June 7, 2024

Sitting lightly on the earth. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Considered one of the most iconic houses of Modernism, a masterpiece of the International Style, the Farnsworth House is near perfect. And the imperfections make it more thought-provoking. Finished in 1951, the design from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe has been revered for all its ambition: minimalism and glass walls, connection to nature, groundbreaking engineering, painstaking attention to detail and craft, and of course, “less is more.”

Thousands of books, articles, and university classes have studied this 1,500-square-foot, one-bedroom, weekend retreat. As a freshman at UC Berkeley, my very first assignment was to study this house, then design a hypothetical guest house in the style of. Four decades later, my study continues here.

Entry sequence to the front door. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Client: Dr. Edith Farnsworth (1903-1977)—graduate of literature and zoology, fluent in English, French, German, and Italian, and a concert violinist—attended nearby Northwestern University, only one of four women in her class at medical school. Afterwards, Farnsworth became a successful and wealthy Chicago physician, seeking an architect of greatness for her weekend cottage.

Entry porch: View shows the house sitting above the land on steel posts. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Budget: Back in the 50s, the average construction cost of a home was merely $5,000.00. Though Farnsworth allowed Mies an outrageous budget of $40,000.00, the house costed $74,000.00! Why and how? Many factors contributed to a cost 15 times the average: perfectionist details, costly steel structure (compared to conventional wood framing), expansive glass panels, Roman Travertine, remote location, and so on—not to mention the architect’s requirement for Primavera wood for the cabinetry. At the time, this Central American species was the most expensive wood in the world.

Lawsuit: No surprise. Farnsworth sued Mies for going over budget and malpractice. In turn, Mies sued Farnsworth for unpaid invoices. In the end of a bitter public battle, Mies sort of won and was paid, not a victory worth celebrating.

“Less is more” with structural symmetry. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Flooding: The region is notorious for flooding with water levels reaching over 10 feet. Famous for sitting lightly on the earth, the house floats on its signature steel posts. Raising the structure is a smart countermeasure, but why only 5’-3”—clearly a dimension that is useless during a big flood? Not long ago, catastrophic waters filled up the house like a literal aquarium. The water’s weight and pressure shattered out one of the large panes of glass.

Living room: No, the left side are not cabinets. The house has barely any storage space. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Lighting: I wonder if less is truly more. Within the living areas, there is only one light fixture in the house: the undercabinet strip light over the kitchen counter. Mies designed this first-of-its-kind fixture, now a standard in nearly all kitchens. But the living room has no recessed ceiling lights, dining room has no chandelier, bedroom has no wall sconces, no cove lighting, no floor uplights, no nothing. The architect’s solution to the homeowner: Purchase a floor lamp, and carry that around from room to room, plugging and unplugging into the few floor outlets.

Dining room with its blurred line between the interiors and exteriors. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Heat: Though one might think a glass house would not fare well in a cold climate, Mies created an innovative system. Rather than standard floor registers, the ceiling has a barely visible, continuous slot near the top of the glass walls. Running the interior perimeter of the entire house, warm air washes down the windows, countering any outside cold transfer.

A linear kitchen with the longest stainless steel counter ever made and the rare Primavera wood cabinets. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Counter: Impressively, Mies designed the longest stainless steel counter at the time. At 17 feet in length, the counter isn’t just a single continuous span; it has a built-in backsplash and integral sink, and has been customized for the cooktop.

left: Master bathroom with no storage: The left side contains no cabinets, just two slab of stone.; right: Guest bathroom: Behind the secret door in the shower sits all the guts of the house. (photos by Anthony Poon)

Storage: Again, is less more? Is less storage actually better? Though designed as a weekend retreat, the lack of storage could be challenging, even for a patron client of Minimalism. Take the master bathroom for example: no medicine cabinet and below the stone counter, no drawers or cabinets. Where does one put their toothpaste and extra toilet paper?

