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Sex and Real Estate, Reconsidered: What Was the True Story Behind Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House?

08:30 - 3 July, 2015
Unidentified woman, perhaps Edith Farnsworth, at Farnsworth House. Undated.  [BACK] Gorman’s Child Photography. Courtesy and copyright of Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.
Unidentified woman, perhaps Edith Farnsworth, at Farnsworth House. Undated. [BACK] Gorman’s Child Photography. Courtesy and copyright of Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.

In 1951, Mies van der Rohe completed a house in Plano, Illinois that was the epitome of his modernist ideals; with a steel structure surrounded entirely by glass walls the building perfectly connected the user with its idyllic natural setting, and it was - and is - venerated as a masterwork. A lesser-known story about the work is how its owner Dr Edith Farnsworth attempted to sue her architect, in a story of bitterness and unrequited love - but even less well-known, argues Nora Wendl, is the story of what really happened. In this excerpt from her essay "Uncompromising Reasons for Going West: A Story of Sex and Real Estate, Reconsidered," published in Thresholds issue 43: "Scandalous," Wendl examines the overblown and dubious assertions made about Farnsworth's intentions, finding that the truth may be much more simple: perhaps the Farnsworth House is just not a pleasant place to live.

“I have decided to speak up.”

Such is the threshold between a private affair and a public scandal: one person speaks. These are also the opening lines to “The Threat to the Next America,” which appears in the April 1953 issue of House Beautiful. Penned by editor Elizabeth Gordon, the article describes an unnamed, but “highly intelligent, now disillusioned, woman who spent more than $70,000 building a 1-room house that is nothing but a glass cage on stilts.”[1] Gordon warns readers of a design movement sweeping the nation:

Something is rotten in the state of design—and it is spoiling some of our best efforts in modern living. After watching it for several years, after meeting it with silence, House Beautiful has decided to speak out and appeal to your common sense, because it is common sense that is mostly under attack. Two ways of life stretch before us. One leads to the richness of variety, to comfort and beauty. The other, the one we want fully to expose to you, retreats to poverty and unlivability. Worst of all, it contains the threat of cultural dictatorship.[2]

Farnsworth House, south façade and terrace. Undated.  [BACK] Gorman’s Child Photography. Courtesy and copyright of Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois. Farnsworth House, interior. Undated.  [BACK] Gorman’s Child Photography. Courtesy and copyright of Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois. Farnsworth House, looking northwest from the interior of screened-in porch, furnished by Farnsworth. Undated.  [BACK] Gorman’s Child Photography. Courtesy and copyright of Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois. Farnsworth House, exterior, view of south façade and east end of terrace with Farnsworth’s sculptures. Undated.  [BACK] Gorman’s Child Photography. Courtesy and copyright of Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois. + 15

Luftwerk to Illuminate Mies' Farnsworth House this Weekend

00:00 - 16 October, 2014
Luftwerk to Illuminate Mies' Farnsworth House this Weekend, © Kate Joyce, Courtesy of Luftwerk
© Kate Joyce, Courtesy of Luftwerk

Starting tomorrow (October 17), Chicago-based artists Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero of Luftwerk will be transforming Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House into a “canvas of light and sound” with the digital installation, INsite. “An exploration of the philosophy of Mies through light,” INsite will offer an entirely new nighttime experience at the Plano residence that highlights the architecture’s famed characteristics with an interactive light show pulsating to the original “sonic exploration” of Owen Clay Condon.

A video preview of the installation, after the break.

Hydraulic Stilts Considered to Protect Farnsworth House

00:00 - 1 May, 2014
Hydraulic Stilts Considered to Protect Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House. Image © Greg Robbins
Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House. Image © Greg Robbins

In recent years, Mies van der Rohe's famous glass-walled Farnsworth House has been under a grave threat from flooding by the Fox River which runs right past it. In the past 18 years, the house has been flooded three times, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage, and now its owners the National Trust for Historic Preservation are considering plans for a permanent solution - among which is a plan to install hydraulic stilts which would lift the entire house out of harm's way in the event of a flood.

Read more about the plans after the break

Waubonsee Community College Plano Classroom Building / Holabird & Root

00:00 - 28 March, 2011
Waubonsee Community College Plano Classroom Building / Holabird & Root, © Jim Steinkamp Photography
© Jim Steinkamp Photography

© Jim Steinkamp Photography © Jim Steinkamp Photography © Jim Steinkamp Photography © Jim Steinkamp Photography + 24

AD Classics: The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe

01:00 - 13 May, 2010
AD Classics: The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe

AD Classics: The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe AD Classics: The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe AD Classics: The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe AD Classics: The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe + 10

  • Architects

  • Location

    Plano, United States
  • Architect

    Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
  • Client

    Dr. Edith Farnsworth
  • References

    Zimmerman, Claire. Mies Van Der Rohe. Taschen America Llc, 2006. Print. and www.farnsworthhouse.org
  • Project Year

    0