10.19.2014

dancing with architecture: mies's pieces - farnsworth


The day hazed as we made the one hour drive out toward Plano, Illinois, to tour one of the most historic and important Modern houses in the world, the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. After partaking in a fabulous brunch nearby (we asked Siri: "Where's a good place to eat?"), we rushed to the tour when some unexpected construction forced us to take a roundabout path.

The area around Plano (population: ~10,000) is still rural: cornfields and sulking red barns. Gray tendrils of Chicagoland (population: ~ 9.5 million) are uncoiling nearby, so who knows how long the cropfields will last. The Fox River woozes through the relatively flat terrain, its headwaters a short distance northwest of Milwaukee. The 202-mile long river merges with the Illinois River some 60 miles to the southwest of Chicago. About four-fifths of the river rests upstream of Plano, a good catchment to create a pleasantly lazy river, but also a good catchment to create the occasional monster.

It's easy to see why Dr. Edith Farnsworth was attracted to the property when she purchased it for weekend respites from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Lush trees and the ever-calming flow of water just beyond the treeline. She met Mies at a dinner party in 1945 and quickly commissioned him to design a Modern house for the site, giving him free reign to design what he wanted to. He developed the design by 1947 (in time to show it at a 1947 MoMA show in New York) and completed the 1,500 square-foot house in 1951. Due to an ultimately acrimonious relationship with Farnsworth that resulted in lawsuits (perhaps fed by a broken affair), Mies never set foot in the house again after its construction. 

Total cost of the house was $74,000 (that would be $677,000 in 2014) with $15,600 of that coming in over the original budget. Unhappy with the cost-overuns, Farnsworth refused to pay for some construction costs and Mies' architectural fees. Mies sued and won, showing that Farnsworth had approved the increased costs. But the messy trial resulted in bad publicity for the architect, and subsequent articles about the house during the quicksand of the McCarthy era suggested that his architecture was rooted in communism.

Despite the acrimony steeped into the house, Farnsworth lived in it for the next 21 years, only selling it after the highway department built an elevated bridge next door to the house (a truly unfortunate event). Peter Palumbo bought the house and lived in it for 31 years before putting it up for auction in 2003, pitching how easy it would be to move the house somewhere else. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois were able to purchase the property for $7.5 million and preserve it for prosperity and public viewing (yay!). The house joined the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 and became a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

The house is stunning, a perfect glass jewel box nestled among the trees. Similar to Corbusier's be-stilted houses, the Farnsworth House is elevated onto stilts. However, the five-foot elevation is here to accommodate occasional floods, not design dogma (Mies didn't place the house high enough: the remnants of Hurricane Ike resulted in 1.5 feet of water inside the house in 2008). 

Mies is infamous for details (after all, he's the dude that said "God is in the details"), and his attention to perfection is evident here. Everything is well thought out. From the outside, the house is a sculptural art object. From the inside, the outside is everywhere, a sublime engagement with the outdoors (without the mosquitoes...).

If you go on the tour, consider the last one of the day where indoor photography is allowed (something that wasn't clear until I bought tickets for earlier in the day).

Coming over the bridge, Farnsworth barely peeks out from the trees across the Fox River.

This must be the place!

The visitor center.

The house is that-a-way!

Peeking through the trees again. The original access was from the right. 

It's like a temple... The thick trunk-like silhouette underneath the mid-point of the house is where the utilities come into and exit the house. The LP tank is buried to leave the landscape unsullied. 

No railings, thank gawd; but you can't invite drunks or kids over to visit...


Here you can see the I-beams providing the foundation of the house. Notice how he makes a point of showing how the house is held up and retracts the beam from being flush with the floor.



Large single panes of non-tempered glass. 

Photos weren't allowed inside during our tour, but you can't have inside photo restrictions in a glass house! Looking into the office, dining room, and living room. The wood veneered volume in the center holds the fireplace, a guest bath (this side), the master bath (opposite side), and the kitchen (left side). The bedroom on the back side of the wood volume.

If you live in a glass house, you need curtains. These were designed to look good from both sides. This is looking down the entire length of the house through the galley kitchen.

Slightly different angle of the same view showing a wisp of the kitchen.

Here's a view of the kitchen from the outside. 

And here's a view of the bedroom side of the house. Original parking for the house would have been off to the right and toward us.

Porch side view. Mies designed screens for the porch.

"Back" view of the house, although this would have been the original view of the house on approach.

