September 19, 2011

Architectural Field Trip – Farnsworth House

Architectural Field Trip
Farnsworth House – 1951
Plano, Illinois
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Farnsworth House - Southern elevation

Like I often do when I travel, I tacked a pilgrimage to Farnsworth House onto a family vacation. It was the setting of a short story I wrote last summer in which the house is a set piece for a conflict that builds over a long weekend and combusts on the terrace late at night, during a raucous party. After imagining it for months and seeing it in pictures and plan for years, I wanted to take it all in in person to verify or correct my intuitions about the building and its relationship with the site.

Farnsworth House - Floating planes

The terrace hovers just above the ground plane, a threshold between the house and the river.

I’ll get the gushing out of the way immediately. Farnsworth House is every bit the powerful and provocative architectural statement critics and historians make it out to be. Just three horizontal slabs—a terrace, floor, and roof—balanced on eight structural I-beams, it exemplifies restraint and clarity of purpose.  It is an archetype for a reason.

But I knew all that. What I didn’t know—and what surprised me—was its warmth, ease, and modesty. It isn’t so much a house as a pavilion or sheltered porch from which to observe the ephemera of the site. Although the furniture is crisp and machined mid-Century pieces, the travertine floor balances with warmth and texture, so that it begs to be walked on barefoot. (I obliged.)

Farnsworth House - Travertine tiles

Mies van der Rohe individually selected and located each travertine tile on site.

In pictures, the house takes up the landscape, a novel object in a field.  In life, it has a reciprocal relationship with the site. Although perched roughly my height above the ground (1.6 meters), the living volume doesn’t dominate the landscape; instead it’s at eye-level with the Fox River, so the interiors seem to stretch to meet its bank.


The terrace, which mediates between the ground plane and the residence, offers a moment of stasis that slows your progression between the house and the site, reminding you to pause and appreciate your surroundings. Although some could criticize the glass-enclosed volume for exposing its occupants to impertinent stares, it seems like such a small price to pay for a seamless connection with this peaceful spot amidst expanses of cornfields.

Farnsworth House - Covered porch

Walls of glass meet at the corners to allow for diagonal views of the site.

Personally discovering Farnsworth House’s subtle details reinforced for me the importance of a private experience of architecture. My experience is different from yours is different from Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s is different from Mies van der Rohe’s.  And while there are fundamental truths to this folly on the banks of the Fox River—the architect’s design intent, the various owners’ adaptations—these are appreciated and interpreted through the lens of individual experience.

Farnsworth House - Terrace

Enjoying a cool breeze off the Fox River on a sticky mid-summer afternoon.


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