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The De-Stylization of Two Modernist Icons Cyrus Dahmubed

Northeastern University School of Architecture ARCH 6330: Seminar in Modern Architecture Prof. Xavier Costa December 9, 2017


The march of progress is often recognized to be non-linear. Grand dreams and ideas, when executed, bring about unforeseen and unforeseeable paradoxes and problems that complicate and confuse their trajectories. Such has been the case of Modernist architecture, whose attempts to transform the built environment in the 20th century through an architecture based on technology, simplicity, legibility, and authenticity produced designs that were often too conceptually rich for their reductive physical embodiments. This paradigm resulted in buildings that, upon close reading, introduce to the Modernist approach concepts that are sometimes incongruous, sometimes fully at odds with their stated goals and the broader goals of the Modernist movement. Some of these ideas, such as referential and quotational architectural components, new or reinterpreted notions of symbolism, ideological architectural borrowing, and reliance upon old notions of space inconsistent with Modernism’s revolutionary precepts are precisely those eventually championed by Postmodernism’s embrace of Modernism’s inherent contradictions. Within the canon of Modernist landmarks, few buildings are celebrated more than the two glass houses designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (Mies) and Philip Johnson. Mies’s Farnsworth House in Plano, IL of 1951 (Fig. 1) and Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, CT of 1949 (Fig. 2) are each regarded as iconic apotheoses of Modernism’s ideals and desired architectural expression. The historical and academic narrative of these two houses is dominated by the idea that they are to be revered as crowning manifestations of Modernism, paralleled only be each other. However, within the very notion that they are comparable in standing only to each other lies the seed for an interrogation of their designs and foundational ideas that reveals these two projects, when analyzed closely, to be something other than “pure” icons of Modernism. Rather, they complicate our notions of Modernism and Postmodernism as “stylistic” pursuits and products. Through the nuances of their designs, the establishment of their own paradoxes, and their own architectural dialogue, Glass House and Farnsworth House reinforce

Figure 1: Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House of 1947-51

Figure 2: Philip Johnson’s Glass House of 1949

architect and theorist Peter Eisenman’s assertion in “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, The End of the End” that stylistic boundaries are not as rigid as we would like them to be for academic purposes. Careful observation and analysis of the two houses and their spatial logics also bolsters Colin Rowe’s identification of certain spatial characteristics and anthropological ideas about space as being indicative of the fact that architecture can never exist in a nonreferential, context-free silo. Rather, he argues, even landmarks of Modernism exist in the ever-referential lineage of architecture under the influence of human occupation and intrinsic desires for particular visual and physical qualities. Before considering the ways in which the Farnsworth and Glass Houses engage with ideas that 1


range from the Colonial to the Postmodern and beyond, it is fundamental to understand the background that led to their dialogue, which serves as context at least for Johnson, if not also Mies. The relationship between the two architects extends back decades from the construction of either house, to the late 1920’s when a young Johnson, hired to curate the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) first architectural exhibition, traveled to Europe and visited the Wießenhofseidlung in Stuttgart, whose design and construction had been overseen by Mies. Inspired by the work there, Johnson in conjunction with his fellow curator Henry-Russell Hitchcock and under the leadership of MoMA’s director Alfred H. Barr, began the process of bringing European Modernism to the United States by organizing visits from the leading architects of the style and the design of a 1932 MoMA exhibition focused on their work. Mies’s work played a large role in the exhibition, and the work’s provenance from multiple countries coupled with Johnson’s desire to see it implemented in the United States prompted the coining of the term the International Style (Museum of Modern Art) , which served as the name for the exhibition and accompanying book. Johnson’s facilitation of the popularization of the International Style helped to assure that Mies would find work in the United States after he left Germany as World War II began, deepening a growing master-apprentice relationship between Johnson, born in 1908, and Mies, twenty years his senior. By 1947, Johnson was once again curating an architectural exhibition at MoMA, this time exclusively of Mies’s work, which resulted in the first monograph of Mies’s who Johnson then called

