Mies van der Rohe Gets Sued - The Battle with Farnsworth

The troubled story of the glass-walled Farnsworth House

The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe, a glass-walled home in Plano, Illinois
The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe, Plano, Illinois. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Critics called Edith Farnsworth lovesick and spiteful when she filed suit against Mies van der Rohe. More than fifty years later, the glass-walled Farnsworth House still stirs controversy.

Think of modernism in residential architecture, and the Farnsworth House will be on anyone's list. Completed in 1951 for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, the Plano, Illinois glass house was being concocted by Mies van der Rohe at the same time his friend and colleague Philip Johnson was designing a glass house for his own use in Connecticut.

It turns out that Johnson had the better client—Johnson's Glass House, completed in 1949, was architect-owned; Mies' glass house had a very unhappy client.

Mies van der Rohe Gets Sued:

Dr. Edith Farnsworth was outraged. "Something should be said and done about such architecture as this," she told House Beautiful magazine, "or there will be no future for architecture."

The target of Dr. Farnsworth's fury was the architect of her house. Mies van der Rohe had built for her a house made almost entirely of glass. "I thought you could animate a predetermined, classic form like this with your own presence. I wanted to do something 'meaningful,' and all I got was this glib, false sophistication," Dr. Farnsworth complained.

Mies van der Rohe and Edith Farnsworth had been friends. Gossips suspected that the prominent physician had fallen in love with her brilliant architect. Perhaps they had been romantically involved.

Or, perhaps they had merely become enmeshed in the passionate activity of co-creation. Either way, Dr. Farnsworth was bitterly disappointed when the house was completed and the architect was no longer a presence in her life.

Dr. Farnsworth took her disappointment to court, to newspapers, and eventually to the pages of House Beautiful magazine.

The architectural debate mingled with 1950s cold war hysteria to create a public outcry so loud that even Frank Lloyd Wright joined in.

Mies van der Rohe: "Less is more."

Edith Farnsworth: "We know that less is not more. It is simply less!"

When Dr. Farnsworth asked Mies van der Rohe to design her weekend getaway, he drew upon ideas he had developed (but never built) for another family. The house he envisioned would be austere and abstract. Two rows of eight steel columns would support the floor and roof slabs. In between, the walls would be vast expanses of glass.

Dr. Farnsworth approved the plans. She met with Mies often at the work site and followed the progress of the house. But four years later, when he handed her the keys and the bill, she was stunned. Costs had soared to $73,000—over budget by $33K. Heating bills were also exorbitant. Moreover, she said, the glass-and-steel structure was not livable.

Mies van der Rohe was baffled by her complaints. Surely the doctor did not think that this house was designed for family living! Rather, the Farnsworth House was meant to be the pure expression of an idea. By reducing architecture to "almost nothing," Mies had created the ultimate in objectivity and universality.

The sheer, smooth, unornamented Farnsworth House embodied the highest ideals of the new, Utopian International Style. Mies took her to court to pay the bill.

Dr. Farnsworth counter-sued, but her case did not stand up in court. She had, after all, approved the plans and supervised the construction. Seeking justice, and then revenge, she took her frustrations to the press.

Press Reaction:

In April 1953, House Beautiful magazine responded with a scathing editorial which attacked the work of Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and other followers of the International Style. The style was described as a "Threat to the New America." The magazine insinuated that Communist ideals lurked behind the design of these "grim" and "barren" buildings.

To add fuel to the fire, Frank Lloyd Wright joined in the debate.

Wright had always opposed the bare bones architecture of the International School. But he was especially harsh in his attack when he joined in the House Beautiful debate. "Why do I distrust and defy such 'internationalism' as I do communism?" Wright asked. "Because both must by their nature do this very leveling in the name of civilization."

According to Wright, promoters of the International Style were "totalitarians." They were "not wholesome people," he said.

Farnsworth's Vacation Retreat:

Eventually, Dr. Farnsworth settled into the glass-and-steel house and begrudgingly used it as her vacation retreat until 1972. Mies' creation was widely praised as a jewel, a crystal and a pure expression of an artistic vision. However, the doctor had every right to complain. The house was—and still is—riddled with problems.

First of all, the building had bugs. Real ones. At night, the illuminated glass house turned into a lantern, drawing swarms of mosquitoes and moths. Dr. Farnsworth hired Chicago architect William E. Dunlap to design bronze-framed screens. Farnsworth sold the house in 1975 to Lord Peter Palumbo, who removed the screens and installed air conditioning—which also helped with the building's ventilation problems.

But some problems have proved to be unresolvable. The steel columns rust. They frequently need sanding and painting. The house sits near a stream. Severe flooding has caused damage that required extensive repairs. The house, which is now a museum, has been beautifully restored, but it requires ongoing care.

Could Anyone Live in a Glass House?

It's difficult to imagine Edith Farnsworth tolerating these conditions for more than twenty years. There must have been moments when she was tempted to throw stones at Mies' perfect, glistening glass walls.

Wouldn't you? We took a poll of our readers to find out. Out of 3234 total votes, most people agree that glass houses are...beautiful.

Glass houses are beautiful51% (1664)
Glass houses are beautiful... but not comfortable36% (1181)
Glass houses are NOT beautiful, and not comfortable9% (316)
Glass houses are NOT beautiful... but comfortable enough2% (73)

 

 

 

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