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Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House: Transparency and the Problem of Privacy

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    Abstract

    Privacy, defined as: “the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people,” is a basic need of every human being to feel safe and secure, whereby a house, apart from a structure to provide shelter, is also a personal space where adequate privacy is crucial for comfortable dwelling. Glass on the other hand, is a popular transparent material in architecture, that not only creates views of the exterior from the interior of the house, but also exposes the interior of the house and this therefore affects privacy. Thus, “one who lives in a glass house” is often used as a metaphor to describe one who exposes too much of his private life to an extreme extent.

    This research paper will analyse Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to determine whether the use of glass is a threat to privacy in the house. The house will be analysed in three different scales: the house and its relationship with the site, the glass house itself as a stand-alone structure, and the transparency within the house. The paper invites readers to rethink the suitability of transparent glass as a dominant material for dwelling spaces in terms of privacy, and also whether openness and transparency within the house is necessary.

    Glass is widely used in contemporary architecture such as the Lourve pyramid, Apple’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City and The National Grand Theatre of China. Being fragile and transparent, it evokes an excitement of delicacy and modernity, presents a vivid arena for emotional and intellectual stimulation and response, and provides vision, which intrigues human mind.[1] While glass possesses many unique qualities, I will like to focus on its transparency, or more specifically, the use of transparent glass in houses and its effect on privacy, using Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as an example. The transparency of the house will be looked from three different scales: the house and its relationship with the site, the house itself as a stand-alone structure, and the transparency within the house. Since houses are meant to provide comfort habitation, privacy is an important element for individual occupants of the house.

    A Glass Box in a Meadow

    Figure 1: Yukio Futagawa. “Overall View of the Spring Landscape Seen from the Northwest Side,” in Global Architecture: Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois. 1945-50 (Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita Tokyo Co. Ltd, 1974), 10-11.

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    Figure 2: Yukio Futagawa. “Farnsworth House, Site Plan,” in Global Architecture: Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois. 1945-50 (Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita Tokyo Co. Ltd, 1974), 42-43.

    The Farnsworth House is situated on the right bank of the Fox River, surrounded by groups of trees.[2] With references to Figure 1 and Figure 2, it is obvious the site is a rather remote area where less interference is expected. Since the house is not located in the busy city of Manhattan, but a quiet and peaceful meadow in Plano, one may easily argue that privacy in this case is not a problem. However, Dr. Eddith Farnsworth has a different point of view. According to Dr. Farnsworth, once the owner of the Farnsworth House, her privacy is often intruded by boaters and campers.[3] She stated:

    The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert. I am always restless. Even in the evening, I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night. I can rarely stretch out and relax.[4]

    Dr. Farnsworth statement is important and cannot be neglected in this research, as she is the first occupant who had experience life in the glass box. Although the house is situated in an isolated meadow, it is still possible and inevitable that people appear around that area, and of course, their vision will definitely be strongly attracted to the magnetic piece of architecture in front of them, which transparent walls allows them to look into it. As a result, the occupants of the house will feel that they are indirectly being spied on.

    Living Behind Glass Walls

    Dr. Farnsworth once commented that: “the house is transparent like an X ray.” [5] The house indeed is a totally glassed-in rectangular box, consisting roof slab and floor slab.[6] Materials evoke physical and psychological responses, and in this case the use of glass for walls suggests that the objects within are on display. [7] As we are accustomed to the use of glass as a cover to protect and present objects, such as exhibition pavilions, food counters, and jewelry shelves, it is understandable for one to feel that he or she is “being looked at” when he or she is behind glass, although there might be nobody around the area. Thus, living in a glass house is like living under never-ending surveillance. It is almost like having a live-camera in the house, whereby someone else will be watching, or even worse, living not like an owner of a house, but like an object of observation. Regardless of its surrounding factors, the use of glass itself for walls is sufficient to induce the fear of being watched at. In other words, if all of the walls of a house are transparent, there is a lack of privacy.

    A House Without Rooms

    Figure 3: Werner Blaser, “Situation 1:200 (Zeichnung WB im Buro Mies, 1963/64)” “Situation 1:200 (drawing by WB in the office of Mies, 1963/64), in Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House. (Basel: Birkhauser, 1999), 30-31.

    Figure 4: Bill Hedrich, “Interior of the Farnsworth House”, in Mies van der Rohe, a Critical Biography. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985),255.