Infrastructure: Within this most elegant of interiors, where are all the guts of the building: roof drain, electrical panel, water heater, mechanical system, etc.? Within the guest bathroom, the back wall of the shower contains a secret door, and behind it sits the infrastructure. From there, pipes and conduits are gathered into a cylinder, called the “umbilical cord,” that punctures the floor in a single spot, then drops into the earth for connection to county-provided services

Entry minimalism within nature. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Setting: The residence once sat peacefully on 60 acres of lush green nature with a nearby picturesque river. The county made an unfortunate decision to transform a nearby side path into a major road that not only passes uncomfortably close to the house, but is elevated on a slope so that cars view intrusively down upon the structure. Due to this disastrous compromise to the once-idyllic environment, Farnsworth sold the house in 1971 to Lord Peter Palumbo, a British developer and collector of art and architecture.

Today: In 1996, the house opened to the public as a museum, included on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, listed as a National Historic Landmark in 2006, and currently owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. If ever in Chicago, drive to Plano (110 miles round trip) and visit an imperfect stroke of genius.


December 30, 2022

(photo from Adam Mork)

In 2017, I listed my all-time favorites. In 2019, I presented ten projects I called the most seductive. In 2020, the adjective used was most intriguing. In 2021, my essay displayed buildings that were the most striking. For the end of 2022, I highlight what takes my breath away. Defining breath-taking typically involves words such as awe-inspiring, astonishing, wondrous, and even out-of-this-world.

(photo from Adam Mork)

1: The western coast of Greenland offers the Ilulissat Icefjord Centre, both a research center and eloquent sculpture. Focusing on the study of massive glaciers and climate change, Dorte Mandrup’s design expresses the human condition within the science of ice, such as archeological artifacts contained in prisms of glass.

(photo by MVRDV)

2: MVRDV’s “art depot” at the Museumpark, Rotterdam, comprises multiple exhibit halls, a rooftop garden, and restaurant. This Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen takes a behind-the-scenes approach by presenting all current works along with ones usually hidden in storage, both in full display. The architect sees the mirrored exterior as an innovative response to complementing the surroundings.

(photo by Iwan Baan)

3: Google Bay View aims to operate the 42-acre campus on carbon-free energy by 2030. For Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California, a collaboration between Denmark’s  BIG and England’s Heatherwick Studio created 1.1 million square feet of building, which includes an event center for 1,000, short-term accommodation for 240 employees, 20 acres of open space, and three main buildings covered in lightweight translucent canopy structures.

(photo by Office of Architecture in Barcelona)

4: The project’s title, Origami House, is apt as this Barcelona house folds, creases, and rises out of the land adjacent to a forest and golf course. Designed by Office of Architecture in Barcelona, the paper white crispness and hidden service facilities (where are the stairs?) delivery a surreal composition, part home, part arts and crafts, and part dreamscape.

(photo by CreatAR Images)

5: MAD Architects conceived the Quzhou Stadium in China as “a piece of land art.” Though with allusions to Bradbury’s science fantasy, this 30,000-seat stadium is no fiction. As an Earthwork, it links the worlds of art installation, landscape design, and architecture, while also straddling the visions of a mad man and artistic genius.

(photo by Leonardo Finotti)

6: Since the 18th century, coffee has been a mainstay of Brazil’s economy. For the city of Carmo de Minas, Gustavo Penna Arquiteto & Associados deliver an iconic headquarters for CarmoCoffees. Introverted and introspective, save for the concave skylight, this warehouse for processing, tasting, and selling coffee explores the colors found in coffee beans.

(photo by Iwan Baan)

7: Sou Fujimoto reinterprets nature at the Hungarian House of Music in Budapest’s City Park. Inspired by sound waves, the roof structure with its 100 Swiss cheese-like holes is both inspired by nature and “neo-nature.” The connection from inside to outside is exploited though a continuous translucent glass façade, like a candy wrapper.

(photo by W Workspace)

8: Tens of thousands of aluminum pieces make up the high-relief exterior of the Museum of Modern Aluminum. Bangkok possesses a deep history of aluminum production, and he city of Nonthaburi became home to this 4,300-square-foot, prickly composition by HAS Design and Research. Serving as both a public space and urban getaway, the museum is viewed as an extension of the natural landscape offering contemplation on this busy street.

