Saturday, 18 May 2013

Trouble in Paradise. The troubled story of the glass-walled Farnsworth House.

Mies van der Rohe Gets Sued
The troubled story of the glass-walled Farnsworth House

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.
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 Mies van der Rohe, who 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.

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 -- equivalent to nearly half a million dollars today. 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 ultimate in objectivity and universality. The sheer, smooth, unornamented Farnsworth House embodied the highest ideals of the new, utopian International Style.
Dr. Farnsworth 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.

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.

Eventually, Dr. Farnsworth settled into the glass-and-steel house and begrudgingly used it as her vacation retreat until 1972. Mies's 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 mosquitos and moths. Dr. Farnsworth hired Chicago architect William E. Dunlap to design bronze-framed screens. The next owner, Lord Peter Palumbo, 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.

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's perfect, glistening glass walls.

Mies van der Rohe: Less is more.
Edith Farnsworth: We know that less is not more. It is simply less! 

The Farnsworth Saga: 1946-2003

I was famous before. She is now famous throughout the world.
Mies, of Edith Farnsworth, under oath

Mies reminded me of a mediaeval peasant.
Edith Farnsworth, of Mies

I think the house is perfectly constructed, it is perfectly executed.
Mies, about the Farnsworth House, under oath
In 1945 Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago physician, purchased nine acres of an old farmstead bordering the Fox River near Plano, Illinois, sixty miles southwest of Chicago. The seller was Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The sale price was $500 per acre. A farmhouse and several outbuildings stood on the property, but Farnsworth wanted something new. In an unpublished memoir from the 1970s, she recalled her project’s beginnings:
One evening I went to have dinner with Georgia [Lingafelt] and Ruth [Lee] in their pleasant old- fashioned apartment in the Irving. Also invited that evening was the massive stranger whom Georgia, with her peculiarly sweet smile, introduced, as I slipped off my coat: “This is Mies, darling.”

I suppose he must have formed a few syllables as we had dinner, but if so, I do not remember them. My impression is that the three of us chatted among ourselves around the granite form of Mies. I related in detail, probably too much, the story of finding the property, the dickerings with Col. McCormick and the final acquisition of the nine- acre plot….

All of this came to naught, conversationally speaking, and I concluded that Mies spoke almost no English; how much he understood remained problematical. We moved back to the sitting room after dinner and both Ruth and Georgia disappeared to wash the dishes.

Farnsworth continued, addressing Mies:

“I am wondering whether there might be some young man in your office who would be willing and disposed to design a small studio weekend-house worthy of that lovely shore.”

The response was the more dramatic for having been preceded by two hours of unbroken silence. “I would love to build any kind of house for you.” The effect was tremendous, like a storm, a flood or other act of God. We planned a trip to Plano together, so that I could show him the property…. We set out for a day in the country, to inspect the property with a view to the ideal weekend house. It was either late autumn or late winter [of 1944–45] when I stopped at 200 East Pearson to call for Mies, and he came out wearing an enormous black overcoat of some kind of soft, fine wool which reached well down toward his ankles. Installed beside me in the little Chevrolet he put up only feeble resistance to the advances of my white cocker who sprawled across his knees for the duration of the trip.

Finally we reached the dooryard of the farmhouse and I could open the car doors. The emergence of Mies and the cocker was spectacular, as it turned out that the latter had yielded most of his white coat in a soft frosting over the black wool of that splendid overcoat, and we had nothing on board with which to remove it.
We walked down the slope, through the frozen meadow grass and dormant brush, and I worried for fear a European might be unable to see the beauty of the mid-west countryside at so unfavorable a season; but midway down, Mies stopped and looked all around him. “It is beautiful!” he said, and I didn’t doubt the spontaneity of his exclamation.

This is the beginning of the tale as remembered by Farnsworth, then in her seventies. Remarkably, we have Mies’s quite different version of the same events, offered in 1952 as testimony in the action Van der Rohe v. Farnsworth:

Question, to Mies: Will you state what your conversation was with Dr. Farnsworth that evening?

Answer, by Mies: After dinner Dr. Farnsworth said that she had a site in Plano, and she would like to talk with me about a house she had planned there and then we were left alone and we talked about the site. She told me she wanted to build a small house and asked me if I would be interested in doing that. I said normally I don’t build small house but I would do it if we could do something interesting.

Q: Did you explain what you meant by “interesting”?

A: No.

Mies added that he learned that before she met him, Farnsworth had asked Chicago architect George Fred Keck to design the house. Keck, said Mies, would undertake the project only on condition that he “can do what he wants, and she didn’t seem to like that.”

Reprinted with permission from Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, New and Revised Edition, by Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

My night in a ‘Glass House’..

