Stephen Bayley

The magnificent fiasco of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

Instead of the comfortable cottage she’d commissioned, Edith Farnsworth ended up with a costly, impractical modernist masterpiece — and a law suit, says Alex Beam

A magnificent catastrophe: Farnsworth House is one of the finest examples of an architect indulging his vision at the expense of a client. Credit: Alamy

John Ruskin believed the most beautiful things are also the most useless, citing lilies and peacocks. Had he known about the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, a rural community 50 miles west of Chicago, he might have suggested it too. Except this modernist building of 1951 is an evolved expression of the emerging industrial culture Ruskin so despised.

But it is several other things too, notably an example of fraught transactions between architect and client. The Farnsworth test case became a trial whose transcript ran to 3,800 pages. Of all relationships, except that between a firing squad and its target, the architect-client example is the one most predictably headed for calamity. You have the cost-conscious client, the egotistical and ambitious designer and the dodgy contractors in an infernal triangle, each determined to take advantage of one or all. H.B. Creswell wrote amusingly of this in The Honeywood File in 1929, but that was Wodehousian compared with the vicious dispute between Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last director of the Bauhaus, and his client and sometime lover Dr Edith Farnsworth.

He: an imperious artisan stonemason-architect from Aachen, the spiritual home of the Holy Roman Empire, who grudgingly spoke English after fleeing Nazi Germany for the US — but only after failing to sell the Bauhaus idea to Hitler as quintessentially German. His name was something of an invention, adding ‘van der’ to his mother’s maiden name. This nobiliary particle was a Dutch formulation (he was anxious for some reason to avoid the German ‘von’). He was prone to mysticism: beinahe nichts, or ‘nearly nothing’, was his design mantra. So, too, was the better known weniger ist mehr, or ‘less is more’. Additionally, he was a misogynistic womaniser, a solipsistic drinker, a swanky but solemn dresser, a careless building administrator and a chain-smoker of cigars.

The house was an oven in summer and a freezer in winter – and ugly stains soon appeared

She: rich, headstrong, needy, articulate, no great looker, a research-grade nephrologist, a musician, and a poet and translator.

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