Little Glass house on the Prairie | Travel | Chicago Reader

Little Glass house on the Prairie 

An art collector makes himself at home in an architectural marvel

By Stephen Longmire

On the Grounds of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, sits the cupola of a Victorian building that once stood in central London. With a weather vane still twirling on top, it could be a dunce cap or witch's hat--or perhaps a miniature gazebo. In any case it represents just the sort of architecture the celebrated German modernist rendered obsolete.

Over two dozen large works of sculpture, many of them made from industrial materials and suggestive of industrial uses, adorn the spacious grounds, including works commissioned for the site from British sculptors Andy Goldsworthy and Wendy Taylor and Irishman Michael Warren. At the center of the sculpture garden sits Mies's most famous American house, known to locals as "the glass house." This epitome of modern architecture, a house so abstract it barely has walls, has floated inconspicuously on steel stilts alongside the Fox River since it was completed in 1951. The original owner--Edith Farnsworth, who commissioned it from Mies--left the grounds wild. Subsequent owner Lord Peter Palumbo--a British real estate developer and art patron who acquired the house in 1973--enlarged the grounds, had them landscaped, and added the sculptures and artifacts.

The Victorian cupola is a reminder of Palumbo's failed campaign to commission what would have been the only Mies building, an office complex, in central London. A block of Victorian buildings was razed, but Prince Charles, a well-known opponent of modern architecture, disliked the plans and put an end to the project. The new building--he called it a "stump"--would be more appropriate in Chicago than in London, he suggested. And that's where Palumbo got his Mies--60 miles west of Chicago. The cupola is the crown of one of the old buildings he'd had demolished across the Atlantic, a monument to his folly. Completely unsuited to Mies's spare architecture, it seems oddly at home in Palumbo's garden, bridging the disparate worlds of London and Plano. Taylor's massive Square Piece--a giant steel frame suspended in midair--is a bit more in keeping with the house itself, since both simply frame the landscape.

Houses are only the largest form of modern sculpture Palumbo collects. In addition to the Farnsworth House he owns a Frank Lloyd Wright house, Kentuck Knob, in western Pennsylvania and a pair of Le Corbusier houses in a Paris suburb. The Palumbos do live in all these homes but only occasionally, residing primarily in England.

Palumbo opened the Farnsworth House to the public just last year. Visiting it is in some ways like visiting other museum-houses in the area, like Wright's home and studio in Oak Park or Robie House in Hyde Park. "Guests" are closely supervised by tour guides, whose recitations offer a predigested experience of a space one can only dream of inhabiting. The guides frequently mention the former occupants. But no one will ever be allowed to inhabit these other homes again, a circumstance for which visitors are expected to be grateful, since they wouldn't be allowed in otherwise. A visit to the Farnsworth House is distinctly different: it seems one might be a gawking villager entering a British manor house on the one Sunday afternoon it's open each month to satisfy public curiosity.

The glass house is marked throughout by signs of its distinctive owner's presence, as if he and his family might return at any moment. This is not a house that provides well for things, so they stand out: the bin of walking sticks inside the front door, the family photographs (by Lord Snowden) in the loo. Much else is either vintage or reproduction Mies furniture (Palumbo had Dirk Lohan, Mies's grandson, fill in the gaps in his own collection of Mies furniture). Visitors dare not touch it--though it's good to know that someone does. A true collectible, the house is a museum for one: it's owner. Visitors may observe but not enter into this privileged relationship.

Those who know Mies only from his many Chicago apartment and office buildings may find the glass house surprising. The high-rises he placed along the city's lake- and riverfront and in the Loop can seem painfully impersonal; one person who works in Mies's IBM Building calls it "the penal colony." Such criticisms are not new, but times have changed since the clean-lined International Style held sway--changed so drastically that even Mies's leading disciple, Philip Johnson (who built himself a glass house in Connecticut), has adopted the eclectic idiom of postmodern architecture. Mies's prestige has suffered at the hands of his imitators, who seldom matched his maniacal perfectionism in the handling of materials, without which his simple combinations of line and form can be chilling. The first generations of architects to work with the new materials of steel and glass used them with the finesse of artisans; Mies, who had no formal architectural training, came from a family of skilled stonecutters. But today's tall buildings seem to have more to do with the computer than the hand.

Mies's low-rise buildings--like the post office in Chicago's Federal Plaza and the slightly less successful structures gracing the campuses of the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology, where Mies taught from 1938 until 1958--reflect a human scale but remain lofty exercises in draftsmanship and form. These grand, single-story, clear-span urban temples grew out of his design for the Farnsworth House. It was his first domestic commission in America, and by far the most polished of the few private homes he built here.

Mies's Chicago buildings are almost invariably black, as if that color described the city and its way of life. The first and greatest shock of the Farnsworth House is that its skeleton and details are white. The steel girders that raise it off the ground like a Palladian temple are white, as are its smooth plaster ceiling and the veined travertine marble of the floor and pedestallike porch, a stepping-stone to the house. The second greatest shock, not apparent in most published photographs of the site, is the home's proximity to the river. The house sits right on the broad floodplain of the Fox, hence the stilts, which raise it five feet aboveground. Even so, three times since its completion the house has been devastated by floods, most recently in 1996 and '97. It has been completely restored since then. Although the river and house might seem antagonists, the river in many ways explains the sensual geometry of the house. With its porch floating below like a shadow or dock, the house and land seem a series of platforms, floodplains rising up and up. Glass and water have obvious affinities, while the steel uprights dividing the window walls echo the trees outside, especially an aging sugar maple on the river side. Like a tree house or a raft, the Farnsworth House seems to slip easily down the river yet stays in place. With its white curtains open or drawn like eyelids, it's a dreaming place, suspended in thought.

Not part of the view is the barn housing Palumbo's 50-odd vintage cars, all beautifully restored. These are also available for viewing, by appointment; they too receive regular if occasional use. According to Tom Blanchard, who manages the vehicle collection (a job that has involved such chores as traveling to New Mexico to buy an Avanti from film star Greer Garson), Palumbo chooses a car to drive each time he's in town. Several days last summer he drove a black 1964 Lincoln once owned by Mies into the city and parked it on the street while visiting the Art Institute.

It's too soon to say how the new open-door policy will affect the Farnsworth House, but thus far the structure is alive and well. Indeed, this museum for one recalls the philosophy of the Czech porcelain collector Utz, as reported in Bruce Chatwin's novel of the same name: "An object in a museum case must suffer the de-natured existence of an animal in the zoo...whereas private ownership confers on the owner the right and the need to touch. As a young child will reach out to handle the thing it names, so the passionate collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker. The collector's enemy is the museum curator. Ideally, museums should be looted every fifty years, and their collections returned to circulation."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Stephen Longmire.

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