Tag Archives: Modernism

#188: THE IMPERFECT FARNSWORTH HOUSE

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.

#96: OUR DESIRE FOR NATURE

February 15, 2019

Park Royal, Singapore (photo from geekchicblogger.blogspot.com)

Biophilic Design refers to our instinctive association to nature and the resulting architecture that enhances our well-being. It has been suggested that Biophilic Design offers a healthy and productive existence, as well as happiness and joy.

Thorncrown Chapel, Eureka Springs, Arkansas (photo from inhabitat.com)

Goals for this prevalent design movement include the generous use of landscape inside and out, abundance of natural and artificial light, organic materials and textures, good indoor air quality and ventilation, and thermal and acoustic comfort—just to name a few. And our biophilia, meaning our love of nature, extends beyond architecture.

The Spheres at Amazon, Seattle, Washington (left photo from aarbmagazine.com; right photo from ar15.com)

Monster companies, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, use Biophilic Design to offer a healthier, happier and more productive work environment. This we know; so let’s expand our discussion of design and the creative arts, beyond the built environment.

Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, by Ansel Adams, 1944

From photography to vintage botanical prints, from classical painters to amateurs—capturing nature in two dimensions have driven artists for centuries.

Botanical art, left: giclee prints (photo from etsy.com): right: Sweet Orange (art from thegraphicsfairy.com)
(photo by Polina Belyaeva)

Similarly, sculptors are drawn to the forces and mysteries of our natural environment. Here, installation artist/sculptor, Patrick Dougherty, combines his love of natural materials with his background as a carpenter.

left: Na Hale ‘Eo Waiawi,’ by Patrick Dougherty 2003 (photo by Paul Kodama); right: artist at work (photo by Smithsonian Magazine)

Looking to the surrounding landscape for ideas, the world of fashion and glamour draws upon themes, patterns and colors in our natural world.

Shoes by Pierre Hardy, Summer 2015, from “Force of Nature” at the Museum at FIT (photo by Eileen Costa)
Dresses of nature: left by Yiqing Yin, Fall/Winter, 2012; right by Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2012

A popular icon of body art, flora/fauna is prevalent in the tattoo culture.

Nature in tattoos (left photo from Pinterest; right photo by Little Tattoos)

Similar to tattoos, the two-dimensional imagery of nature and its associated visual power provide graphic designers an infinite palette.

Nature in graphic design (left photo from amazon.com, right art by Peter Fox)

In baking a cake, rarely are these flowers real. They are usually just cream, butter and sugar. The origin of this longstanding decorating theme is unknown. Why does a wedding or birthday cake need to have flowers all over it? Why not birds and butterflies?

Nature in baking (photo from weddbook.com)

With his Sixth Symphony, known as the Pastoral Symphony, Beethoven choose to compose in a countryside setting, allowing the comforts of nature, its vibes and currents, to move him to write classical music. Other composers, such as Vivaldi, captured the abstract character of each season through melody, harmony and rhythm.

Music inspired by nature, left: The Four Seasons, by Antonio Vivaldi, 1723; middle: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, by Claude Debussy, 1894; right: Pastoral Symphony, by Ludwig van Beethoven, 1808

Whether a painting or a wedding cake, whether a building or a tattoo, Biophilia and biophilic design occupies our every day. In his 1984 book, Biophilia, Harvard professor, E.O. Wilson, introduced the concept, that we all have “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” Then he gave it a name, associated it with architecture and design, and we now have the moniker to label our innate love for nature: Biophilia.

Final note. Not everyone chooses biophilic design. In my article, White on White on White , we see that some do not seek a comfy house made of rustic wood and covered in vines. Rather, some individuals desire the modernity of a steel and glass, white house—ordered, abstract, simple, removed from the common traits found in our evolving nature and its living organisms.

#90: THOSE WERE THE DAYS: POST MODERNISM AND ROBERT A.M. STERN ARCHITECTS

October 12, 2018

Arata Isozaki’s iconic rendering that inspired an entire movement of architectural representation. Created for MOCA, Los Angeles, California

At the simple age of 24, I was employed by the world-famous Post Modern architect Robert A.M. Stern in New York City. Post Modernism, the architectural movement of the 1960s to the 1980s, may not be the most beloved style of design today and even many despise it. But Post Modernism does at times stutter a comeback in different forms.

