Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2010

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If these glass walls could talk

If these glass walls could talk
Photos by Alexandra Micci-Smith '11.

An art history major writes about the relationship between architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his client Edith Farnsworth

By John Sherman '11


Buildings can reveal a lot about the architect who shaped them. But do the structures themselves shape the lives of their inhabitants? Students in Dayton Professor of Art History Abigail Van Slyck's Gender in Architecture course flew to Chicago on their fall break to visit famous architectural sites and see for themselves how, according to the course description, the built environment is used “to reinforce and challenge socially constructed ideas of gender.”

Life is full of teams. There is a Team Milk Chocolate and a Team Dark Chocolate, a Team Coffee and a Team Tea, a Team Vodka and a Team Gin — these alliances are non-negotiable, set in stone for one reason or another.

Beyond mere opinion, they are entrenched in ideology and defensible reasoning. How long have we been fighting the battle between Team Cats and Team Dogs? Team Yankees and Team Red Sox? In Chicago we learned there is, with equal polarity, a Team Edith and a Team Mies.

In 1945, Edith Farnsworth met the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — often referred to simply as “Mies” — at the house of a mutual friend. Mies had earned significant fame as the director of the Bauhaus School of Architecture in Weimar, Germany, but left for the United States in 1937.

When he met Farnsworth, Mies was the director of the School of Architecture at what was then the Armour Institute of Technology, which would become the Illinois Institute of Technology. There he was given free range to enact his theories of severe architectural purity and honesty, designing a comprehensive campus plan and several IIT buildings.

Farnsworth was a successful nephrologist in Chicago at the time and was in her early 40s. She had purchased several acres of land beside the Fox River in Plano, Ill., an hour or so outside the city, with the intention of building a weekend retreat for herself. Mies, it seemed, was just the man for the job.

The two began seeing more of each other socially, visiting the site in Plano and discussing art theory and philosophy, enjoying the intellectual company of one another — she an unmarried professional woman with a taste for culture, he a divorced emigré with a serious professional reputation. Mies was known in the architectural community for his work with the Bauhaus, and as a result of his work at IIT, was gaining a reputation stateside.

In Mies's world of Modernism, purity and honesty were expressed in buildings with an increasingly limited range of building materials — in some cases, only plate glass and steel — and a structural frankness that makes immediately evident the manner in which the building is constructed. … Mies's buildings came to have an exoskeletal quality, their inner supports turned outward or echoed externally.

Edith Farnsworth offered Mies the ideal opportunity to play with domestic architecture. A wealthy patron who loved his work — what more could he ask for? The Farnsworth House would be architectural purity made manifest; it would be a realization of everything toward which his work had been building. It would be a house entirely in theory and barely in function.

Of course, purity is a construction — a figment of one architect's design concept — no more objective than beauty. To be sure, Mies's design for Farnsworth had a great deal to do with both purity and beauty, but very little to do with her.

The house is a glass box, supported by eight white steel I-beams and sandwiched between identical steel slabs. The living space is arranged around a long, central “core,” containing two bathrooms and one half of a galley kitchen. Edith's bedroom accounted for one corner of the box, its exterior walls made of floor-to-ceiling glass, as exposed to the world as the trees on the riverbank.

The original model of the house that Farnsworth saw had translucent glass walls, not transparent ones, and her distress upon discovering that her house could be seen into and through is understandable. Additionally, Mies went thousands of dollars over budget in constructing the house, and to make a long legal battle short, he sued her for the outstanding costs on the house. She countersued him for misrepresenting his design.

Mies won, and Edith ended up paying more than one and a half times the price she was originally quoted, which was already nearly eight times the average price of a home in 1950. Edith used the house as a weekend retreat for nearly 20 years, until it was sold to a British investor, Lord Palumbo, in the early '70s. At that point, she moved to Florence, where she remained until her death in 1977.

The story since then has varied considerably in its retelling. At the Farnsworth House museum, the official story is that Edith Farnsworth was deeply in love with Mies van der Rohe from the start, and when he didn't return her feelings, she retaliated with legal action, thus ending their friendship and the love that could never be. So says Team Mies.

This, we are not. We are Team Edith.

Team Edith believes that Edith Farnsworth was not a desperate spinster hopelessly lusting after an architectural god-among-men; we believe she was a woman too wise to be fleeced and too honest to believe, at first, that a man who was her friend would cheat her so thoroughly for the sake of his professional reputation. We have heard this story too many times — and we know too many wise women — to believe that women are so consistently the makers of their own undoing.

Team Mies praises a genius; Team Edith judges a man. Team Edith is not unwilling to be impressed — because certainly the Farnsworth House is impressive — but we are difficult to please. We do not accept a first offer, and we hear no argument unsupported.

In H.H. Richardson's Glessner House, we look beyond the grand staircase and the wallpaper in Mrs. Glessner's bedroom to ask how, when, where and with whom she got dressed each morning. In Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, Team Edith explores the differences between Parlor and Living Room, Foyer and Entryway. “Who would not have used this space?” we ask. “How has this room been hidden?” The task of education is to challenge mere assumption, to push learning beyond gathering information.

The Gender in Architecture class champions a second version of history, a companion volume to the first that offers photographs from a different angle, if you will, and judges architecture by more than formalist aesthetic standards. Team Edith is a state of mind, one which begs to hear the other sides of any story. Moreover, we believe in two stories: His story and Her story. Too often, in history, we only hear His, and we have set out to look for Hers.

Team Mies posits; Team Edith probes. Team Edith knows nothing is as straightforward as it seems — not even from a Barcelona chair in Plano, Ill., looking through a wall toward the Fox River.


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