Mies van der Rohe, Shades of Grey?

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Georg Schaefer Museum Project, Schweinfurt, Germany, Interior perspective with view of site. 1960-1963

Mies van der Rohe “Ink and Photo Collage with Glass” 1960-3
Courtesy of MOMA

Yes, the iconic minimalist architect made collages.  You can see some of them in the current MOMA show Cut ‘n’ Paste.   Drawings of his spare building designs are collaged with cut-out art pasted in front, like a Maillot nude.

To me it looked like Mies trying to “sex up” his architecture because minimalism isn’t sexy.  A lean, stripped figure lying on the ground?  Well, okay, maybe some people would find this sexy.  In a Shades of Grey kind of way.  Maybe my initial reaction was too hasty.  I decided to do a Google exploring the question.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Museum for a Small City Project, Interior perspective. 1941-43

Mies van der Rohe, “Museum for a Small City Project” 1941-43
Cut -out photographs and photo reproductions on illustration board
Courtesy MOMA

One of the first things that came up was a documentary by Richard Press, Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House; A Juicy Tale of Sex and Real Estate.   Hmm.  Maybe there was more to Mies than I’d realized!

It started with  crush, according to the Press film.  Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago surgeon,  was warm for Mies’s form.  At the time, he looked kind of like Alfred Hitchcock, but then, Edith was not quite Ingrid Bergman.


Edith Farnsworth & Mies Van der Rohe

She contrived to meet the world-famous architect at a dinner party. Sitting next to him, she confided her long-held desire to commission a house, a country retreat.  Mies said nothing. She wasn’t sure he even spoke English.  But later he surprised her by with an offer to build her house.

Mies had never made a glass house before. This would “represent the ultimate refinement” of his minimalist aesthetic.  It would be “a  structure of Platonic perfection.”  (Quotes from the Farnsworth House website.)

Mies Van der Rohe, Plan for the Farnsworth House

As the project began, the architect/client relationship soon became a love affair. When Edith sent Mies a check, it came with a handwritten note:

“It is impossible to pay in money for what is made by heart and soul. Such work one can only recognize and cherish———-with love and respect.”

But though the house, situated on the riverside, was built on stilts, the relationship was on a slippery slope.  Mies was…a bit of a control freak?  Soon Edith was complaining that the house was too pure.   The kitchen garbage can was on display through the glass walls.  There were no screens to keep out bugs.  And where was the bedroom closet?

Farnsworth House interior

The conversation went something like this:
Mies:  Closet? What do you need a closet for?
Edith:  (increasingly exasperated) To hang my clothes in!
Mies:  It’s a weekend house. You only need one dress. Why can’t you just hang it on a hook in the bathroom?

Mies (whose first name was Ludwig) grudgingly assigned an assistant to stick in a closet.  But three years into the project, the budget had doubled, and the two were barely speaking.   Now her letters were typed, instructing him to stop billing her.  They were signed “Edith B. Farnsworth MD.”

Edith in the Farnsworth House
n.d., photographer unknown

Mies eventually had to sue her to get the remainder of the cost.  He won in court. But Edith got even. She gave an interview to the editor of House Beautiful, who quoted her in an editorial titled,  THE THREAT TO THE NEXT AMERICA.”

It was then the height of the McCarthy era,  and the magazine equated Mies’s austere design with Communism!  Even Frank Lloyd Wright endorsed this idea,
calling Mies’s International Style “totalitarianism.” Which is not too sexy.

Meanwhile, the house had become famous as an architectural masterpiece.   Which was not ideal when Edith was on vacation.   In the glass house, she was surrounded by not just nature but rubbernecking architecture buffs. She’d come out of the bathroom to see 25 tourists “aiming their cameras.”  The world-famous icon was now known to her as the “glass cage.”

Farnsworth House

Edith sold the house in 1968.  At the time, Mies needed a country place, and family members thought the Farnsworth house would be ideal.  “But,” said his grandson later, “he wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”  After the house was completed, he never saw it again.

Mies sexy? Maybe my instincts were right in the first place.  As this tale proves, every good love affair needs at a closet.  At least.

For more of this story, see the film .     (It’s in three parts.)
The story also inspired two plays:  The Glass House,  by June Finfer, and Jessie and the Fat Man,  by Alanah Fitch.

Image credits: 1) Mies collage    2) Mies collage 3) Farnsworth photo    4)  Mies photo

5) Plan   6)  House interior     7) Edith    8) House exterior

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