Mies, Farnsworth, and the “Threat to the Next America”
A Retrospective Analysis
By: Jack Grant
The Mies Van Der Rohe designed Farnsworth house, completed in 1951 for the Dr. Ida Farnsworth, has been the object of extensive reflection (including in this very blog) throughout its history and it is commonly considered an exquisite example in Mies’ modernist oeuvre.
This legacy has not always been the case. For many years after its completion the Farnsworth House received mixed opinion on its merits. The most vocal of the negative criticisms were distilled in the popular 1953 article “The Threat to the Next America”, by Elizabeth Gordon, editor of House Beautiful magazine.
Elizabeth Gordon posits that modernist architecture, particularly the International Style, is “an attack on comfort, convenience, and functional values, that it becomes, in reality, an attack on reason Itself.” Gordon declares that the “$70,000 glass cage on stilts” compromises a credible and serious threat of “cultural dictatorship.” That International Style is a direct enemy to the American way of life, a way of life she describes as naturally individualist with the purpose of establishing common sense and forever increasing the standard of living. Gordon continues, stating that “less is not more” and promoting the obverse is “promoting unlivability, stripped-down emptiness, lack of storage space and therefore lack of possessions.”
It is in these statements that Gordon, and most likely many like her in the reactionary anti-modernist camp, exhibit their complete lack of the contextual understanding that is central to Mies’ modernist telos.
To better understand Modernism, one must first consult The Industrial Revolution and the origins thereof. The language of Modernism is deeply rooted in this historical event. The nature of man was challenged as industry, a product of pure scientific reasoning and rationalization of man’s environment, propelled civilization above the material problems of all preceding epochs. In many ways, Industrialization is simply the culmination of man over God and nature.
It is in this material triumph where Gordon and the anti-modernists are validated. They believe individualism is about having many possessions in a large, comfortable home removed from the dangers and difficulties of the natural world. If one were to look through a copy of the April 1953 edition of House Beautiful magazine this opinion would easily be confirmed. In this eight page article alone there are advertisements for two (2) separate furniture stains, a GoldE manumatic slide projector, Chrysler Airtemp air conditioning, a Diamond Jubilee Chair, and a Harvard of Cleveland bed frame. It is fortunate that Elizabeth Gordon is an anti-modernist, because if she wasn’t her employment at House Beautiful magazine could have been seriously compromised.
From this perspective it can be inferred that Mies’ Farnsworth House is a reconciliation of sorts. Built using industrial materials and methods, but stripped of any and all superfluous material and comfort. The Farnsworth House purposefully confronts man with the nature that completely surrounds the house. In an interview Mies states the following about the Farnsworth House:
Nature, too, shall have its own life. We must beware not to disrupt it with the color of our house, and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together into a higher unity. If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed from the outside.
Mies understood that Industrialization should not be used to put man above all else, but to unite man with everything, with God. Complete rationalization of ourselves only manages to limit us. Mies believed. “The Threat to the Next America” to Mies and other Modernists like him wasn’t dictatorial purity and asceticism, but the ills that excess can bring. The Farnsworth House lays bare the relationship between man and God, between man and his place amongst the trees. For it is these reasons that The Farnsworth House is not an “attack on reason itself”, but a triumphant statement on the natural condition of human life.
– Mies Van Der Rohe once wrote that “Architecture is the will of the epoch translated into space.”
What do you think the will of this current epoch is?
– Do you agree or disagree with where Mies has placed man?