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Visionaries vs. Pragmatists:  

12-09-2015 17:35

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s house for Edith Farnsworth in Plano, Ill., completed in 1951, and Philip Johnson’s Glass House, completed in 1949, are linked in many ways. The obvious connections that scholars and critics have explored over the years concern architectural history. Johnson (1906–2005) was influenced by the work of Mies, studied his work, sought him out as an architecture student, and saw the design for the Farnsworth House (as yet un-built) before designing the Glass House for himself in New Canaan, Conn. Mies (1886–1969) was, in the 1940s, a very significant architect teaching and practicing in Chicago. He was already widely known for his 1928-29 Barcelona Pavilion and work as director of the Bauhaus School in Germany in the 1930s.

Breaking the houses down to their basic elements, both are rectilinear boxes constructed with glass and steel as the predominant materials, having four glass “walls” running floor to ceiling, and without interior partitions touching any exterior surface. The similarities begin to fade after that, as each house has its own distinct qualities and character, along with dramatically different interactions with the surrounding landscape. Of all that has been said and written about these houses, though, the most noteworthy connection is likely the immeasurably large impact that they have had upon architecture students around the world over the past five decades. Both sites are listed as National Historic Landmarks.

And now these two icons of 20th-century architecture are connected in a new and somewhat unexpected way. Both have recently become National Trust historic sites as house museums and will be open to the public for education on the history of architecture. The Farnsworth House is operated by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI) and was opened for public tours in May 2004. Preparations are underway at Johnson’s Glass House property for an anticipated public opening in spring 2007. The transition from private ownership to public resource is not as easy as it might seem. Many choices must be made regarding improvements required to accommodate the visitors, as well as treatment for conservation projects and ongoing maintenance. All these decisions require a rigorous philosophical framework to hold everything together in a consistent, logical, rational manner. Conservation philosophy statements have been drafted for both houses with assistance from numerous advisors.

Visionaries and Pragmatists

Among those who are actively engaged in the preservation of modern, 20th-century architecture, there is a camp of intellectuals forming who would argue that these buildings require a new type of thinking about preservation. These new preservationists are keenly intrigued with the idea that authenticity is found in the purity of the Master Architect’s original design ideas and intentions. They argue that these structures are about ideals of architecture and not about the people who owned, lived, worked, or played inside them. I call this camp the Visionaries, because they focus on something that may never have achieved a full existence at any particular point in time, and because they believe that there is a state of architectural perfection that can be attained if one is in tune with the unadulterated essence of the design. The Visionary believes that the authentic idea that existed in the mind of the creative genius at a certain point in time is what the public needs to see, even though it may never have been fully realized in a tangible form. In this approach there is great historical interest in the facts of construction chronology, but these facts are secondary to the purity of the vision.

In a different camp exists the vast majority of preservationists who view the preservation of modern architecture as no different than the preservation of any other architectural style. This group follows accepted methodologies espoused by the four treatments identified in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties—preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. Members of this camp are Pragmatists, and they base decisions on facts of construction chronology and consideration of historical significance over the life of the property in order to identify a defensible preservation philosophy. The Pragmatists rigorously adhere to Preservation Standard 4: “Changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved,” and Restoration Standard 7: “A false sense of history will not be created by adding conjectural features, features from other properties, or by combining features that never existed together historically.”

Applying These Approaches

In the case of the Farnsworth House, a Visionary treatment would create or restore the architect’s original vision had the house been designed and built without certain elements Edith Farnsworth (the client who hired Mies) introduced into the design process, or elements added subsequently by Lord Peter Palumbo, owner of the house from 1972 to 2003. Architectural historians often note that Mies disliked the screened upper terrace and free-standing wardrobe apparently required by Edith Farnsworth. A Visionary approach would deny restoration of the screens and call for removal of the wardrobe. Palumbo, being part Visionary, removed the screen decades ago but retained the wardrobe.

Similar treatment would befall other elements added or modified by Palumbo that are not consistent with Mies’ design idea. These conflicting Palumbo elements would include such things as the fireplace modification, interior lighting above the core, HVAC noise, exterior lighting around the house, the boat house added rather close to the house, the swimming pool, and landscape modifications. But Palumbo’s furniture (in the house now because it was conveyed with the sale of the property to the National Trust in December 2003) is appropriate because it is consistent with what Mies might have done. Palumbo purchased furniture designed by Mies, which is still commercially available, and commissioned other pieces by architect Dirk Lohan (grandson of Mies) which fit very well in the space. Edith Farnsworth’s furniture, though, of which there are ample photographs to support a good restoration, would be inappropriate to the Visionary because it is at odds with what Mies might have wanted. Farnsworth’s furniture was not designed by Mies, was not Mies-inspired, and was not even International Style modern.

The Pragmatist camp would note that Mies is no longer alive to tell us his original vision, and since he never did any final set of architectural construction drawings, there is no way to be sure about how his design might have been different had he not accommodated the interests of his client. After all, a building is an amalgam of design inspiration, client wishes/functions, and budget. A Pragmatist would note that Mies successfully sued Farnsworth to recover the cost of construction which listed the screening and the wardrobe, among many other things, so we know Mies was paid to install them (Mies was both architect and builder for Farnsworth), and they were both in place when Farnsworth moved in. A Visionary blend that would create the full force of Mies’ original intent would also be something that never existed in physical fact and thus is unacceptable to the Pragmatist. The Pragmatist is deeply concerned about excess speculation involved with preservation treatments, and cannot abide creation of a scene that is historically inaccurate in any way. Pragmatists would also argue that the greatness of the Farnsworth House is fully apparent as it now exists.

