A study of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

Mies Van Der Rohe’s Fansworth House online link

This essay will look at Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth house. The 1953 house is located in Illinois, USA, facing the Fox River and is set within the ten acre land outside Plano purchased by Dr. Farnswoth. The house contains strikingly modern features and an advanced use of materials. The architect’s approach to designing and constructing Farnsworth house sums his idea of Modernism at the time as well as marking the historical change in 20th century domesticity. The house looks into the relationship between the individual and the environment through Mies’s exploration of nature, material and body.

The design of Farnsworth house could be compared to that of Frank Lloyd Wright, an established modern architect of the early 20th century.  His 1936 house for the Jacob’s family displays his idea of the modern use of material and technology to create the modern lifestyle. In the Jacobs house, Wright looks into the social context as well as the evolution of design in order meet the needs of his clients. The relatively economical house displays similarities to the Farnsworth house in that it explores the idea of domestic living, but there are also differences in the approach taken to tackle the impact of lifestyle changes on design.

Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth house consists of a “roof and floor planes supported on eight exposed H-columns” and “enclosed by sheets of plate glass”[1]. The skin of glass envelops the inside of the building thus exposing the steel beams to the outside. The exposed steel creates a “constructive appearance”[2] that is associated with Mies’s work in the United States. The raw nature of the metal beams establishes a feeling of solidity and truth while the alignment of the beams and simple shadow lines elaborate the precision involved. However, it is in the joining of different elements of the house that we really begin to see the architect’s ability to deceive the observer’s logic and assumption[3]. Unlike the conventional jointing of beams using nuts and bolts, the H columns have been attached to the roof and floor using a technique called “plug weld”[4]. This technique involves beams welded to the roof using a series of plugs. The beams are then finished to disguise the real construction method. The overall appearance is that of an illusion as the components look like they are simply aligned with each other. The lack of screws or welding marks makes it difficult to identify the construction method. The clean and undisturbed lines are similar to that of architectural drawings thus lending to it surreal atmosphere.

Likewise, the Jacob’s house is made up of a light weight structure, supported by the enveloping cladding. Each major component of the house is deliberately “flattened, compressed, thin”[5] to create a “wafer” like structure. Whilst the overall construction is self supporting, the seemingly thin structure is deceiving to the eye. It is difficult to identify the load bearing structure from the other walls. Mies, like Wright explores the advances of technology through design in the hope of creating a new spatial experience.

Both the roof and floor of Farnsworth house are made of steel beams constructed to create a box like structure, which acts as both the load bearing and design element. The eight beams carry both the elevated floor as well as the roof. The floor and roof are of similar dimensions which means that they can be conceived as identical element on different horizon lines. All metal components are therefore single elements, multiplied and composed to create the balanced and harmonious space felt in the house. Furthermore, the impression that both planes are light illustrates the ease of interchangeability[6] between the two. One can feel a certain joy or playfulness in the disorientation caused by such paradoxical space. Farnsworth house fulfills its purpose as a weekend house in creating a space of escape from the real world.

The beams, roof and floor of Farnsworth house are painted white. The use of white creates an objective and undisturbed exterior which helps the inhabitants to view the form of the building without distraction[7]. The white colour is also suitable for exploring the effects of nature on the building. Changes in light, shadow and climate throughout the day and seasons all play a role discovering the relationship between nature and Farnsworth house. For instance during day, as light hits the surface of the white roof and metal beams, the white exterior illuminates marking the significance of the house within its site . While in the inside, undefined shadows of the beams and furniture form on the travertine floors. At sunset the colour of the house transforms into an infinite spectrum of shades of red and orange and during the winter[8], the white beams camouflage with the snow covered land, submerged within the environment but distant from the outside. In one way or another, Farnsworth house never looks the same landscape twice.

The exterior of Jacob’s House is made of a combination of red brick masonry and wood cladding. The house does not necessarily try to reflect its direct environment but rather the social one. The use of bricks demonstrates the sturdiness of the house while the wood, a perishable[9] material lends to its flexibility. Wright’s use of material is relevant because the US was passing through the great depression at the time thus limiting the budget of resources to construct. Unlike its counterpart, Jacob’s house emphasizes the difficulties of its time through its use of material.

In Farnsworth house, the glass skin aims to explore the relationship between the inside and outside space as well as the inhabitant and their environment. The uses of glass walls merge the two sides thus turning the landscape into the boundaries of the inside space and as the external space itself. When viewing the outside, the inhabitant becomes part of the overall environment yet always separated from it[10].  To be inside the Farnsworth house is like being in and out of the landscape at the same time, to be both absorbed and detached[11] from the surroundings. Again, Farnsworth house positions the inhabitant in an absurd position as both the observer and the subject of observation at the same time.