“the least known” of the Modernist architects (Johnson 7) . For this exhibition, Mies completed a glass model of his project for Edith Farnsworth, then in the design phase. Influenced by this project and Mies’s work more broadly, Johnson undertook his own attempt to implement the Modernist principles he found and had analyzed in Mies’s oeuvre (Friedman 130) . Though certainly his most famous early work, Glass House was not Johnson’s first work influenced by Mies. During his time studying at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) in 1941, Johnson designed a home for himself at 9 Ash Street in Cambridge, itself heavily influenced by a series of studies that Mies had done for “court houses” in the 1930’s. Essentially a manifestation of one of Mies’s perspective sketches of a court house (Fig. 3), Johnson’s Ash Street house (Fig. 4) fits nearly perfectly his own description of Mies’s studies (Johnson 96). The significance of Johnson’s acceptance early in his career of this kind of referential work is challenging to decipher. While openly imitative, there seems to be no intimation of malice or even competitiveness in Johnson’s copying. Rather, in light of his role as an informal student of Mies and a formal student of Marcel Breuer at the GSD, Johnson’s Ash Street house can be read as the product of an apprentice attempting to learn the work of the master through repetition. What is significant is that Johnson so deftly executes Mies’s vision as to elevate his own work to the quality of the master thereby creating a paradigm in which the work of the two designers is not only in the same realm, but can begin to engage in meaningful dialogue. By 1959, this dialogue had grown so strong

Figure 3: Mies’s sketch for one of his Court Houses. Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Figure 4: Johnson’s 9 Ash Street house. Source: National Trust for Historic Places. © Ezra Stoller

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and so clear that when the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Reserach’s director, Donald MacKinnon sought feedback from a nominating committee for a personality study to be done on architects, those nominating Johnson described him as a “a copier disciple of van der Rohe who has bested the master”, “a disciple of Mies van der Rohe to the point of bearing the stigmata”, and “often accused of being merely a copy of van der Rohe, but none the less one must admit the tremendous skill, flexibility and variety of his inventions” (Serraino 48-49) . The following statement, “He is a tremendous perfectionist and no matter what hat he happens to be wearing at the moment does everything extremely well” seems to be most indicative of how Johnson’s career would eventually transcend the lessons learned from Mies, and in some ways eclipse his great teacher, if only for a time. These descriptions of Johnson express just how deeply - perhaps more deeply than any comparable dynamic in architecture - the connection between the work of Johnson and Mies was perceived to be. To truly understand the interrelation of their work and the significance of this dynamic for the trajectory of architecture through the remainder of the 20th century, a close reading of the Farnsworth and Glass Houses must be undertaken with the understanding of three primary goals resulting from such a reading. Firstly, to understand how the two houses implemented ideas that were far removed from the precepts of Modernism to which they purportedly ascribed, and which would only later be explicitly stated by leaders of the Postmodern movement such as Robert Venturi, Peter Eisenman, and Reyner Banham. Secondly, to recognize how Johnson’s process of borrowing from Mies along with the incorporation of numerous other references, and the design decisions of both architects, brought into the language of Modernism the then-latent precepts that would become foundational to Postmodernism. Thirdly, to cast both houses in a new light by recognizing that the above conditions serve to break down stylistic boundaries rather than reinforce them, this in turn suggesting that nearly all architecture, no matter how apparently revolutionary, abides by certain immutable parameters that transcend style and period as suggested by Colin Rowe. Often described as two shifted planes hovering above the ground and – importantly – above the expected height of a flood from the nearby Fox River, Farnsworth House is noted for its embrasure of the