Harris Yulin as Mies van der Rohe and Janet Zarish as Edith Farnsworth

What a treat to witness acting at it’s finest in June Finfer’s Glass House with leading lady Janet Zarish(Public Theatre, Primary Stages appearances), who plays the self-sufficient Edith Farnsworth and it’s leading man Harris Yulin, a prominent Broadway actor (Hedda Gabler, Julius Caesar) and film star as Mies van der Rohe, a German architect. Directed masterfully by Evan Bergman and appearing in conjunction with Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, Resonance Ensemble’s, The Glass House, tells the true story of a German architect, Mies van der Rohe(1886-1969), and the opportunity he was given to create a live-able work of art for Chicago Doctor Edith Farnswarth who was in search of a weekend getaway.  Well, true in the fact that it is based on actual people, not neccesarily events.  That is writer June Finfer took Mies and her other characters and created an emotionally driven play chopped full of affairs, betrayals, and passionate 4th wall monologues with Mies talking to the audience about his desire to create this skin and bones glass house not only for Farnsworth, but for his own desire to create something new, something with purpose.  Taking place over a ten year period(1945-1955), we see the developement of not only the house, but of the relationship between Mies and Farnsworth, which comes to a crashing halt in the last 20 minutes of the oddly blocked show.   A play that not only forces you to question what is art and its role in the modern world, but to what extent art can frame the way in which an individual leads his/her own life.

The highlight of the evening, for me, as an actor, was witnessing impecable and flawless acting by Zarish and Yulin.  Yulin’s performance was perfection.  Emotionally she connected bravely with her high strung, indecisive Doctor and had I not known that I was watching a play I would of thought that she was merely a stranger who had wandered off the streets of midtown, found her way on to a stage and begun a conversation with Yulin.  Her naturalistic style is refreshing and inspiring and it never falters at any point in time throughout the play, but instead grows with every scene creating a living, breathing human being that you expect, after the show ends, to go back to her lab or wherever she came from and carry on with her life.  And I’m sure having Yulin as a support would make it even easier for someone who is already as talented as Zarish to be able to create an even more enriched performance.  Yulin, I think, has heard enough praise to know that he is one of immeasurable talent.  I’m sure that many critics have commented on the beauty and simplicity of his acting.  I would, of course, agree with their criticism as it is undeniable that Yulin’s talent exist beyond the capacity of words.  I can merely say that it was a joy to watch him perform and a honor to sit in a theatre with someone of such seasoned skill.  Not to mention that his German accent was dead on and he played perhaps the best grumpy old man I have ever seen.  Not that your old, Yulin.  In regards to both Yulin and Zarish it was if the audience didn’t exist and they were both carrying on with their lives, playing off each other smoothly, creating tension, love, hate, co-existing and growing within the ten years, and portraying how in real life, it all ends.  Quite simply, a magnificent work of Art.

In all my awe and although, in general, I highly enjoyed Glass House there were a couple of things that bothered me.  Number 1, the sets. Now, it didn’t bother me so much that between the succession of each year the lights dimmed, jazz music played, and the set was changed, what bothered me was that the set moves seemed, for lack of a better word, pointless.  With no more than maybe two chairs and a desk on stage, it seemed distracting to me that stage hands, dressed smartly in the decades attire, would come on to move a desk in a different position, change the utensils on a table, or to take away every other scene the same table and chairs.  Had it been done quicker it might not have been much a nuisance, but I found myself concentrating on how long it would take for the sets to be changed rather than what was going to happen next.  With such a strong play that has so much to say about art and life and with such strong point of view, why would you distract by creating unnecessary obstacles such as moving the same desk 10 times?  Less, as Mies would have seen it, would have been more in this instance.

Number 2: The two minor actors.  Gina Nagy Burns(Skylight, The Heiress), who plays Mies’ ex-love Lora Marx, delivers a tolerable performance, but lacks the fire that it acquired of her character.  As Meis’ artist lover, a sculptor, who takes it upon herself in the earlier scenes to break her relationship with Mies due to his drinking and dependency, I find that the character may have required someone with a more powerful presence.  Someone who could stand up to Mies when he forcefully asked her why she was leaving.  Someone that could center herself, stand her ground, and deliver the well thought out text with powerful purpose and zeal.  Here it seems that when Meis and  Marx are conversing, Mies seems to be having one-sided conversations, and at points he leans in hard to distract from the actresses not delivering her lines with intention.  This may be because I am over critical  or it could be because this actress may not have fully understood who her character was and was not given good direction.

The second minor character, Philip Johnson, played by David Bishins(We Declare You a Terrorist, Incident at Vichy), who is Mies’ protege and a curator at the MOMA, actually delivered a commanding performance, but I find, and this may be silly, that the voice he chose to use for his character was distracting.  It is a shame because you can tell, from the audience, that Bishins is actually a very talented actor, but he made a bad choice and that in some parts he falls out because he is thinking more about his smoker voice rather than his beats.  From the minute he opened his mouth at the beginning of the play, I knew that it would be a problem.  While I realize that the span of the plan takes place in the 50′s and 60′s and that the cliché is the raspy, sexy voice of a male cigar smoker, when you begin to lose the actor’s words, therefor the text, therefore the play, it becomes a problem.  And  besides this forced, if I think about it makes my throat hurt, raspy voice, his performance was actually delightful, light, airy, and an almost comic relief from the sometimes heavy tension that lived between the three other characters.  Charming and snub at times, Bishins played a convincing role of student and what it is not only to please your teacher, but to find out that at some point you have to live your own life.  What an interesting lesson for Art to teach.

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