the Landmarks Preservation of Illinois and the National Trust purchased the house for $6.7 million. Edith, who died in 1978, never lived to know her house as one of the most widely acclaimed 20th-century structures.
Photo credit, Michelle Chlebek