simple and fundamental Modernist tenet of asymmetry. However, close analysis of the plan of the building (Fig. 5) reveals that the two platforms that compose it actually follow a strict organizational rhythm that while seemingly asymmetrical, actually relies on a strongly defined center to balance the building’s forms. Four bays of width A, marked by the vertical I-beams from which the house is suspended are bookended by two narrower bays of width B. At each of the columns that define the bays, a secondary B rhythm, or (b) bay, is defined by some secondary dynamic of physical elements. Significantly, the lower platform and the glass-enclosed area of the upper platform are of the same length, 52 feet, and the I-beam that these two zones share demarcates the exact center of the house’s overall plan. Here, to further establish this central axis, a sub-order of (b) bays is placed to either side of the column within the adjacent A bays. The result of this is a celebrated center as classical and formal as any Palladian villa with the only distinction being its relative insignificance to the house’s circulatory scheme. This entire central zone is defined by the stairs of the house and the glass wall of the upper platform to its left, and by the right edge of the lower platform to its right. The resultant double-width central zone is therefore composed of two adjoining (b) bays centered on the house’s central column. The logic of the house’s centrality is further extended to each of the other A bays. Those marked by columns to the right of the central zone have a (b) bay to the right of each column, while those to the left have the inverted logic, thus producing the bookended effect and greatly emphasizing the house’s sense of horizontality by visually pulling each side of the house away from the central zone as if with rubber bands. The rhythm of the house at the grandest scheme, that of the lower platform and the enclosed area, is therefore simple two C bays centered upon the overlapping zone of (b)(b). At the more refined level of the column grid, the house’s order is B A A A A B; and at the most refined level, that which includes the sub-order defined by less obvious factors like the edge of the platforms and the glass enclosure the rhythm is B A(b) A(b)(b)A (b)A B. Far from simply abstract, asymmetrical forms, the plan of Farnsworth House reveals it to be a highly centralized and axial building with an essentially Classical organizational scheme. Rather than successfully eschewing all notions of the past to create a new Modern architectural order, even Mies fell back upon the established spatial 3


Figure 5: Farnsworth House Plan Analysis Diagram

Figure 6: Glass House Plan Analysis Diagram 4


dynamics of human inhabitation. Nevertheless, his organization is subtle and Farnsworth House feels spatially Modern. One moves through it largely without interacting or being forced into alignment with the central axis and the way in which the design of the house moves one through it so that any reading of the symmetry, axiality, and centrality is only ever subconscious is perhaps Mies’s greatest feat at Farnsworth. As a result of all this, Farnsworth is ultimately only a symbolic representation of Modernism’s formalistic precepts. It represents certain ideals, but ultimately does not put them into practicem instead relying on longestablished notions of space; in the process Farnsworth in its entirety becomes a symbol of its own ideas. Peter Eisenman, in “The End of the Classical: the End of the Beginning, the End of the End” explains that “it is now possible to see that, although stylistically different from previous architectures, the ‘modern’ architecture exhibits a system of relations similar to the classical” (Eisenman). He goes on to explain how Modernism’s greatest attempts to be a paradigm shift based in reason, logic, utility, and simplicity resulted only in the creation of symbols of these ideas. This reduction to pure functionality was, in fact, not abstraction; it was an attempt to represent reality itself…Functionalism turned out to be yet another stylistic conclusion, this one based on a scientific and technical positivism, a simulation of efficiency. From this perspective the modern movement can be seen to be continuous with the architecture that preceded it. Modern architecture therefore failed to embody a new value in itself. (Eisenman 179) If anyone recognized the spatial logic of Farnsworth House as being an essentially classical one at the time of its design, it would have been the person most deeply involved in a study of Mies at that moment: Philip Johnson. The classical axiality of Glass House is well known: each of its four facades features one centered glass door that align to establish the building’s two central axes. This decision is equally legible as a product of Johnson’s interest in the monumental as it is as his interpretation of the centralized axiality he may have wisely perceived from the Farnsworth House design upon seeing it at the 1947 exhibition. It therefore is either a reference to and borrowing of Classical notions of space, Mies’s design for Farnsworth, or both. However, the decision seems biased toward Mies’s influence when one considers that despite the obvious announcement of Glass House’s central axes, Johnson discourages any significant alignments with the central doors (Fig. 6). The front door is accessed via a diagonal path and once inside the house it is impossible to walk in a straight line between any two doors, though visual connections are largely maintained. This suggests that Johnson understood the way in which Mies moved visitors to Farnsworth House away from its central axis in order to ensure they felt, but did not discover it. Johnson inverts and embraces this. At Glass House, one instantly discovers but is never really permitted to feel the building’s axes. What can be felt at Glass House, however, and is not present at Farnsworth, is an exquisitely rich and dynamic relation to the magnificent hilly landscape in which it is nestled. Farnsworth House, forced to remove itself from its landscape because of the risk of flooding and an apparent

Figure 7: Glass House (blue) and Brick House (yellow) on the Glass House grounds with centerline of composition shown.

