Farnsworth House during winter. Snowed Exterior
Farnsworth House Facade | © Jonathan Rieke

The Farnsworth House, designed by renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945 and 1951, is a testament to minimalist aesthetics in modern architecture. This one-room retreat, located 55 miles southwest of Chicago on a 60-acre estate near the Fox River, was commissioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Crafted primarily from steel and glass, the house, elevated to prevent flooding, blurs the boundary between inside and outside, mirroring Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more” design philosophy. The open floor plan provides a tranquil space for Dr. Farnsworth to indulge in her hobbies, such as playing the violin, translating poetry, and communing with nature.

Farnsworth House Technical Information

When one looks at Nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it takes on a deeper significance than when one stands outside. More of Nature is thus expressed – it becomes part of a greater whole.

– Mies Van Der Rohe1

Farnsworth House Photographs

Snowed The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe
Farnsworth House in Winter | © Jonathan Rieke
Platform snowerd - The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe
© Jonathan Rieke
The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe
© Victor Grigas
Exterior - The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe
© Phil Beard
Living Area - The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe
© Mike Schwartz
Living Area The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe
Farnsworth House Interior | © Mike Schwartz
The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe
Farnsworth House Openings | © Victor Grigas

The Farnsworth House Concept

First conceived in 1945 as a country retreat for the client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, the house, as finally built, appears as a Platonic structure in the landscape, an integral aspect of Mies van der Rohe’s aesthetic conception. The house faces the Fox River just to the south and is raised 5 feet 3 inches above the ground. Its thin white I-beam supports contrast with the darker, sinuous trunks of the surrounding trees. The calm stillness of the human-made object contrasts with the subtle movements, sounds, and rhythms of water, sky, and vegetation.

The dominance of a single, geometric form in a pastoral setting, with complete exclusion of extraneous elements usually associated with habitation, reinforces the architect’s statement about the potential of a building to express “dwelling” in its simplest essence. While the elongated rectangle of the house lies parallel to the Fox River course, the perpendicular cross axis, represented by the suspended stairways, faces the river directly. With its emphatically planar floors and a roof suspended on the widely-spaced steel columns, the one-story house appears to float above the ground, infinitely extending the symbolic space of the hovering planes into the surrounding site.

The house’s architecture represents the ultimate refinement of Mies van der Rohe’s minimalist expression of structure and space. It comprises three robust and horizontal steel forms – the terrace, the house floor, and the roof – attached to attenuated steel flange columns.

Architecture as an Expression of the Times

The Farnsworth House addresses fundamental issues about the relationship between the individual and his society. Mies viewed the technology-driven modern era in which an ordinary individual exists as primarily beyond one’s control. But he believed the individual can and should live in harmony with the culture of one’s time for successful fulfillment.

His career was a long and patient search for an architecture that would be a true expression of his epoch’s essential soul, the Holy Grail of German Modernism. He perceived our period as the era of industrial mass production, a civilization shaped by rapid technological development forces.

Mies wanted to use architecture to help reconcile the individual spirit with the new mass society in which the individual exists.

His answer to the issue is to accept the need for an orderly framework as necessary for existence while making space for the individual human spirit’s freedom to flourish. He created buildings with free and open space within a minimal framework, using expressed structural columns. He did not believe in using architecture for the social engineering of human behavior, as many other modernists did, but his architecture does represent ideals and aspirations.

His mature design work is a physical expression of his understanding of the modern epoch. He provides the occupants of his buildings with flexible and unobstructed space to fulfill themselves as individuals, despite their anonymous condition in the modern industrial culture. The materials of his buildings, industrially manufactured products such as mill-formed steel and plate glass, undoubtedly represent the modern era’s character. Still, he counterbalances these with traditional luxuries such as Roman travertine and exotic wood veneers as valid parts of contemporary life.

Mies accepted the problems of industrial society as facts to be dealt with and offered his idealized vision of how technology may be made beautiful and support the individual. He suggests that the downsides of technology decried by late-nineteenth-century critics such as John Ruskin can be solved with human creativity and shows us how in the architecture of this house.

Reconnecting the individual with nature is one of the significant challenges of an urbanized society. The 60-acre (24 ha) rural site offered Mies an opportunity to bring the human relationship with nature to the forefront. Here he highlights the individual’s connection to nature through the medium of a synthetic shelter.

We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and the human being to a higher unity.

– Mies Van der Rohe

Glass walls and open interior space are the features that create an intense connection with the outdoor environment while providing a framework that reduces opaque exterior walls to a minimum. The careful site design and integration of the external environment represent a concerted effort to achieve an architecture wedded to its natural context.

Blurring Boundaries

© Victor Grigas
Corridor - The Farnsworth House / Mies van der Rohe
© Phil Beard

Mies conceived the building as an indoor-outdoor architectural shelter simultaneously independent of and intertwined with the domain of nature. Mies did not build on the flood-free upland portions of the site, choosing instead to tempt the dangerous forces of nature by building directly on the flood plain near the river’s edge. Philip Johnson referred to this type of experience of nature as “safe danger.” The enclosed space and a screened porch are elevated five feet on a raised floor platform, just slightly above the 100-year flood level, with a large intermediate terrace level.

The house has a distinctly independent personality yet also evokes strong feelings of a connection to the land. The platforms’ levels restate the multiple levels of the site, in a kind of poetic architectural rhyme, not unlike the horizontal balconies and rocks do at Wright’s Fallingwater.

The house was anchored to the site in the cooling shadow of a large and majestic black maple tree (removed in 2013 due to age and damage). As Mies often did, the entrance is located on the sunny side, facing the river instead of the street, moving visitors around corners, and revealing views of the house and site from various angles as they approach the front door. The simple elongated cubic form of the house is parallel to the river’s flow, and the terrace platform is slipped downstream in relation to the elevated porch and living platform. Outdoor living spaces were designed to be extensions of the indoor space, with an open terrace and a screened porch (the screens have been removed). Yet, the synthetic element always remains distinct from the natural by its geometric forms highlighted by choice of white as its primary color.

The Farnsworth House Plans

Floor plan of the Farnsworth House by Mies Van Der Rohe
Farnsworth House Floor Plan | © Mies van der Rohe
section of the Farnsworth House by Mies Van Der Rohe
Farnsworth House Sections | © Mies van der Rohe
Stair Details of the Farnsworth House by Mies Van Der Rohe
Farnsworth House Stair Details | © Mies van der Rohe

About Mies Van Der Rohe

Among the twentieth century’s most prominent and influential architects, German-born Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) was initiated into architecture through masonry, stone carving, stucco decoration, and furniture design before working as an architect in the office of Peter Behrens.

By the end of the 1920s, Mies had emerged as one of Germany’s leading architects, noted for his visionary skyscraper projects wherein the weightless and revealed “skin and bone” modern construction permitted the most significant play of light on the building surface.

Full Bio of MiesWorks from Mies Van der Rohe

  1. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House Illustrated, June 21, 2006, by Paul Clemence
  2. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Complete Writings 1922–1969, Paperback – February 1, 2022, by Vittorio Pizzigoni