The combination of the glass walls, roof, ceiling and metal beams create a perfect tool for framing views to the outside. Taking the small section of the landscape, with all its unpredictability and continuous change leaves the inhabitant free to explore them. The framing of views is an important feature in Farnsworth house because it explores Mies’s idea of “Horizon”[12]. All around the house, the views have been carefully selected to demonstrate this; the composition of lawn, forestry and sky form several horizons which are interchangeable with each other. Moreover, “the more we concentrate on the landscape, the more floor and ceiling appear interchangeable”[13]. From another view, the flood plane area where the house is sited is likely to be submerged in water as the river nearby[14] rises and falls thus changing the horizon.  The views elaborate the lack of datum within the parasite, emphasizing the spatial disorientation in Farnsworth house.

The large wall windows in the Jacob’s house are similar to the glass panels in Farnsworth house. However, while the glass panels in Farnsworth house are for observing the views outside, the glass windows in Jacobs are intended for interaction between the inside and outside space[15]. Family members can move around the house either through the house, or around it. This merging of inside and outside space acts as a transitional phase thus breaking the boundaries of the walls. The two houses use the same material for different purposes elaborates each of the architects views on integration of materiality and technology to everyday life.

Farnsworth house is elevated five feet three inches off the ground to prevent flooding. This elevation from the ground to the patio and then to the house through steps creates several horizon lines that did not exist previously. Climbing the stairs gives the impression that one is being elevated themselves by the house into a “resting place”[16].This elite feeling is further emphasized as the slight elevation off the ground to the patio acts as a break in the continuous rise, allowing the inhibitor to reminiscent over the surroundings before entering the house. Further more, the use of the patio is also significant in creating the ease of transition from the ground to the house because it acts as an enlarged step. This ease of movement can also be experience in the small detail of the stairs. The slight overlapping of the stairs suggests consistency and regularity that balances the experience of being elevated to a different ground level and to a different place. Mies highlights that the house is an entity of its natural setting through the use of “a continuous plane of travertine [the floor] from which broad travertine steps descend to open travertine terrace[17]” thus breaking down the barrier between the different spaces.

The plan of the house is designed so that the core functions, such as the kitchen and the sleeping areas are located in the centre, supported by one of the two fixed elements[18]. The gathering of functions into one unit allow for greater space around the edges of the house. In combination with the selected furniture by Mies, one can see the intended movement of everyday life is marked by the positioning of different functions in relation to each other. The sleeping area is contained in the core and surrounded by the relatively narrow kitchen and the open lounge. The plan of the house contains only two fixed elements, this creates a simplistic plan in which the inhabitant can move around easily and freely. Farnsworth house could be describes as a cellular unit, self-contained and independent of the exterior because the arrangement of functions are compact and self supporting. This is also demonstrated by the fact that there are no components directly under the house.

In comparison, the plan of Wright’s house consists of an L shaped plan[19], separating the house into private and public space. In the centre of the house the fireplace acts as the meeting point for the Family members where they can gather together as one, this is part of Wrights strive to create the “Utopian”[20]. Both plans show similarities in separating the private, functional areas from the public, open space. The division shows how modern domestic homes are set up as a collection of spaces. It is interesting to see that in Mies’s case, the public space envelopes the private space whilst in Wright, it is almost the reverse.

The effect of the glass walls overlooking the outside can be powerful to the extent that the inhabitor is engaged completely with the outside. The addition of furniture creates a balance between the inside and outside space by adding certain activity to the inside. Furniture act as a guideline from the architect to the client about where and what activity takes place in different spaces. To sleep while looking at the river’s horizon[21] or sitting down, viewing the landscape; Mies selection of furniture, place, position and time is a deliberate act of control on the intended lifestyle in Farnsworth house. This genius formation and consideration of all aspects of the house provokes uncomprehending satisfaction[22] at both the balances and imbalances within the house.

Wright’s dislike of the excessive use of vernacular furniture led to the integration of furniture within the house. Built-in shelves, beds and drawers mean that excessive furniture could be “eliminated” [23]. Mies personal selection of furniture and Wright’s built –in pieces highlight their strong opinion about the modern lifestyle lived in either houses. In a controlling and slightly restrictive method, the two modern architects define such lifestyle. Mies’s aim to create a space of escape in Farnsworth house can not be accomplished if all components have not been controlled.