Figure 8: Representation of “slid” Brick House

Figure 9: Comparison of Glass House (left) with “slid” massing and Farnsworth House (right).

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disinterest on the part of Mies in exploring landscape design to the degree that Johnson would, is in a landscape, but never really a participatory part of it. With both of Farnsworth’s platforms raised, the house is a removed observer of the landscape that surrounds it: a panopticon of trees, meadow, and river. In stark contrast, Glass House, which employs a vastly simpler spatial rhythm than its heartland companion, with only three equal bays defined by four I-beam columns, takes great pains to expand its territory far into the landscape. Considering Glass House in his essay “A Home is Not a House”, Reyner Banham characterizes it as being the center point in a lineage of architecture that extends from traditional colonial saltbox houses to his own fantastical proposition for a highly ephemeral “home” composed merely of a single unit that handles all technical, mechanical, sewage, water, entertainment, and thermal needs encased in a bubble-like membrane (Banham 79). He understands the lightness of Glass House to be an attempt to reduce the veil between interior and exterior to the absolutely minimum. As many pilgrims to this site have noticed, the house does not stop at the glass, and the terrace, and even the trees beyond, are visually part of the living space in winter, physically and operationally so in summer when the four doors are open. The ‘’house” is little more than a service core set in infinite space, or alternatively, a detached porch looking out in all directions at the Great Out There. (Banham 79) However, the real secret to Glass House’s engagement and integration with the landscape comes from its centrality and the care that Johnson takes to extend the house’s rhythm of bays well beyond its boundaries. The house sits upon a semi-constructed promontory overlooking a pond that Johnson had constructed, and an expansive valley crisscrossed by numerous small streams and rivers. Tracing the edge of this promontory Johnson designed a low-slung curb of granite blocks that seemingly bend to follow the outline of the topography. Close examination reveals that the bends in the curb occur either in line with the bays, or at their half way points, effectively extending the metric of the building into the landscape and establishing the desire lines along which the entire expanse of the landscape is to be viewed. Further articulating a relationship to the landscape is the painting, The Funeral of Phocion by French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin, placed in the house’s primary sitting vignette so as to ensure that its horizon line and that of the 6

surrounding valley align when viewed seated. This notion of the entire surrounding landscape not only as some sort of painting but as mutable through the subtle plays of sightlines and a reliance on the picaresque further delineates that Johnson’s Classical influences were not constrained to architectural dalliances. Returning to a formal examination of Farnsworth House and Glass House by considering the projects in plan and ignoring the sectional variations and drastically different approaches between how the houses inhabit their landscapes, a startling and easily overlooked similarity becomes apparent. Often forgotten at Glass House is Brick House, a stark rectangular block of brick that serves as the womblike guesthouse for Glass House (Fig. 7). Despite being different buildings, the two were conceived of by Johnson and constructed simultaneously as one unit; importantly, they share the same length, just as the lower platform and enclosed area of Farnsworth House do. Separated by a manicured lawn, the two volumes are connected by a diagonal gravel path that joins the front door of each building. If Brick House were to notionally be slid diagonally toward Glass House such that its right edge aligns with the center of Glass House just as the right edge of Farnsworth’s lower platform defines the central zone, a composition of strikingly similar form and proportion between the two houses is created (Figs. 8, 9). The alignment is, admittedly, an imperfect one but the referential quality of the massing when viewed this way is nearly impossible to mistake. Though difficult to perceive in person, largescale relationships like this display the conviction with which Johnson pursued integrating both the classical references, and those of his teacher. Johnson’s large-scale references also include a Classically inspired manipulation of the landscape that extends beyond the immediate context of the Glass House and the rhythm foreordained by its bays. From the pond below the house, the promontory and the house bear a striking resemblance to the Acropolis and Parthenon. (Fig. 10) Johnson designed two follies to dominate the pond, the most significant of them being a late Modernist tempietto that sits in the water. Conceived as a study for his work at Lincoln Center, the tempietto features four colonnaded arcades in precast concrete, organized in a pinwheel form around a central opening that collects water below it, effectively an oculus and fountain. The acropolitan reading of the house and promontory are significant because they lead to