Beautifully non-descript boathouse built later by Palumbo. Unclear who the architect was.

This structure houses the wardrobe Mies designed for the house at Farnsworth's insistence. 

The wardrobe is gorgeous, but it breaks up the flow of the house. Given that it was intended to be a weekend house, Mies anticipated that minimal storage would be needed for clothes; Farnsworth had other thoughts.

Dumpster at Farnsworth.

10.18.2014

What Is Modern 7: A focus on the human condition


For some reason, Modernism for many people equates to soullessness, a life devoid of meaning. However, the opposite is true, at least for good Modernism. Part of the reason for this sense may come from Le Corbusier’s “An Architecture” (bastardized into “A New Architecture” by the American publisher). In his early Modernist (and extremely influential) tome, Corbusier famously wrote in 1923 that “a house is a machine for living in”, subsequently (and unfortunately) shortened to “a house is a machine”. This unfortunate shortening is unfortunate because people then assumed, without reading the book, that Corbusier proposed we turn houses literally into machines (and all the unsavory thoughts and gears that come with that proposal). That was not Corbu’s point.

Corbu’s point was that new technology, dominated by engineers and unshackled by design precedents, focused not on how things had been done before, but instead focused on the purpose of what they were designing and then optimized it to that purpose. In almost all cases, the designs accommodated the people they were intended to serve. Corbu noted that cars are machines for driving, that boats are machines for traveling, that sofas are machines for sitting, and that, indeed, houses are machines for living.


Having established that, he then proceeded to identify what makes a house pleasant to live in, independent of how houses had been designed before. In this, Corbu includes a “Manual of the Dwelling” enumerating his thoughts on a home:

Demand a bathroom looking south, one of the largest rooms in the house or flat, the old drawing-room for instance. One wall to be entirely glazed, opening if possible on to a balcony for sun baths; the most up-to-date fittings with a shower-bath and gymnastic appliances.

An adjoining room to be a dressing-room in which you can dress and undress. Never undress in your bedroom. It is not a clean thing to do and makes the room horribly untidy. In this room demand fitments for your linen and clothing, not more than 5 feet in height, with drawers, hangers, etc.

Demand one really large living room instead of a number of small ones.

Demand bare walls in your bedroom, your living room and your dining-room. Built-in fittings to take the place of much of the furniture, which is expensive to buy, takes up too much room and needs looking after.

If you can, put the kitchen at the top of the house to avoid smells.

Demand concealed or diffused lighting.

Demand a vacuum cleaner.

Buy only practical furniture and never buy decorative “pieces.” If you want to see bad taste, go into the houses of the rich. Put only a few pictures on your walls, and none but good ones.

Keep your odds and ends in drawers or cabinets.

The gramaphone or the pianola or wireless will give you exact interpretations of first rate music, and you will avoid catching cold in the concert hall, and the frenzy of the virtuoso.

Demand ventilating panes to the windows in every room.

Teach your children that a house is only habitable when it is full of light and air, and when the walls and floors are clear. To keep your floors in order eliminate heavy furniture and thick carpets.

Demand a separate garage to your dwelling.

Take a flat which is one size smaller than what your parents accustomed you to. Bear in mind economy in your actions, your household management and in your thoughts.

Although Corbu’s flavor of Modern is described as cold, he was truly a humanist, bending his theories at the knees to bow before humanity.

Corbu goes on, somewhat poetically:

Every modern man has the mechanical sense. The feeling for mechanics exists and is justified by our daily activities. This feeling in regard to machinery is one of deep respect, gratitude, and esteem.

Machinery includes economy as an essential factor leading to minute selection. There is a moral sentiment in the feeling for mechanics.

The man who is intelligent, cold and calm has grown wings to himself [blogger’s note: This is stated on a page with photos of airplanes.]

Men--intelligent, cold and calm--are needed to build the house and lay out the town.

In essense, what The Corbu is saying is that the machine ethic, that ethic of the purposeful engineer to design in a practical and cost-effective manner, needs to be brought into the design of our homes and cities.

However, Corbu recognizes that architecture is not simply cold and practical design:

You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces; that is construction. Ingenuity is at work.

But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: “This is beautiful.” That is Architecture. Art enters in.

My house is practical. I thank you, as I might thank Railway engineers or the telephone service. You have not touched my heart.

But suppose that walls rise towards heaven in such a way that I am moved. [...] That is Architecture.