    Transparency in this case, refers to the openness of the house, which will be further illustrated in the following paragraph. As shown in the plan and section in Figure 3, it is clear that the house has an open plan, with no partition walls for the division of space, as Mies’ biographer described:

    The interior of the house is a single space, one room, whose major subdivision was provided by a freestanding, longitudinal, asymmetrically placed core containing kitchen to the north, bathrooms to east and west – separated a utility space – and fireplace to the south. A freestanding cabinet-closet close to the southeast corner and parallel to the east wall bordered the sleeping area without enclosing it. The “living room” area, which spread before the fireplace with a view of the river, was equally suggested rather than defined. The roof and floor slab were cantilevered at both ends, so that the vitreous corners of the room were totally transparent.[8]

    The interior of the house is as transparent as its exterior walls. Since there are no partition walls, one can have a clear view of other parts of the house clearly, which was also problematic to Dr. Farnsworth. The six feet tall doctor had trouble undressing when there are guests, as she doesn’t have a separate bedroom and there is only a five feet high partition behind the bed, which in her opinion, made her head looked like it was wandering over the top of the partition without a body. [9] The transparency of the house exposes the private details of the host’s life to the guest.

    Privacy is essential in a home, as everyone has some part of their lifestyle where they would like to conceal from others, even among family members. In Busch’s article, he argued for “a broader consideration of the kind of architecture and design that acknowledges how the human spirit finds something necessary, even sustaining, in alcoves, recesses, courtyards, closets, and whatever other forms a closed room may take; that replaces the mania of openness with a respect for enclosure and the positive qualities people may find in it – safety, privacy, protection and individuality.” There might be spaces that are shared among occupants of the house, or things that the host intends to reveal to the guests, but there should also be private spaces for each individual, where they can feel comfortable with themselves, without having to hide from anything or anyone.

    Based on the analysis of transparency in Farnsworth House from different perspectives, it is obvious that its transparency does severely affect privacy in the house. It is undeniable that the Farnsworth House is a mind-stimulating piece of intelligence and beauty, which plays a significant role in the history of modern architecture, and heavily inspired many architects over the years. Perhaps it is more suitable to be presented as a masterpiece by a genius, rather than an ordinary accommodation, as his biographer puts it:” Certainly the house is more nearly a temple than a dwelling, and it rewards aesthetic contemplation before it fulfills domestic necessity.”[10] I will not say that this is the case for all transparent glass houses, as the architect’ may have a different way of dealing with the material, but we should rethink the purpose of a house, to what extent should it be “transparent” and “open”, and whether the use of glass in the house is appropriate when designing one.

    Bibliography

    Busch, Akiko. “The End of Openness,” Metropolis, Vol. 22, August (2002): 36-38.

    El-Dahdah, Dadah. “[Love] Letter from Plano: (A Play of Sorts),” ANY: Architecture New York, No.11 (1996): 10-13.

    Futagawa, Yokio, and Ludwig Glaeser. Global Architecture: Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois. 1945-50. Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita Tokyo Co. Ltd, 1974.

    Schulze, Franz. Mies Van Der Rohe: A Critical Biography. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

    Werner Blaser, Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House. Basel: Birkhauser, 1999.

    Ziff, Matthew. “The Role of Glass in Interior Architecture: Aesthetics, Community, and Privacy.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Winter, 2004): 10-21.

    [1] Matthew Ziff, “The Role of Glass in Interior Architecture: Aesthetics, Community, and Privacy,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Winter, 2004): 10-21.

    [2] Yokio Futagawa and Ludwig Glaeser, Global Architecture: Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois. 1945-50. (Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita Tokyo Co. Ltd, 1974), 2.

    [3] Fares El-Dahdah, “[Love] Letter from Plano: (A Play of Sorts),” ANY: Architecture New York, No.11 (1996): 13.

    [4] Akiko Busch, “The End of Openness,” Metropolis, Vol. 22, August (2002): 36.

    [5] Akiko Busch, “The End of Openness,” Metropolis, Vol. 22, August (2002): 36.

    [6] Franz Schulze, Mies Van Der Rohe: A Critical Biography (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985), 253.

    [7] Matthew Ziff, “The Role of Glass in Interior Architecture: Aesthetics, Community, and Privacy,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Winter, 2004): 10, 13.

    [8] Franz Schulze, Mies Van Der Rohe: A Critical Biography (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985), 253-254.

    [9] Fares El-Dahdah, “[Love] Letter from Plano: (A Play of Sorts),” ANY: Architecture New York, No.11 (1996): 13.

    [10] Franz Schulze, Mies Van Der Rohe: A Critical Biography (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985), 256.

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    Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House: Transparency and the Problem of Privacy. (2017, Dec 24). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/mies-van-der-rohes-farnsworth-house-transparency-problem-privacy/

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