Mies van der Rohe

Modern architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is the subject of a new biography. We talk with authors Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst about the work and life of a German emigrant who changed the American landscape on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from the biography below.

Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, nestled in a forest along the Fox River south of Aurora, is an icon of 20th-century modernist domestic architecture. The one-story masterpiece of steel and glass, with its simple geometric designs and transparent walls, reflects van der Rohe's minimalist expression of structure and space.

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A 2007 documentary that aired on WTTW11 tells the dramatic story of Farnsworth House, from van der Rohe's vision to his often tempestuous relationship with his client, D. Edith Farnsworth. Watch Saved from the Wrecking Ball, hosted by Geoffrey Baer. View a photo gallery of Mies van der Rohe's work.



An American Public Television program, presented by WTTW11 and produced by Towers Productions.

Read an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography.

The Farnsworth Saga: 1946-2003

I was famous before. She is now famous throughout the world.
Mies, of Edith Farnsworth, under oath

Mies reminded me of a mediaeval peasant.
Edith Farnsworth, of Mies

I think the house is perfectly constructed, it is perfectly executed.
Mies, about the Farnsworth House, under oath

Edith Farnsworth consulting with Myron Goldsmith in the Mies office in 1950.

In 1945 Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago physician, purchased nine acres of an old farmstead bordering the Fox River near Plano, Illinois, sixty miles southwest of Chicago. The seller was Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The sale price was $500 per acre. A farmhouse and several outbuildings stood on the property, but Farnsworth wanted something new. In an unpublished memoir from the 1970s, she recalled her project’s beginnings:

One evening I went to have dinner with Georgia [Lingafelt] and Ruth [Lee] in their pleasant old- fashioned apartment in the Irving. Also invited that evening was the massive stranger whom Georgia, with her peculiarly sweet smile, introduced, as I slipped off my coat: “This is Mies, darling.”

I suppose he must have formed a few syllables as we had dinner, but if so, I do not remember them. My impression is that the three of us chatted among ourselves around the granite form of Mies. I related in detail, probably too much, the story of finding the property, the dickerings with Col. McCormick and the final acquisition of the nine- acre plot….

All of this came to naught, conversationally speaking, and I concluded that Mies spoke almost no English; how much he understood remained problematical. We moved back to the sitting room after dinner and both Ruth and Georgia disappeared to wash the dishes.

Farnsworth continued, addressing Mies:

“I am wondering whether there might be some young man in your office who would be willing and disposed to design a small studio weekend-house worthy of that lovely shore.”

The response was the more dramatic for having been preceded by two hours of unbroken silence. “I would love to build any kind of house for you.” The effect was tremendous, like a storm, a flood or other act of God. We planned a trip to Plano together, so that I could show him the property…. We set out for a day in the country, to inspect the property with a view to the ideal weekend house. It was either late autumn or late winter [of 1944–45] when I stopped at 200 East Pearson to call for Mies, and he came out wearing an enormous black overcoat of some kind of soft, fine wool which reached well down toward his ankles. Installed beside me in the little Chevrolet he put up only feeble resistance to the advances of my white cocker who sprawled across his knees for the duration of the trip. 

Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois (1951); click image to view photo gallery

Finally we reached the dooryard of the farmhouse and I could open the car doors. The emergence of Mies and the cocker was spectacular, as it turned out that the latter had yielded most of his white coat in a soft frosting over the black wool of that splendid overcoat, and we had nothing on board with which to remove it.

We walked down the slope, through the frozen meadow grass and dormant brush, and I worried for fear a European might be unable to see the beauty of the mid-west countryside at so unfavorable a season; but midway down, Mies stopped and looked all around him. “It is beautiful!” he said, and I didn’t doubt the spontaneity of his exclamation.

This is the beginning of the tale as remembered by Farnsworth, then in her seventies. Remarkably, we have Mies’s quite different version of the same events, offered in 1952 as testimony in the action Van der Rohe v. Farnsworth:

Question, to Mies: Will you state what your conversation was with Dr. Farnsworth that evening?

Answer, by Mies: After dinner Dr. Farnsworth said that she had a site in Plano, and she would like to talk with me about a house she had planned there and then we were left alone and we talked about the site. She told me she wanted to build a small house and asked me if I would be interested in doing that. I said normally I don’t build small house but I would do it if we could do something interesting.

Q: Did you explain what you meant by “interesting”?

A: No.

Mies added that he learned that before she met him, Farnsworth had asked Chicago architect George Fred Keck to design the house. Keck, said Mies, would undertake the project only on condition that he “can do what he wants, and she didn’t seem to like that.”

Reprinted with permission from Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, New and Revised Edition, by Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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