Concerning Johnson’s Glass House, similar Visionary vs. Pragmatist arguments come into play, but the differences are subtle and difficult to distinguish. Philip Johnson lived on the estate until his death in January 2005, so the entire historic place is very close to what one might call a time capsule, just not a very old one. On the day that Johnson died, the place was 100 percent authentic as his home, because Johnson had lived there continuously since 1949. So, unlike the Farnsworth House where architect and client needed to interact, Johnson was his own client. Historians have noted that Mies made this observation regarding Johnson’s Glass House, perhaps lamenting his own lack of personal wealth to pursue what Johnson achieved, but also belittling Johnson’s efforts for failing to show the flexibility needed to overcome the challenge of dealing with a client. Johnson said of his Glass House property: “Good or bad, small or big, this is the purest time that I ever had in my life to do architecture. Everything else is tainted with three problems: clients, function, and money. Here I had none of the three.”

Naturally, numerous elements were added to Johnson’s property over the years; they aged and were maintained, transformed, or removed according to the design goals of the residents. After construction of the Glass House and Brick House, other buildings were added. These include the Painting Gallery (completed 1965), Sculpture Gallery (completed 1970), Library (completed 1980), and Visitor Center (a.k.a. Monsta, completed 1995). The size of the property greatly increased with the purchase of additional acres which included three more houses, two of which were extensively modified and furnished by Johnson and his partner David Whitney. The development of the landscape is especially interesting in this regard, as it appears to have been a continuous work in progress and has a historical significance inseparable from the buildings. The landscape includes paths, roads, bridges, seating, stone walls, ruins, open fields, formal gardens, wooded areas, and many pieces of sculpture all carefully laid out and manipulated for different effects. Views to and from landscape elements and buildings open and close as one moves through the different indoor and outdoor zones.

In the case of Johnson’s Glass House, the Visionary would have the place appear as Johnson would have wanted the public to see it, with each element treated and maintained in a manner consistent with the designer’s intentions. Buildings, systems, materials, and other architectural components are now in disrepair because Johnson deferred maintenance in his years of declining health, secure in the knowledge that the National Trust would eventually take care of things. The Visionary would restore all in the manner that Johnson would have pursued. This would mean that each restoration act or repair would be executed with great care for the quality of final appearance. Fortunately for the Pragmatists, the most recent designs can be restored to maintain consistent historical accuracy across the site. Designs or other features that were abandoned or demolished do not need to be restored or reconstructed because they were changes made by the architect during his lifetime of design on the property.

The Evolving Debate

As decisions are made concerning the preservation philosophy of these two magnificent properties, the National Trust as owner sits at the nexus of a debate over the treatment of modern masterpieces. Because the National Trust is the nation’s leading nonprofit preservation organization and committed to upholding exemplary practices concerning the care of historic places, it is logical that the National Trust will lean decidedly toward the Pragmatist’s position. However, there is great value, as well as intellectual delight, in exploring the Visionary approach. One must not forget that the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards were written by mortals (really smart ones), not gods, so the day may come when something akin to the Visionary approach could be the norm for modern architectural icons. Fortunately for all, the Pragmatic approach need not preclude the possibility of future treatments that could be quite different philosophically, so long as the basic approach is one of preservation and avoids aggressive alterations or removals. In the two cases cited above, the treatment known as Preservation will be the guiding principle, and the alterations required for public visitation will be as minimal and unobtrusive as possible.

Statements of Preservation Philosophy

The working draft statements regarding the preservation philosophy for the two sites appear below. These were created in collaboration with many experts in the preservation field. Keep in mind that they are still drafts, and may be subsequently modified or revised.

DRAFT Farnsworth House Preservation Philosophy:
The National Trust and LPCI resolve to treat the entire Farnsworth House property in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, specifically the “Standards for Preservation.” The objective is to conserve the December 2003 appearance to the greatest extent possible. Preservation treatment to the December 2003 appearance (the date when the house ceased to be privately owned) is the best approach for the historical interpretation of the Farnsworth House because it allows the history of the site, Farnsworth and Palumbo, to be told with clarity and accuracy. The treatment approach recognizes that the whole history of the property prior to December 2003 has significance, while at the same time the approach allows the period of greatest historical significance —Mies van der Rohe’s involvement with the project that culminated in 1951—to be fully interpreted. The historical significance of the Farnsworth House is quite broad (see the National Register nomination form) and preservation of it in its current form does not limit significance to any single date in time.

DRAFT Glass House Preservation Philosophy:
The National Trust resolves to treat the entire Glass House property in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, specifically the “Standards for Preservation.” The objective is to restore and conserve the property as it appeared during the final years of Philip Johnson’s life as an active architect. This period is defined as the time when Mr. Johnson was still going into his New York office his years of declining health when he stopped playing an active role in the design and maintenance decisions at the Glass House Estate. The overall intent of the conservation philosophy is to allow the full history of the site, including all the numerous additions and modifications designed by Philip Johnson or his partner David Whitney, to be experienced with clarity and historical accuracy. The philosophy recognizes that the whole history of the property from 1949–2005 has value and historic significance. Over this 56-year period the appearance of the site changed dramatically as property holdings were expanded, new buildings added, sculptures installed and removed, and landscape decisions managed with utmost care and attention to every detail. The choice to display the physical appearance of the site to the 2000–2003 period recognizes that the design grew over time, always attaining a higher level of perfection with each change.

Publication Date: Spring 2006


Subtitle:The Debate over How to Interpret 20th-Century Icons
Author(s):William Dupont

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