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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"The ghosts that haunt modern architecture"

In today's National Post Robert Fulford reviews a show called Yesterday's Tomorrows, now running at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. Fulford relates the story of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his battles with a client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. The tale of the Farnsworth House nicely illustrates the disconnect that frequently exists between modern architects and the people who have to endure their buildings:
The doctor decided in 1945 that she wanted Mies to design her weekend retreat beside the Fox River, southwest of Chicago. That led to a bitter power struggle.

She believed the power of her money entitled her to a comfortable house. Mies believed the power of his genius entitled him to build as he wished.

When the house was finished, in 1951, admirers of Mies were delighted. Maritz Vandenburg, an architectural historian, wrote that Mies had been feeling his way toward this goal for three decades: "All of the paraphernalia of traditional living rooms have been virtually abolished in a puritanical vision of simplified, transcendental existence." Critics agreed that this was a brilliant exercise in the art of structure and space.

But the client found all those huge glass windows intolerable. She felt exposed, with nowhere to hide. Other complaints piled up. She suffered from bugs, and not the metaphorical kind: The brilliantly lit interior attracted every moth and mosquito in the county. She learned that rust never sleeps: The steel columns needed repeated sanding. The heating bill was atrocious. She demanded a closet and Mies argued that a weekend house didn't need one. She added window blinds, which Mies hated.

As the Montreal catalogue points out, the Farnsworth House has become "one of the ghosts that haunt Modern architecture, embodying the disjuncture between the ideals and aspirations of its practitioners and the reality of its users' lives."

Farnsworth paid $75,000 for her retreat, $10,000 more than budgeted. In a memoir she called it "my Miesconception." She sued Mies and lost. She told a magazine that Mies was "colder and more cruel than anybody I have ever known." But the house ended up in scores of books on architecture, praised for its purity and grace.

Farnsworth sold it and the next owner could find no one who wanted to live in it. He spoke of destroying it. Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, said that this possibility left her speechless. "I cannot believe," she declared, "that Chicago cannot organize itself to save one of the greatest houses that's ever been. It's putting civilization on the block."

Money was raised. When it was auctioned at Sotheby's in 2003 the National Historic Trust acquired it for $7.5-million and turned it into a museum. That was a happy ending for everyone except those who were interested in houses rather than the perfection of design.

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