In The Field: Mies van der Rohe
Studying the work of the master in and out of Chicago.
I arrived in Chicago late in the evening. The air was crisp, the ground was wet; evidence of the weather I had just missed. After checking in at The Ace Hotel, a Commune project completed in 2017 that nods to the work of Mies and the Bauhaus influence in Chicago, I got back in the car to cover some ground. All around the city, from the apartment towers along Lake Shore Drive, the Federal Center downtown, to the IIT Campus, Mies can be seen, or for the curious, experienced. At a late hour, bathed from the rain in the dead of night, Mies’ perfectly detailed grids towered precisely and sublimely into the clouds.
In a small clearing along the Fox River in Plano, Illinois sits - or hovers, stands, floats - the Farnsworth House. A weekend retreat designed and built for Edith Farnsworth by Mies from 1945 to 1951. Early the next morning I made the hour drive southwest from Chicago for both a morning and an evening tour of this iconic residence. The story of the house is one of pure drama: it was infamously knocked off by Philip Johnson and his own glass house before its completion and endlessly litigated by Edith after its completion. For those less familiar with the story, Broken Glass by Alex Beam is an incredibly well-written and engaging account of the making of the house and the affairs that ensued.
Your first glimpse of the Farnsworth House comes amidst a beautiful walk in the woods; while traversing dense forest and streams your eyes begin to lock on abstracted bright white horizontals and verticals. Feelings rush over you regardless of your high anticipation or low expectations. After visiting residences by Neutra, Schindler, the Eames, and many others many times over the years, I thought I’d seen it all. But that is hardly the case. The Farnsworth House is one of the most perfectly detailed spaces I have ever seen. Call it a space, an object, architecture or industrial design, it’s a complete work of art (a gesamptkuntswerk). From the Parthenon-like floating steps, the perfect grid of travertine inside and out, the full height glass enclosure, the obsessively detailed core housing two bathrooms and a kitchen, from the overall scale and proportion down to the minutiae, every single move is confident and resolute.
John Pawson, the famous British architect, sums it up quite well: “Oh my god. It’s the holy grail, it’s the most sublime space or object I’ve ever visited. I mean it’s right up there with the pyramids or Le Thoronet… Everything about it, to the last screw, is thought out. It’s one of the first, it’s the vey best. You can’t take it any further. And it’s the very definition of minimum: of which you can’t add or subtract from it. It’s reached a certain perfection. So from there on, everything else for me is slightly downhill.”
In The Architecture of Happiness Alain de Bottom writes, “In literature, too, we admire prose in which a small and astutely arranged set of words has been constructed to carry a large consignment of ideas.” And that’s exactly what Mies did with the Farnsworth House. Mies distilled an entire manifesto, the “will of the epoch”, into a perfectly detailed and constructed residence with only the most succinct vocabulary. A vocabulary found throughout the rest of his prodigious career whether it be in Chicago (Lake Shore Drive apartments, Federal Center, IIT Campus) or New York (Seagram Building) or Berlin (Nueue Nationalgalerie). In Mies’s own words, “People say that I have pursued a narrow, personal path. I feel that I have always sought the universal.”
My last day in Chicago played out like a greatest hits album. I woke up early to tour the IIT Campus once more, to tour a few units in the Lake Shore Drive apartment buildings, and to sit and work in the plaza of the Federal Center. Lastly, I went to Chicago’s famous Graceland Cemetery to see the gravestones of the city’s finest. Among them are Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Edith Brooks Farnsworth, closer together in the end than either one would have probably preferred.
Words and images by Preston Alba.