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Mies van der Rohe Gets Sued

The troubled story of the glass-walled Farnsworth House


The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe

The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe - Plano, Illinois - 1946 to 1950

Photo © Steve Estes. Published with permission.
Critics called Edith Farnsworth lovesick and spiteful when she filed suit against Mies van der Rohe. More than fifty years later, the glass-walled Farnsworth House still stirs controversy.

Dr. Edith Farnsworth was outraged. "Something should be said and done about such architecture as this," she told House Beautiful magazine, "or there will be no future for architecture."

The target of Dr. Farnsworth's fury was Mies van der Rohe, who had built for her a house made almost entirely of glass. "I thought you could animate a predetermined, classic form like this with your own presence. I wanted to do something 'meaningful,' and all I got was this glib, false sophistication," Dr. Farnsworth complained.

Mies van der Rohe and Edith Farnsworth had been friends. Gossips suspected that the prominent physician had fallen in love with her brilliant architect. Perhaps they had been romantically involved. Or, perhaps they had merely become enmeshed in the passionate activity of co-creation. Either way, Dr. Farnsworth was bitterly disappointed when the house was completed and the architect was no longer a presence in her life.

Dr. Farnsworth took her disappointment to court, to newspapers, and eventually to the pages of House Beautiful magazine. The architectural debate mingled with 1950s cold war hysteria to create a public outcry so loud that even Frank Lloyd Wright joined in.

Mies van der Rohe: Less is more.

Edith Farnsworth: We know that less is not more. It is simply less!

When Dr. Farnsworth asked Mies van der Rohe to design her weekend getaway, he drew upon ideas he had developed (but never built) for another family. The house he envisioned would be austere and abstract. Two rows of eight steel columns would support the floor and roof slabs. In between, the walls would be vast expanses of glass.

Dr. Farnsworth approved the plans. She met with Mies often at the work site and followed the progress of the house. But four years later, when he handed her the keys and the bill, she was stunned. Costs had soared to $73,000 -- equivalent to nearly half a million dollars today. Heating bills were also exorbitant. Moreover, she said, the glass-and-steel structure was not livable.

Mies van der Rohe was baffled by her complaints. Surely the doctor did not think that this house was designed for family living! Rather, the Farnsworth House was meant to be the pure expression of an idea. By reducing architecture to "almost nothing," Mies had created ultimate in objectivity and universality. The sheer, smooth, unornamented Farnsworth House embodied the highest ideals of the new, utopian International Style.

Dr. Farnsworth sued, but her case did not stand up in court. She had, after all, approved the plans and supervised the construction. Seeking justice, and then revenge, she took her frustrations to the press.

In April 1953, House Beautiful magazine responded with a scathing editorial which attacked the work of Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and other followers of the International Style. The style was described as a "Threat to the New America." The magazine insinuated that Communist ideals lurked behind the design of these "grim" and "barren" buildings.

To add fuel to the fire, Frank Lloyd Wright joined in the debate. Wright had always opposed the bare bones architecture of the International School. But he was especially harsh in his attack when he joined in the House Beautiful debate. "Why do I distrust and defy such 'internationalism' as I do communism?" Wright asked. "Because both must by their nature do this very leveling in the name of civilization."

According to Wright, promoters of the International Style were "totalitarians." They were "not wholesome people," he said.

Eventually, Dr. Farnsworth settled into the glass-and-steel house and begrudgingly used it as her vacation retreat until 1972. Mies's creation was widely praised as a jewel, a crystal and a pure expression of an artistic vision. However, the doctor had every right to complain. The house was -- and still is -- riddled with problems.

First of all, the building had bugs. Real ones. At night, the illuminated glass house turned into a lantern, drawing swarms of mosquitos and moths. Dr. Farnsworth hired Chicago architect William E. Dunlap to design bronze-framed screens. The next owner, Lord Peter Palumbo, removed the screens and installed air conditioning -- which also helped with the building's ventilation problems.

But some problems have proved to be unresolvable. The steel columns rust. They frequently need sanding and painting. The house sits near a stream. Severe flooding has caused damage that required extensive repairs. The house, which is now a museum, has been beautifully restored, but it requires ongoing care.

It's difficult to imagine Edith Farnsworth tolerating these conditions for more than twenty years. There must have been moments when she was tempted to throw stones at Mies's perfect, glistening glass walls.

Wouldn't you? Cast your vote!

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