Roy E. Disney Animation Building, Burbank, California, by Robert A.M. Stern Architects (photo by Xurble)

In my undergraduate years of the 1980’s at UC Berkeley, we enthusiastically studied and exhaustively examined Post Modernism. It was the significant philosophy of art and architecture. This style, in the most elemental explanation, posits the notion that good architecture should provide human scale, harmony and beauty. Sounds obvious? Not always so.

Provincial Capitol Building, Toulouse, France, by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc. (photo by Matt Wargo)

Post Modernism, often called “Po-Mo,” reacted strongly against the many buildings of Modernism that preceded Post Modernism. Cold white boxes lacking life and a sense of place–these minimal Modern buildings of steel and glass appeared inhumane to some architects and most day to day users.

Post Modern architects connected their designs to visitors by offering the sense of feeling grounded—offering a building that was simply warm and inviting. The iconography of classical architecture, such as a Greek column or a Renaissance arch, created this grounding. Such traditional features captured what people thought buildings should look like.

Denver Public Library, Michael Graves, (photo from michaelgraves.com)

Establishing the Po Mo movement as a 180-degree reversal from the evils of ice-y abstract Modernism, Post Modernists also added wit and charm. They did so through the use of vibrant colors, by making columns extra tall or extra fat, or by abstracting traditional forms into simple geometry, such as a triangle in lieu of a classical pediment. Though appearing to be merely a campy game of the visual arts, the movement added intellectual irony, rigorous research of historical precedence and proportions, and academic strategies of references.

A battle of history and precedence vs. looking forward to fresh ideas, currently occurring at the AT&T Corporate Headquarters, New York, New York, by Philip Johnson (photo by Kevin Lafontaine-durand); Inspired by a Chippendale highboy chest (photo from 1stdibs.com)
Perhaps taking the concepts of color, geometry and irony too far, the famous Memphis design room by Dennis Zanone (photo by Dennis Zanone)

In my early twenties, I was a smug, obnoxious young designer, which is a trait of plenty of new and naive architects. We believed even at our young age, that we had talents bestowed upon us that would certainly deliver world peace, or something idealistic and absurd like that.

Within Stern’s office of 100 of the best and brightest, I worked with defiance and sometimes too much confidence. Senior architects rolled their eyes in discomfort every time I made a statement of delusion and self-aggrandizing. I don’t know if it is our industry’s competitive style that causes this kind of behavior, or me just being an ill-advised juvenile architect. Maybe it was the Post Modern education that made me brash. After all, the Post Modernists boldly tossed aside the accomplishments of a previous generation, and replaced the old philosophies with new ideas that were forged through poking fun and having fun.

Collage illustrating some of the most well-known Post Modernist designs (photo from dezeen.com)
Robert A.M. Stern (photo by Witold Rybczynski)

On my last day at the office in 1988, Robert Stern gave me words of advice as I was leaving to Cambridge to start my graduate studies. Bob, as he liked to be called, wished me luck with a grin, “Harvard won’t teach you anything about architecture, but they will teach a Californian like you how to dress appropriately.”

(Other essays on Post Modernism: Humor, Tribute to Michael Graves and Lecture on Love. )

#12: TRIBUTE: MICHAEL GRAVES INSPIRES (1934-2015)

July 3, 2015

Team Disney Building, Burbank, California, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)

Writing my business plan for Poon Design Inc. decades ago, a small paperback on entrepreneurship suggested that I think about an existing company that might be a model for my future company. The topics at hand were not about the business model, profits, size of staff, or geography—or even design style.

Rather, the topic was about design culture. What kind of design culture did I envision for Poon Design, and what architectural firm inspired me?

The answer was a New Jersey company: Michael Graves Architecture & Design.

St. Coletta of Greater Washington, Washington, DC, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)
St. Coletta of Greater Washington, Washington, DC, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)

My interest did not have anything to do with Michael Grave’s colorful Post Modern buildings with their whimsical motifs and cartoonish proportions. My interest was in what Grave’s entitled “Humanistic Design.”

