Book review: The debate over an architectural masterpiece
Author Alex Beam has an eye for the great story, nurtured in his years as a magazine and newspaper journalist. But his new book, Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the fight over a modernist masterpiece, (Random House) is more than a headline grabber. He wrestles with the elusive architect Mies, and Edith, the most accomplished woman in his life -- two Chicago achievers in search of something bigger. For six years, they collaborated, became lovers, and made architectural history.
The result, before their relationship turned toxic, was the iconic Farnsworth House, a stunning glass box suspended on pylons and overlooking the Fox River just an hour outside of Chicago. It was conceived in 1945 and completed in 1951 – long overdue and ten times the original cost estimate.
Beam, a competent and fluent writer on architecture and most any other subject from his Boston Globe days, admires the house and is intrigued by the human jousting by two strong-minded individuals. He sums up his story with one of his well-honed aphorisms. Farnsworth, he writes, hired van der Rohe to build a modest weekend cottage, and in the process she became “midwife to an innovative architectural masterpiece”.
Architects often fall afoul of their clients over matters of aesthetics and cost, but not like these two. They ended up in court, a six-week legal circus that produced vitriolic exchanges and a court record of more than 3,000 pages. Farnsworth was not worried about public exposure, however; no one would read it, she said after the hearing.
Alex Beam read it, and the public courtroom clashes make up the centerpiece of the book.
Beam spent some five years, off and on, with international legwork, interviewing survivors and their descendants, mining newspaper archives, writing drafts, and finally focusing his story on the famous glass house. His account, while detailing and even favoring the qualities of the house, is balanced with the negative side in the very public debate that has never quite stopped 69 years after completion. Beam mixes irony and drollery with the stark verbatim courtroom quotes, portraying Farnsworth as playing the innocent, or, as he puts it, adopting the persona of the “Woman Who Doesn’t Know Much About This Kind of Thing.” Questioned about construction details, “she generally pleaded ignorance”, Beam writes.
He anchors his story amid the tumult of warring architects. The big names of the 20th century are all in here – Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Myron Goldsmith, Le Corbusier, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
Much has been written about Van der Rohe and his flawed genius but Beam’s spadework unearthed a compelling portrait of Farnsworth too. She was a tall, imperious specialist in kidney functions at Chicago’s Passavant Hospital, independently wealthy, and understandably impatient with the slow progress on her weekend “cottage”.
Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather). The practicalities of keeping four walls of glass clean elicited this comment she made to the Chicago American: “Believe me it’s a real job. You work outside with a hose and inside with a squeegee.”
Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.”
She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”
And yet the Farnsworth House stands proudly on the Fox River, battered by weather, restored and renovated by subsequent owners, and very much a milestone in architectural studies worldwide. Students still drive out from Chicago to stand in awe of the glass box that Mies built.
In the end, Edith Farnsworth became one of the most relentless critics of the project, and sold it. She then realized her real dream, leaving medicine, moving to Italy and starting a new life where she wrote and translated poetry. She died in 1977, eight years after Van der Rohe.
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