Although practical design can accidentally lead to beauty (see grain silos), it’s best not to leave beauty to accident:

Architecture is the skilful, accurate and magnificent play of masses seen in light...

Corbu went on to note that the Modern age, the transfer of people from rural to urban areas, from working in a field with family to working in a factory with the faceless, threatens family fabric which in turn threatens civilization. He noted that architecture at a home or city scale can be used to offset these threats, maximizing family interaction and interaction with nature, basic needs of our species. And he further noted that if these basics needs are not met we risk social unrest and the ruin of civilization.

With the exception of certain neighborhoods in California, especially in Los Angeles, and in certain places across the country for a brief period after World War II, Modernism in home design never really took off in the United States, although certain elements of it, the non-style elements, did. However, big business heartily embraced Modernism through Mies van der Rohe’s glass boxes, probably more because of the efficiency of costs than in concern of the human condition (lack of ornamentation and flexible space = cost savings). Because of this adoption, many people associate Modern with business. Shortly before our house was finished, an elderly gentleman pulled up in his Ford LTD, rolled down his window, and asked: “When will you be open for appointments?” Excuse me? I responded. “I need to get my teeth cleaned. Wondering when you will be open for business.” (He was goofing on me, but this discussion really makes us laugh because there’s a Modern house in South Austin we call “The Dentist’s Office”.)


In short, Modern is extremely accommodating to meeting the needs of the occupants. Depending on the skill and assumptions of the architect (and the budget of the client), success at meeting this goal varies, but Modern is intensely focused on designing pleasant spaces to live and work in. We are not forced to live as they did in the 1600s or 1800s or 1950s, Modern is about living as as we live now.

10.15.2014

schindlers on ebay?

A couple of interesting items recently appeared on ebay: a box purportedly to have been designed and made by Schindler (for a starting bid of $2,500) and a table (for a starting bid of $5,000 with a buy it now of $7,500). The items descriptions are rather chunky and claim to be posted by descendants of the Lovells. No certification of authenticity was offered. And then there was some troubling weirdness, such as the description that the Schindler box was from the Lovell Health House. I suppose it's possible that Schindler made something for the Lovells for the Neutra designed house, but I somehow doubt it. Perhaps the box came from one of the other houses Schindler designed and built for the Lovells: hard to say.

The table is more intriguing. It's definitely rough, but it certainly appears to be the table that Schindler made for the Lovell Beach House. But who knows? Schindler's furniture would be relatively easy to reproduce. And while it would be magical to own something designed and built by Schindler's own hands (if I was able to get past the five grand needed to buy it), there would always be that nagging feeling.

Is this real?


Schindler's table:
















Schindler's box:







10.12.2014

What is Modern? 6. A place for everything and everything in its place

Funny that this was in yesterday's paper!

Modern tends to have a clean and clear, almost Zen-like, appearance. There’s little to no clutter. Everything is put away. A minimal vibe. And that’s possible because Modern makes minimal easy by tending to have lots of storage and plans for things to either be built in or have a place where they can be stored. Hoarders need not apply for a Modern lifestyle, at least not hoarders that like their stuff strewn and stacked about.

A random minimal photo from here.

Architects of Modern think about the things we need in our modern world and then think about where they need to be stored away near where they are needed. There’s plenty of storage space in the kitchen, a modern-day explosion of ephemerata if there ever was one. Built-in storage is also generally provided for in the living areas and bedrooms. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes often had a bank of built-in storage bordering hallways as well as drawers galore in the living room.


A wealth of hallway storage in a Wright Usonian.

In our home, we have a massive built-in bookcase and eight large drawers in our living room. Our kitchen is loaded with storage space and is bordered by a large under-the-stairs pantry (oh the oooos and aahhhs we hear when folks see our pantry). Our buds-n-suds room (liquor and laundry) also has ample storage, a built-in wine fridge, and a built in space for a cat box. When our place is picked up (which is more than you might think…), it looks crisp and clean. It looks calm. Everything is in its place. And it’s easy to get there.

Storage in our house.

10.11.2014

where you been?

We didn't post last weekend 'cause we were up in Chicago, ummmm, dancing with architecture! The primary reason for our trip was to see our favorite band, gusgus (the haven't toured the U.S. of A. since the late 90s), so we tacked on several days to tour several architectural sites. Stay tuned as we post over the next few weeks about the sites we saw. Until then, here are some tasters: