Chicago tour hails architect's legacy

CHICAGO (Reuters Life!) - In a remote setting on the banks of the Fox River in Illinois sits Farnsworth House, a mansion designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe celebrated for its illusionary properties and its geometric design.

A view of Farnsworth House on the Fox River in Plano, Illinois on June 22, 2008. Farnsworth House is a single-storey glass-and-steel structure celebrated as a modernist masterpiece for its illusionary properties as much as for its geometric design. REUTERS/Julie Mollins

The steel-framed, single-storey house with clear-glass walls made by the German-born, 20th-century modernist architect is constructed on five-foot-high (1.5-meter) columns that give the impression it is floating in space.

It is the focal point of a seven-hour tour by the Chicago Architecture Foundation of Mies van der Rohe’s local works, which attracts visitors from around the globe.

“It’s one of the great works of architecture of the modern world,” Bill Shapiro, the director of the tour, said in an interview.

“It essentially distills a lot of Mies’ basic thoughts on architecture. He designed a great work of art by designing something he really wanted to do. The design is really motivated by aesthetic considerations more than anything else. It’s kind of a statement of his architecture.”


The house, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, is named for Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago-based doctor who hired Mies van der Rohe to build it as a country retreat.

“Mies’ concept of universal space; his concept of minimalism expressed as less is more; the idea of almost nothing -- a building as an envelope of space; the idea that you give a floating effect to a building -- these ideas are all embodied in Farnsworth House,” Shapiro explained.

A dispute over costs caused a legal battle between the architect and Farnsworth, but the doctor used the house, which was completed in 1951, until 1970 when she sold it to Peter Palumbo, a wealthy British property developer and art collector.

The house, set on columns to keep it from flooding, is about 60 miles southwest of Chicago.

Mies van der Rohe’s renowned modernist buildings dot the skylines of Chicago, New York, Toronto, Montreal, Barcelona and Berlin. He achieved international fame by designing undecorated structures made of steel frames, cubic shapes and large panes of glass, in sharp contrast to designs of previous eras.

“Everywhere in the world you go in any big city you see a host of steel and glass skyscrapers,” Shapiro explained. “That is Mies’ legacy. These are not necessarily in the style they would be if Mies himself had designed them, but the basic concept is his legacy.”

Mies van der Rohe was born in Aachen, Germany, in 1886. In 1937 he emigrated to the United States where he taught and designed at the Armour Institute in Chicago, later renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology. He died in 1969.

The campus is part of the Farnsworth tour and includes a visit to the glass-walled Crown Hall completed in 1956. The tour also includes visits to 860 and 880 North Lake Shore Drive, considered the first two modern skyscrapers ever built, according to Shapiro.

“It gives a unique opportunity to see some of the greatest works of perhaps the most influential architect of the 20th century in a day,” Shapiro said of the tour.

Reporting by Julie Mollins; editing by Patricia Reaney