Figure 3 is the plan of the Farnsworth house that we are accustomed to seeing. It seems to provide the narrowest definition of the functions and privileges of domesticity. But when you look at all the evidence of the built house — all the photos, accounts, the house today — you realize that the house in that drawing does not exist. Inhabitants have always felt the need to add objects. This is the chance for revenge.
Mies paid close attention to the placement of furniture, experimenting with several variations before settling on a minimal scheme of freestanding furniture. Its placement in space is more than just a liberation from the wall. Rather, furniture replaces walls as the mechanism for prescribing programmatic zones in a space.
Yet in spite of these careful studies, Mies' vision was quickly overturned by an act of revenge. When Edith Farnsworth moved in, she was still bitter from the court cases she had recently lost against Mies. She quickly filled the house with a miscellany of ‘inappropriate’ articles: roller blinds, heirloom antique chairs, and prosaic objects. The bronze-screen enclosed space of the porch became an extension of her disorganized living room, equally littered with Fu dogs, lounge chairs and a plethora of potted plants.
In an act of counter-revenge, when modern architecture aficionado Lord Palumbo procured the house from Edith in 1972, he set out to restore it precisely to Mies' vision. He brought in the three requisite Tugendhat chairs, one Mies daybed, the proper dining table with its four chairs, the glass side table and bed. But it wasn’t long before he realized that he couldn’t live without his Bertoia chairs... and then there was also that chaise lounge, the fluffy carpet, a desk, chest, bench, and, of course, his hundreds of pieces of art. Soon enough, sculptures sprang up near the windows. The bathroom walls became repositories for dozens of small drawings and paintings. All horizontal surfaces received piles of paintings (he didn’t think it was proper to hang them on the vertical surfaces of the cabinetry). More than ever before, the horizontal surfaces became the walls — not only the principal means of enclosure, but also the art display datum.
This was certainly far from the ordered logic and clarity that Mies envisioned. His was an absolute placement. (Although he would have glued the furniture down if he could have, there is a reason for why his chairs are so heavy. Have you ever tried to pick up a Barcelona chair?) By making local differentiations within this universal space, the furniture gives clues to how to use the space without relying on traditional divisions. The furniture is thus the only marker of human presence in Mies’ idealized, Cartesian universe. How else does Mies distinguish the Barcelona Pavilion from a temple, but with a pair of Barcelona chairs, ready to receive the King and Queen of Spain?
Looking at the furniture, the intended subject of the house emerges. The house was designed for a single subject by providing only for the narrowest definition of the functions and privileges of domesticity. Or more tellingly, there is only one bed. He rids the domestic space of the family, replacing it instead with a single subject. But this subject was not Edith Farnsworth (a body which he literally had to hide by making a second bathroom, so that visitors would not "see Edith's nightgown on the back of the bathroom door."1) Mies' dwelling subject is not the client, it is he himself. Given his pushy relationship with Edith, Mies projects himself into the house.
What to do with such a house, where one — ideally no more than one — can live, eat, sleep and relax? What if a schism were to slice that subject in two?
Split Domesticity was published in Circo 147.