Figure 11: Obfuscation of structure achieved at Farnsworth through plug welded I-beam joints

Figure 12: I-beams used as ornamental cladding on Mies’s IBM Plaza of 1969

a meaningful analysis of the building’s I-beam columns by Eisenman. Discussing the Modernist approach to abstraction, he says, “a column without a base and capital was thought to be an abstraction. Thus reduced, form was believed to embody function more ‘honestly.’ Such a column looked more like a real column, the simplest possible load-carrying element, than one provided with a base and capital bearing arboreal or anthropomorphic motifs.” (Eisenman 157) Herein lies a fundamental and enlightening debate between the two houses. Apart from their obvious visual similarities, the most known shared trait is the implementation by both Mies and Johnson of I-beam columns. As cheap, strong, and efficient structural members, Mies’s use of the I-beams at Farnsworth makes sense. Furthermore, their expressive formal quality meant that if he left them exposed, they would become an explicit articulation of the building’s structure, thereby achieving yet another Modernist goal. Farnsworth House is notable for the way in which the volumes of the house are suspended from the vertical I-beams. However, in an apparent attempt to maintain visual purity, Mies determined that the joint between the vertical I-beams and their horizontal counterparts be completely obfuscated through an expensive and laborious manual process known as plug welding (Fig. 11) that visually eliminates the joining bolt, allowing the two beams to appear to be floating, and simply touching each other, thus eliminating the legibility of Farnsworth’s structural “honesty” as Eisenman notes Modernism was wont to do. The result of this process is the diminution of the building’s structure to a symbolic simulacrum of itself. The representation of structural clarity, not the authentic and legible articulation of the actual structural performance is what takes precedence. Mies seems to have developed a particular fetishization of the I-beam’s ability to serves this symbolic purpose, implementing it essentially as a superficial cladding element devoid of any structural or performative quality in his Chicago skyscrapers, most notably IBM Plaza of 1973 (Fig. 12), and the Seagram Building of 1958 in New York. In all three of these projects, the image of structural clarity, indeed any celebration of structure that brings an awareness of it to the viewer, is what is tantamount. Johnson famously used I-beams at Glass House as well, though in this case rather than being proud of the glass enclosure they are awkwardly internalized. Though conceivably selected for their economy and efficiency, Johnson’s choice of I-beams as the building’s primary structure reads as an obvious nod to Farnsworth House. In particular, the I-beams at the corner of the house are famously and uncharacteristically sloppily detailed (Fig. 13), their placement and connection seeming to be the afterthought of a disorganized contractor rather than the careful planning of a meticulous and brilliant architect. This condition itself may suggest that even Johnson saw the selection, presence, and performance of the I-beams as primarily symbolic; they not only serve as references to Farnsworth, but also further establish the role of the I-beam as the Modernist’s structural symbol of choice. The other symbol with which both Mies and Johnson engage, though in different ways, is the hearth. Long understood to be the symbolic center of the home, Banham describes the significance placed upon the notion of the hearth as the descendent of the campfire, the primordial construct around which humans gathered for warmth, shelter, security, and food (Banham 6). Mies articulates the hearth as a wooden mass (Fig. 14), noticeably

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in the shape of an I-beam when viewed in plan (Fig. 5). Internalized within this mass are a fireplace and chimney, two bathrooms, a large and complex mechanical and plumbing closet, and all of the kitchen functions of the house. Though the mass itself is conspicuously unaligned with any of the organizing bays explained above, both the fireplace and kitchen sink sit squarely within the first (b) bay to the right of the center zone. Mies’s placement of the sink and fireplace along this axis implies his understanding of the significance of these two objects as the fundamentals of the 20th century hearth; together they constitute the only two alignments of this kind in the entirety of the house. Though Mies seems to have understood the symbolic significance of the hearth to the notion of home, he minimizes the wooden mass’s interaction with the the ceiling, and does not let it protrude from the roof for risk that it might mar the house’s geometric purity. Even the chimney is cut short and concealed from view. Johnson takes quite a different approach to his hearth, taking cares to celebrate it in as many ways as possible. At Glass House, the allusions to a chimney are much more explicit. The hearth, which here contains a fireplace and the bathroom, is a brick cylinder (Fig. 15). Its placement is celebrated by being centered on the axis of the column immediately to the right of the main door. In contrast to Mies, Johnson extends the hearth noticeably through the roof of Glass House, employing it as a means to both breaking and balancing the building’s

