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Suspended Above Earth: Farnsworth House

As WMF's Watch and Field Programs Administrator, one of the great privileges of my job is having the opportunity to occasionally visit architectural icons for business purposes. But recently I embarked on a visit toa Modern masterpiece solely for my own pleasure. Poised amidst nature and suspended above ground, the Farnsworth House embodies serenity and sculptural grace. The Farnsworth House, built in 1951 by Mies van der Rohe, is a single-room house constructed of steel, travertine marble, glass, and primavera wood. It was built along the Fox River near Plano, Illinois, in a clearing in the woods, for Edith Farnsworth, a doctor specializing in nephrology. The horizontal planes of the travertine marble floor, combined with the horizontal and vertical white steel I-beams, create volume within nature, while the floor-to-ceiling glass walls, elevated floor, and lack of ornamentation render the structure ethereal.

The Farnsworth House, with its simplicity in color and materials, serves as a canvas for its surrounding natural environment. The house is nestled within trees, a meadow, and the sky, all of which are still visible from the inside, due to the glass walls. One in a group of about ten, I approached the house on a pathway through the woods. I stood outside the first set of steps and marveled at the house while our guide explained its history.

What struck me most when standing outside were the vivid reflection of the trees on the glass walls, and the shadow of the branches across the white steel and travertine marble. Our guide explained that the original glass is 1/4" hand polished plate glass. Glass this thin cannot be used anymore due to building restrictions, and it pristinely reflects a single image on the surface without any of the distortions we see in glass today. The shade and reflections of the branches created a pattern across the house that fluctuated as the clouds floated across the sun. The glass and white materials capture and intensify the natural movement of nature onto this contained sculptural canvas.

After I spent some time admiring the house from outside, I climbed the shallow stairs to the elevated ground floor, designed to avoid overflow from the nearby Fox River. Unfortunately, the Farnsworth house has endured recurring floods above the ground floor. The Farnsworth House website has photos of the damages, and information on the efforts of Landmarks Illinois to mitigate the flooding.

At the landing, we were asked to take off our shoes before entering. In the absence of any decorative features to distract from the experience, I was immediately aware of the lack of sound from outside, whether it be the movement the trees or the nearby highway. However, I was still able to observe the trees and clouds sway and shift, as if we were suspended above the earth. The interior is sparsely decorated with just the essentials of comfortable living – dining room table and chairs, desk, reading chairs, bed and closets, and kitchen – which enhance the architecture and its surroundings.

The Farnsworth House is worth visiting not only once, but multiple times to experience this building in different seasons as it stands confidently, yet respectful of its surroundings. Visit the website at www.farnsworthhouse.org to learn more about the Farnsworth House, and please see our Modernism project profiles to discover more Modern architectural icons.