The arrangement of colours and textures within the Farnsworth house complement the colours used in the exterior[24]. Aluminum door handles and chair legs reflect the light beams from the outside whilst the smooth textures of the wood core indicate the centre of the house where the sleeping area lies. During the day, the ceiling illuminates a weak ray of light, reflected from the glass thus making the interior of the house slightly dimmed. Whilst this may be quite calming and peaceful, it is as though the inhibitor is hidden from the outside.

The use of glass as a colour is also an ironic one. As the seasons change the colour of the house also changes, continuously integrating the house within the environment. Most of the components in the house are plain and subtle in colour; tonal changes are a result of environmental factors such as those created by the light and shadow.  This allows the inhabitant to truly understand his surroundings and to explore natural phenomena undisturbed.

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house is one of the highlights of modernism, it marks a change in lifestyle and in architecture. Farnsworth house is the break down of architectural elements and is a meeting point between architectural drawings, technology and the creation of space. It is also an introduction to modern domestic life in its simplest form. Whilst the Jacob’s house is a successful example of architecture in the real world, Farnsworth House is a radical representation of modern living.  Farnsworth house has been describes as the “purest and the most extreme statement of aesthetic purpose in one particular direction that the new architecture had produced”[25] because it was able to successfully demonstrate Mies’s view on the importance of nature, material and the body in relation to our modern era.

References

[1] Spaeth,David, Mies van Der Rohe, Rizzoli international publication INC, New York,(1985), pg 121

[2] Lambert, Phyllis, Mies in America, Canadian centre for architecture and Whitney Museum of American Art, Canada(2001), pg 333

[3] Cadwell, Micheal, Strange details, The Mit press, London,(2007), pg 113

[4] Cadwell, Micheal, Strange details, The Mit press, London,(2007), pg 113

[5]Cadwell, Micheal, Strange details, The Mit press, London,(2007), pg 58

[6]Cadwell, Micheal, Strange details, The Mit press, London,(2007), pg 122

[7] Cadwell, Micheal, Strange details, The Mit press, London,(2007), pg 115

[8] Tiger hill studio, Image of Farnsworth house http, available at www.farnsworthhouse.org/photos.htm, accessed on 13th March 2011

[9] Cadwell, Micheal, Strange details, The Mit press, London,(2007), pg 52

[10] Ibid. pg119

[11] Ibid. pg 119

[12] Ibid. pg 125

[13] Ibid. pg 122

[14] Ibid. pg 128

[15] Ibid. pg 61

[16] Lambert, Phyllis, Mies in America, Canadian centre for architecture and Whitney Museum of American Art, Canada(2001), pg 343

[17] Hitchcock, Henry-Russell, The pelican history of art, architecture: nineteenth and twentieth centuries, penguin books (1978) pg.528

[18] Spaeth,David, Mies van Der Rohe, Rizzoli international publication INC, New York,(1985) pg 121

[19] Cadwell, Micheal, Strange details, The Mit press, London,(2007), pg 69

[20] Cadwell, Micheal, Strange details, The Mit press, London,(2007), pg 57

[21] Ibid.pg 129

[22] Spaeth,David, Mies van Der Rohe, Rizzoli international publication INC, New York,(1985), pg 125

[23] Cadwell, Micheal, Strange details, The Mit press, London,(2007), pg 71

[24] Cadwell, Micheal, Strange details, The Mit press, London,(2007), pg 119

[25] Hitchcock, Henry-Russell, The pelican history of art, architecture: nineteenth and twentieth centuries, penguin books (1978) pg.528

Bibliography

  • Cadwell, Micheal, Strange details, The Mit press, London,(2007),
  • Ching, Francis D.K., Architecture: form, space and order (Third Edition),John Wiley & sons INC. (2007)
  • Great buildings website, available at www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Farnsworth_House.html, Kevin Matthews and artifice Inc(1994-2011)
  • Hitchcock, Henry-Russell, The pelican history of art, architecture: nineteenth and twentieth centuries, penguin books (1978)
  • Lambert, Phyllis, Mies in America, Canadian centre for architecture and Whitney Museum of American Art, Canada(2001),
  • Spaeth, David, Mies van Der Rohe, Rizzoli international publication Inc, New York,(1985)
  • Tiger hill studio, Image of Farnsworth house, available at www.farnsworthhouse.org/photos.htm, National trust for Historic Preservation, Washington DC, (2011)

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