Graves designed for people. He did not design for headlines and critics, for academic debates, or for personal legacy. Designing for people—sounds obvious, right? It is no easy task to make good on this philosophy, as well as build a culturally impactful, artistically significant, and prolific career around designing in this basic manner. For people.

Toaster for J. C. Penney, by Michael Graves (photo by J.C. Penney)
Toaster for J. C. Penney, by Michael Graves (photo by J.C. Penney)

Graves and his team applied this belief system to every aspect of design, from hotels to houses, from office buildings to toasters, from university research centers to the design of a wheelchair. Sure, many architects believe their repertory is this broad. During his time, Graves was a pioneer in designing without borders.

Late 1980’s, beginning my young adult life in Manhattan, I was a fan of the New York Five. For a national conference with a seminal follow up book, the Museum of Modern Art assembled five architectural voices. All five held a common interest in Modernism and the landmark architecture of Le Corbusier (1887-1965). The five architects became instantly celebrated: Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, Richard Meier, and of course, Michael Graves.

Though I was fascinated with the (mostly unbuilt) work of Hejduk (1929-2000), Graves was the individual that I studied, even as he abruptly departed the New York Five. He rejected the Five’s philosophical Modernist common ground. In a heralded crusade on the intellectual battlefields, Graves led a Post Modern movement that was diametrically opposed to the repertory of the New York Five (now Four). Alongside him stood other leaders, such as Robert Venturi and my past employer, Robert Stern,

A new chapter for him, Graves used bright colors instead of stark whites. He used classical elements such as pediments and columns, instead of abstract forms and zero ornamentation. He used humor and wit, instead of severe Bauhaus rationalism.

Hotel Michael, Sentosa, Singapore, by Michael Graves (Photo by MGA&D)
Hotel Michael, Sentosa, Singapore, by Michael Graves (photo by MGA&D)

In the late eighties, I was fortunate to be invited to Graves’ 25th anniversary celebration at Princeton University, where he was the Professor of Architecture Emeritus for 39 years. As a young architect in my twenties, I joined the most influential voices of our industry to honor a man of artistic virtuosity and commitment.

Michael Graves passed away in March of this year. All of us who work in his shadow, are standing in an impressively long shadow.

#4: …IS IN THE DETAILS

March 30, 2015

2015 Jaguar XF

Jaguar, the stylish automotive company, has a new campaign: The Devil is In The Details.

This catch phrase that we often throw around is actually a derivative from an original quote, “God is in the details.” Most people don’t know about the architectural roots of this popular saying. The New York Times credits it to master architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), a German-born titan of Modernism who pioneered Minimalism and is ensconced in the profession’s pantheon along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.

And as if Mies needed any more help securing a place in our lexicon, he is also famously known for another popular quote among architects and the public in general: “Less is More.”

While it may seem that Mies was contradicting himself, he was actually saying the same thing but in different ways. He was urging us to always think of the details, no matter how few, and to be precise and thorough with those details we have and use.

Buddhist Temple in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design
Buddhist Temple in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design

In architecture, work is all about attention to detail. Whether that means finding the perfect shade of white paint or the right kind of metal, design requires that we pay close attention to the small things, because they all add up. How do we balance the quality of light? Should we use polished, honed, rough sawn, or brushed stone? Do the mechanical ducts interfere with the steel beams supporting the roof? Is the emergency exit corridor out of a hotel lobby the right width?

True, in architecture school and in every project we tackle at Poon Design Inc., we must be concerned with the Big Picture, the Concept. For instance, when we designed a chapel for Air Force village in Texas, we explored larger themes, such as reaching for the sky, heroism and the meaning of grandeur. Or, when an architect designs an airport, the standard metaphor is flight, hence wing-like roofs, soaring forms, and structures appear to defy gravity.

Air Force Village Chapel in San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design, rendering by Mike Amaya
Air Force Village Chapel in San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design (rendering by Amaya)

Big Picture, yes.

But at the same time, if you are attempting to defy gravity or give the impression that you are, you better have the detailed engineering behind it. This risky feat of structural gymnastics must not fail because of a lack of detailed thinking or else, like the mythical Icarus who overlooked the details of his altitude, you will suffer a catastrophic collapse.

So I believe that both God and the Devil are in the details. Even the few details when less is more.

© Poon Design Inc.