Field Day No.3
Hold onto your butts…
The Farnsworth House was designed and constructed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945 and 1951. It is a one-room weekend retreat in what then was a rural setting, located 55 miles (89 km) southwest of Chicago’s downtown, on a 60-acre (24 ha) estate site adjoining the Fox River, south of the city of Plano, Illinois. The steel and glass house was commissioned by Edith Farnsworth, M.D., a prominent Chicago nephrologist, as a place where she could engage in her hobbies—playing the violin, translating poetry, and enjoying nature. Mies created a 1,500-square-foot (140 m2) structure that is widely recognized as an iconic masterpiece of International Style of architecture. The retreat was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, after being listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. Currently, the house is owned and operated as a historic house museum by the historic preservation group, National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was retained by Dr. Edith Farnsworth to design a weekend retreat during a dinner party in 1945. The wealthy client wanted to build a very special work of modern architecture, however, toward the end of construction, a dispute arose between architect and client that interfered with its completion by the architect.
Farnsworth had purchased the riverfront property from the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Robert R. McCormick. Mies developed the design in time for it to be included in an exhibit on his work at MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1947. After completion of design, the project was placed on hold awaiting an inheritance from an ailing aunt of Farnsworth. Mies was to act as the general contractor as well as architect. Work began in 1950 and substantially, was completed in 1951. The commission was an ideal one for any architect, but was marred by a very publicized dispute between Farnsworth and Mies that began near the end of construction. The total cost of the house was $74,000 in 1951 ($648,000 in 2012 dollars). A cost overrun of $15,600 over the initially approved construction budget of $58,400, was due to escalating material prices resulting from inflationary commodities speculation (in anticipation of demand arising from the mobilization for the Korean War). Near the completion of construction, Mies filed a lawsuit for non-payment of $28,173 in construction costs. The owner then filed a counter suit for damages due to alleged malpractice. Mies’ attorneys proved that Farnsworth had approved the plans and budget increases, and the court ordered the owner to pay her bills. Farnsworth’s malpractice accusations were dismissed as unsubstantiated. It was a bitter and hollow victory for Mies, considering the painful publicity that followed.
The conflict between the architect and the client resulted in an unfinished site and an unfurnished interior. The construction of a teak wardrobe closet and the system of bronze-framed screens to enclose the deck porch were completed to Mies’ designs by his former employee, architect William Dunlap, and a local millworker who mediated between them. Mies never again communicated with Edith, nor spoke publicly about their rumored relationship. Edith continued to use the house as her weekend retreat for the next 21 years, often hosting architectural notables visiting to see the work of the world-famous architect.
Writing about the conflict in 1998, author Alice T. Friedman asserted that “[t]here is no evidence to suggest that [Farnsworth] sought to have her behavior challenged by the ‘inner logic’ of Mies’s unyielding architectural vision; on the contrary, she seems to have had a clear idea about how she wanted to live and she expected the architect to respect her views… [S]he soon discovered that what Mies wanted, and what he had thought he had found in her, was a patron who would put her budget and her needs aside in favor of his own goals and dreams as an architect.”