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Figure 13: The clumsy placement and detailing of the corner I-beams at Glass House

purity. The visual effect is that of a lynchpin. In conjunction with the nine-inch brick slab that grounds Glass House to its terrain – for it does possess its terrain much more than Farnsworth does – the hearth seems to weigh the house down, holding it to earth. Together, the two brick elements could be ruins of a former home around which Johnson has constructed an exceedingly light enclosure. Of Johnson’s hearth, Banham notes “the admitted persistence in Johnson’s mind of the visual image of a burned-out New England township, the insubstantial shells of the houses consumed by the fire, leaving the brick floor slab, and a standing unit, which is a chimney/fireplace on one side and a bathroom on the other.” As if needing further proof of Johnson’s emotional attachment to the notion of the hearth and acceptance of it as a meaningful symbol of his context, Banham goes on to point out that “Johnson says…‘when it gets cold I have to move toward the fire, and when it gets too hot I just move away.’” But Banham criticizes this statement revealing Johnson to be even less interested in the performance of the hearth than he would seem to suggest, saying, “In fact, he is simply exploiting the campfire phenomenon (he is also pretending that the floor-heating does not make the whole area habitable, which it does).” (Banham 79) Banham’s analysis serves as a reminder of how intrinsically tied to simple, timeless, fundamentals of human inhabitation even the most seemingly Modern buildings are.

Figure 14: Mies’s “hearth” at Farnsworth is noticeably unaligned with the guiding metrics of the building


Figure 15: Johnson’s heart at Glass House bears striking similarities to the massive hearths of Colonial architecture

The grand narrative surrounding Modernism is that it was revolutionary, polemical, provocative, often challenging, and at times unlivable. In their attempt to transform the world, Modernist architects often attempted brazen paradigmatic shifts, but at their two glass houses, Mies and Johnson arguably undertook even braver pursuits. These homes, despite their canonization as archetypes of Modernity, engage with a spectrum of nuanced ideas about living so complex, that critics would not be able to discuss them until decades later when the rising tide of Postmodernism provided the vocabulary for a discourse that embraced rather than shunned the paradoxes and complexities of Modernity. Though Johnson survived long enough to become a Postmodernist himself and to wholeheartedly pursue both ideas for which he and Mies had laid the groundwork, and - continuing his legacy of borrowing - those of others, it is possible to argue that the prescience Mies and Johnson exhibited at these two houses transcended even their own notions of style. Beyond Modernism and Postmodernism, Classical and Colonial, Farnsworth House and Glass House achieve nothing better than simply being incredible houses designed to transform the very notion of living. Regardless of their complexities, references, symbols, and engagement with historical ideas of space, Farnsworth House and Glass House have come to be recognized as archetypes of Modernism, symbolic apotheoses of their own ideologies, and through this brought new meaning and nuance to the defining architectural movement of the 20th century. 9


Works Referenced

1. Banham, Reyner. “A Home is Not A House”, Art in America. 1965, Volume 2, New York City: 70-79

2. Peter Eisenman, “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End”, in Kate Nesbitt, ed. Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture, 1996, 212-223. 3. Friedman, Alice T. Women and the Making of the Modern House. Yale Univeristy Press, New Haven. 2006

4. Johnson, Philip C. Mies van der Rohe. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. 1947

5. Museum of Modern Art. Modern Architecture: International Exhibition. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. 1932

6. Rowe, Colin. The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa. MIT Press, Cambridge. 1976

7. Serraino, Pierluigi. The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study. The Monacelli Press, New York City. 2016 8. Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The Museum of Modern Art, New York City. 1966 10

In the Shadow of Glass: The De-Stylization of Two Modernist Icons  
In the Shadow of Glass: The De-Stylization of Two Modernist Icons  
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