(photo by Atelier FCJZ)

9: Different than the Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Johnson’s Glass house, both using glass in the vertical direction, Yung Ho Chang explores glass in the horizontal direction. Unlike the two renowned precedents which allow views out to the landscape, the Vertical Glass House focuses on viewing up to the sky and down to the earth. Located in Shanghai, China, the residence is poetic and ambitious, though with glass floors, perhaps impractical.

(photo by OMA, Chris Stowers)

10: OMA often explores new types and forms of architecture. With the Taipei Performing Arts Center in Taiwan, the exploration reveals powerful results if not clumsily beautiful. OMA reversed the typical floor plan where the audience and performance spaces are central within the overall structure. Instead, the technical support spaces are now in the middle, and the audience is dramatically cantilevered on the exterior, hovering over public spaces, greeting the city’s fabric.

(For my recent list of faves in Los Angeles, visit here.)


January 20, 2017

Garden Residence, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design and Andrew Adler (photo by Anthony Poon)

Many have heard the instructional 1960’s acronym from the U.S. Navy: K-I-S-S.

It stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. These days, this pithy recommendation is delivered from anyone in the role of doling out advice, from architecture professors to life coaches, from advertisers to attorneys, from editors to campaign managers.

Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette, 2006
Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette, 2006

But life gets complicated, and keeping things simple is not so easy. So what do we do?

A traditional wedding gown possesses an abundance of trim, lace, shoulder pads, embroidery, tones and textures. Not just a statement of the period fashion, all this creative noise and fuss was required, because it is actually difficult to keep the dress simple. What I call the gown’s ‘wedding cake décor’ was sometimes intentionally applied to camouflage the limits of craft. A clever game of misdirection enshrouded careless seams, poor stitching, low quality fabric, and even laziness.

Consider the modern day minimal bridal gowns by Vera Wang and Jil Sander. Without all the fussiness to detract, the simple designs must make an explicit statement of quality. Each stitch of tread, cut and drape, profile movement, and shimmer of silk must astound. It is no easy task to keep the dresses minimal and fashionable, as well as express the exquisite notion of bespoke craft. It is easier to simply camouflage shortcomings with crap.

Bridal gown by Vera Wang, fall 2015

In architecture, the application of trim crosses over from the wedding gown. The use of architectural crown moldings, door casings, base boards, wainscot, window trims, and so on, offer visual interest, detail and scale—and even a phenomenological connection to the human body.

But such design trim and wedding cake decor were also used to hide the flaws of construction. Where a smooth white plaster wall could not perfectly meet a polished stone floor, perhaps due to lack of skill or the limitations of the tools back then, a base board was installed as a transition—to basically hide gaps.

(photo by Laura Adai on Unsplash)

We all want to keep things simple, but to achieve this higher level of mindfulness, one has to work hard at making it look easy. At Poon Design, we call upon the analogy of a duck, where though it glides so gracefully across the lake, it is beneath the water’s surface that little feet paddle furiously.

Don’t underestimate the rigors required to achieve simplicity, whether a wedding gown, a work of architecture or the appearance of a duck leisurely floating in a figure eight.

Entry porch: View shows the house sitting above the land on steel posts. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Minimalist architect, Mies Van Der Rohe, gave us one of the most impactful phrases in design and in life: “Less is more.” Alongside this three-word philosophy, he paved the way for what is commonly called “clean lines.” Whether in a modern house, a Tesla or an Ikea dining table, we often comment on how “clean” the lines are.

For my own work, Mies’s iconic Farnsworth House and other such projects of sculptural clarity inspired Poon Design’s and developer Andrew Adler’s 14 boldly austere yet luxurious estates in Palm Springs. Our compositions posit lucidity and precision. Autonomy and self-referentiality comprise the unapologetic purging of the conventional beliefs for adornment.

Residence G at Linea, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design and Andrew Adler (photo by Anthony Poon)
Residence G at Linea, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design, Andrew Adler and Prest-Vuksic (photo by Anthony Poon)

Steve Jobs’ exploration into a philosophy of ascetic beauty is legendary, to the degree of severity. As researched today at Apple, the minimalist one button on the iPhone is being studied to be deleted, so as to achieve an even higher level of simplicity and artistry. Seriously?

© Poon Design Inc.