Journal: News & Comment

Wednesday, July 28, 2004
# 7:53:00 AM:

My kingdom for a house

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Over at 37signals' excellent Signal vs. Noise weblog, there are some interesting pictures, and an even more interesting comments discussion, about famous modernist architect Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House. I chimed in:

Looking at the photos, and entirely aside from any materials/heating-cooling/drainage problems [identified by others], and even aside from the exposed all-glass feeling—well, what would the house look like if someone actually lived there? I mean lived there, with, say, three kids and a dog. And toys. And mess. And laundry.

I look around my lived-in house—the wires around the back of my eMac, the notice boards with stuff all over them, the Kleenex boxes, the bed that needs making, the empty water bottles and pop cans, the mishmash of furniture we've accumulated over the years, the bangs and scrapes from moving things around a kids running about. How would that make the Mies house look? Horrible. (Imagine a toddler with a tricycle and those glass walls. Ksssh!)

It reminds me of interior design magazines with kitchen cupboards that have glass doors. Looks great if your stuff is neat-freak organized. But it wouldn't with any cupboards I know in the real world.

There's a reason houses have been built the way they generally are for a long time, and why modernist ones (especially extreme versions like Mies's) aren't more widespread, even though the movement itself is decades old. Houses take a beating, and we change what we do with them all the time, as we and our families come and go and grow up. The Mies house is a neat idea, but as a "machine for living," it looks more like a "machine for living machines." Nice for inspiration, but what you make of that inspiration would need to be different.

Vancouver has a number of modernist/international masterpiece buildings, from houses in West Vancouver to Arthur Erickson's Simon Fraser University, Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver Courthouse, and UBC Koerner Library.

They are beautiful structures, but as another commenter wrote, "a number of modern [buildings] have technical problems, but the movement had an ethos of pushing into using new materials, and the materials themselves have to catch up eventually." Great, but it doesn't help those using the structures while materials catch up. For example, SFU, which was an astoundingly ambitious project in the mid-'60s, used concrete in ways it hadn't been before—but today it has stalactites, like a cave, from where the rain has leaked through. Not much fun for the university's students, faculty, and maintenance staff, especially nearly 40 years later.

I'm sure my architect and design-aficionado friends have much more informed critiques, but it seems to me that Mies's Farnsworth house, like other masterpieces, is a great piece of art. It's just not much of a house.


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