The Farnsworth House is an iconic piece of modern architecture. But what would it be like to live in a glass house?
As a woman in her early forties, Edith Farnsworth envisioned a weekend retreat to relax in the country — a break from her busy life as a doctor in Chicago in the 1940s. What she got was an expensive “glass box.”
Farnsworth met German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at a dinner party in 1945. When she shared her vision for her weekend getaway, Mies offered to help. What began as a friendly relationship in 1945 ruptured by 1951. The house’s estimated cost of $40,000 ballooned to almost $74,000. After paying tens of thousands of dollars more than anticipated, Farnsworth stopped paying bills and declined to accept the furniture Mies intended to furnish the house with. A lengthy lawsuit ensued, which created public attention and attracted people to see a house comprised of transparent walls in Plano, Illinois, some 50 miles west of Chicago.
Mies helped define modern architecture by using industrial materials and emphasizing open spaces. Prior to the Farnsworth House, he designed eminent European works, including the German Pavilion at the Barcelona World’s Fair in 1929 and Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic. Mies’s chance meeting with Farnsworth was a dream come true for the architect who emigrated to the United States in 1938.
Farnsworth, however, eventually realized his true motive, explains art historian Alice Friedman: “What Mies wanted, and what he thought he had found in [Farnsworth], was a patron who would put her budget and her needs aside in favor of his own goals and dreams as an architect.” Seeing Farnsworth’s plot of land in Plano near the Fox River, Mies recognized the possibility of building a structure to be one with nature, characterized by open spaces and industrial materials.
Today, you can get a physical and mental glimpse of the former house, now a museum. You may gawk at this iconic piece of modern architecture, which it is. Or you may be enthralled with the experience the Farnsworth House produces, and how this experience changes over time: from idyllic thoughts of being united with nature to the practical challenges a glass house brings. These experiential qualities make a trip to the Farnsworth House worthwhile.
One with nature
A glass house life has its benefits. Being united with nature is one. Imagine waking up to sweeping landscape views and the nearby Fox River: lush green grass, billowing trees and burgeoning flowers surround the property. “Expensive wallpaper,” is how Philip Johnson, an architect who constructed his own glass house in New Haven, Connecticut, described the views of his house.
Picturesque ideas flood your mind while driving along the country roads towards the Farnsworth House. The same positive feelings continue when you begin the house tour: walking along the half-mile path towards the house led by a museum docent. Shaded by trees and a peaceful atmosphere makes for an enjoyable experience, a prelude of what’s to come.
Eventually, you approach a geometrically shaped construct supported by white I-beams and raised over five feet above ground. The simplicity of this house juxtaposed with the beauty of the surrounding nature — rolling waves from the nearby Fox River and patches of flowers beginning to bloom — bring a house devoid of ornamentation and color to life. Life in a glass house seems appealing from the outside. Appearances, however, can be deceiving.
The reality of a glass house life
“No one knows what it is like to live in a glass house,” Farnsworth famously said. She is right. This 2,400 square foot house — comprised of almost an entirely open floor plan and divided by a wooden core — enlivens the senses and penetrates the psyche. Fantasies of a glass house life are quickly replaced with an uncanny reality because of two striking interior features: the impracticality of living in such a house and the fear someone is always watching through the massive glass panes.
First, a glass house makes some aspects of daily life challenging. For one, the house lacks privacy. The only enclosed rooms in the Farnsworth House are two bathrooms found on each end of the wooden core. A second concern is the lack of storage space. Most houses have closets and some have built in shelves. The Farnsworth House is different. Aside from cabinets in the kitchen, storage space lacks in this house.
The encompassing panes of glass exacerbates the issue. Adding a piece of furniture to store your stuff is not that easy when you live in a glass house. You would be acutely aware of how a dresser, bookcase or any other piece of furniture appears from both in and outside a house comprised of transparent walls. To this point Farnsworth laments, “Mies talks about ‘free space’: but his space is very fixed . . . any arrangement of furniture becomes a major problem because the house is transparent, like an X-ray.”
A house comprised of glass poses yet another problem: dealing with temperature changes. The house was surprisingly well insulated, especially on a cool spring day. The sun’s rays permeate through the glass panes on one side of the house, making it too warm to stay in one spot too long; the opposite side of the house was drastically cooler. While a cool spring day is manageable, imagine trying to escape the heat and penetrating rays of sun during the summer months in a house with few window openings and no air conditioning, as Farnsworth experienced.
The livability of the Farnsworth House was problematized by Mies’s adherence to modernist dictums. One was “less is more,” which refers to the simple aesthetic of the house. Anything more than the basic, unadorned forms making up this house would take away from the surrounding outdoor splendor. At the same time, this approach would make decorating a burden. Most items would seem out of place in such an austere environment: imagine trying to hang a painting in a glass house. Even if you propped one up on an easel, the painting would likely clash with the outside views. The challenge of making a house a home is probably why Farnsworth referred to her house as a “glass cage on stilts.”
A taxing reality
The second striking issue of the Farnsworth House is the fear that someone is watching you through the inescapable panes of glass. It is a chilling sensation even during the daylight hours. Seeing body or furniture reflections in the panes of glass during the day with a group of people on a tour is one thing. Consider being by yourself in this house when nighttime comes — you cannot see out, but voyeurs can look in. The curtains that hang on from the nine-foot glass panes would provide little relief, compared to plaster or drywall. Farnsworth puts it best: “The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert.”
Philip Johnson, who designed his own Glass House in 1949, included some of the same attributes as the Farnsworth House; he knew of the house and openly credited Mies for it. Yet, there is a critical addition to Johnson’s estate: a brick house accompanies the glass one. Originally built to include three guest rooms, the Brick House was updated in 1953 to include a reading room and bedroom with a connecting hallway. The Brick House suggests the need for privacy and the need to escape from a completely transparent life. Johnson could turn to his Brick House for a reprieve; Farnsworth could not.
Edith Farnsworth lived in her glass house for twenty years, after which she sold it and moved to Italy. Given the restlessness and anxiety the house imposes, it is hard to fathom how she survived living in it for so long. Now, nearly a half of a century later, you too can experience a glass house life. And the Farnsworth House is indeed an experience. While you will undoubtedly appreciate the Farnsworth House as a marvel of modern architecture, you will also question what makes a house a home.
1. Friedman, Alice T, “People Who Live in Glass Houses: Edith Farnsworth, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson.” in Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History, ed. Diana Murphy. (New York: Abrams), 1998.
3. “Mies: The Man, The Legacy,” http://www.miessociety.org/legacy, Accessed July 9, 2016
4. Friedman, Alice T, “People Who Live in Glass Houses: Edith Farnsworth, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson.” in Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History, ed. Diana Murphy. (New York: Abrams), 1998.
6. Friedman, Alice T, “People Who Live in Glass Houses: Edith Farnsworth, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson.” in Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History, ed. Diana Murphy. (New York: Abrams), 1998. Found in Joseph A. Barry, “Report on the Battle Between Good and Bad Modern Houses,” in House Beautiful 95 (May 1953), 172–73, 266–72; quotation is on p. 270.
8. Friedman, Alice T, “People Who Live in Glass Houses: Edith Farnsworth, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson.” in Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History, ed. Diana Murphy. (New York: Abrams), 1998. Found in David Whitney and Jeffrey Kipnis, “Philip Johnson: the Glass House” (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993).