American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 17
People who live in glass houses
Edith Farnsworth, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe,
and Philip Johnson

Alice T. Friedman

The Farnsworth House (1945–51, Figure 17.1), in Plano, Illinois, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) is one of a handful of modern buildings that always seem extraordinary […]. Perched in the middle of a grassy meadow on the bank of the Fox River, some fifty miles west of Chicago, the Farnsworth House appears to be the perfect embodiment of Mies’s dictum “Less is more.” Even from a distance one is struck by the elegance and simplicity of its form. Eight slender columns of white-painted steel support a transparent glass box; two horizontal planes—crisp, parallel bands of steel hovering above the ground—represent the floor and the roof. Though barely making physical contact with its site, the house seems securely anchored in the green sea that surrounds it; there is a toughness and immutability to the structure, which contrast with the thinness and apparent insubstantiality of the forms. With its low terrace and ladderlike suspended staircases, the house appears to be a life raft or a tent platform, a place of refuge from the turbulence of nature. This image (and experience) of insularity is reinforced by the fact that the interior of the house is almost totally sealed off from the outside world: the only openings in the glass “skin” are a door on one short side of the rectangle, which serves as the entrance, and two small windows set low on the opposite wall.

A thin but seemingly impermeable membrane of glass thus forms the boundary between inside and outside on all four sides of the box; grass, trees, and river are visible through the “walls,” yet they seem distant and abstracted, like elements in a landscape painting. This is not simply because the views from the house are framed by the rectilinear structure, but because objects and landscape beyond the glass appear recessed and diminished, as though the surface of the wall were a picture plane and the objects behind it were imaginary, not real. When one looks at things inside the house, however, this equation is reversed: there is an immediacy that is inescapable—one’s awareness of the material world is heightened. In part this is due to the fact that the interior is simply one large room (the entire platform measures 77 × 28 feet), subdivided by a freestanding wooden core, which encloses two bathrooms, a fireplace, and a galley kitchen. This block at the center and a lower bank of cupboards at the far end of the house screen and subdivide the space to some degree, but the living areas remain essentially open and unbounded. Within this interior environment, sights and sounds are magnified, people and objects move closer and seem more tangible and tactile.

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