Farnsworth house exterior

Photo from www.farnsworthhouse.org

One of architecture’s most enduring icons is set to be immortalized on the silver screen. Farnsworth House, designed by master architect Mies Van Der Rohe, will be the subject of a new Hollywood movie about the house’s commission, design, and construction, with the narrative centering around the complex relationship between Van Der Rohe and his client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Jeff Bridges has been confirmed to play the architect, while Maggie Gyllenhaal is reported to be playing Farnsworth. This will be the second time the pair share a screen, the previous instance being in 2009’s Oscar-winning “Crazy Heart”.

Completed in 1951, Farnsworth House is considered a seminal work in the International Style, which characterized modernist architecture throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. The style’s main attributes were rectilinear forms, structural lightness achieved by using glass and steel, cantilevered planes, and fluid, minimal interiors. The house employs all of these elements and is thought to be the most complete synthesis of the architect’s vision, both conceptually and typologically.

farnsworth house interior

Photo © Carol Highsmith from www.farnsworthhouse.org

Commissioned in 1945 by distinguished Chicago doctor Edith Farnsworth, the house was to act as a country retreat where she could relax and pursue her many hobbies. Located outside Chicago in Plano, Illinois, it is situated on 10 acres of sheltered woodland and embodies Van Der Rohe’s concept of a harmonious relationship between nature and architecture. The house is a single story rectangular in form, the roof and floor of which are supported by eight, slender steel columns which also lift the volume off the ground. The entire facade is glazed from floor to ceiling, which connects the interior to the woods outside. A glass pavilion is created, and a free-flowing interior is only broken by the bathroom unit which is contained by the only solid walls constructed on the floor plate. A system of internal curtains provides shading and privacy where needed, but it was the architect’s intention that the house be shielded from the sun by the surrounding trees.

farnsworth house shade

Photo © Carol Highsmith from www.farnsworthhouse.org

Although it is revered by architects, students, and historians alike, Farnsworth House has not been without its problems. Farnsworth herself found the house inhospitable, saying “The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert. I am always restless. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night. I can rarely stretch out and relax. Mies talks about his ‘free space’: but his space is very fixed. Any arrangement of furniture becomes a major problem, because the house is transparent, like an X-ray.” The raising of the house off the ground was intended to protect the house from flooding from the nearby Fox River, but it has been marred by rising waters over the years, prompting preservationists to recommend its elevation by hydraulic jacks.

farnsworth house cantilevered

Photo © Carol Highsmith from www.farnsworthhouse.org

Architecture often acts as a silent backdrop for films, but in this movie it is to take centre stage. Jeff Bridges has worked against iconic buildings in the past, namely John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein Residence in Los Angeles, which featured prominently in the Coen Brother’s cult classic “The Big Lebowski”. The movie “Inception” is also heavily reliant on architecture for its plot, as Ellen Page’s architect character creates a mind-bending physical dreamscape for the film to play out on. The relationship between Van Der Rohe and Farnsworth also provides ample cinematic fodder for the filmmakers: The creative collaboration was rumored to have turned romantic, but the dalliance was never confirmed and eventually the house became the subject of a protracted legal battle between the two, who went to court over construction issues. Let’s see what the movie tells us about these two powerful characters, and about one of the most important built works of all time.