Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Mies van der Rohe sued -- October 29, 1951

Farnsworth House (www.e-architect.uk)
In his 1974 book Mies van der Rohe at Work Peter Carter wrote of Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois:

The tranquil pavilion of steel and glass, from which every seasonal change may be observed, is poised above the ground and kept usually open to the landscape.  In its relationship to the natural surroundings, there exists no suggestion of a contrived formal composition;  indeed, the building’s occurrence in the landscape would seem almost fortuitous were it not for the harmony which has been established between the architecture and the terrain.  Independent, yet at the same time interdependent, this alliance between the organic and the inorganic creates a convincing image for a technological era.

On this date, October 29, back in 1951 everything was most definitely NOT tranquil at Farnsworth House as it sat, uncompleted, while Mies van der Rohe, its architect, and Dr. Edith Farnsworth, its eventual owner, fired lawsuits at one another.

On July 13, 1951 Mies filed a mechanic’s lien foreclosure suit against Dr. Farnsworth for nonpayment of fees.  The doctor did not pay.  Instead, on October 29 she filed a counter-suit in the Kendall County Circuit Court, alleging that the architect had by “fraud and deceit” led her into paying $33,872 more than the original price upon which they had agreed in 1949.

Additionally, the suit charged Mies van der Rohe with negligence in the handling of construction plans and with being less than honest in his accounting of expenses on the project. The suit sought an accounting of all expenses.

The verdict was still out on the architectural value of the home at the time.  The Chicago Tribune ended its article on the October lawsuit by observing, “The Farnsworth house near Plano is reputed to be the only one of its kind, and it has been visited by many of the world’s best known architects.  In reality, it is a one-room, one story structure with flat roof and glass and steel outer walls, constructed around an inner core containing kitchen, heating and sanitary facilities.” [Chicago Tribune, October 29, 1951]

It took until the first part of 1953 before the suit and counter-suits were heard before Master in Chancery Jerome Nelson in Oswego.  Mies van der Rohe’s attorney, John Faisler, presented his client as “an expert in modern design, a teacher and director of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and underpaid for his work.”

Dr. Farnsworth and Myron Goldsmith in the offices
of Mies van der Rohe (chicagotonight.wttw)
Mrs. Farnsworth was represented by Attorney Randolph Bohrer, his son, Mason L. Bohrer, and State Senator Merritt J. Little.  (Can there be any more appropriate name for an Illinois state senator?)   Papa Bohrer asserted that Mies van der Rohe was not qualified as an architect and that “boosting of the original cost estimate is attributable either to ‘gross incompetence or stupidity of the plaintiff.’” [Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1953]  The name-calling did not end there as the attorney called Mies an “ordinary charlatan and an egoist of the Buhaus school which has committed more frauds upon this country than any other organization.”

Mies van der Rohe ended up winning the lawsuit and collecting his fees.  Dr. Farnswoth ended up living in the glass house for another 20 years.  The two never spoke to one another again.

The affair did considerable damage to the architect’s reputation.  In a scathing critique of the home in 1953 House Beautiful magazine observed –

Does it work? The much touted all-glass cube of International Style architecture is perhaps the most unlivable type of home for man since he descended from the tree and entered a cave. You burn up in the summer and freeze in the winter, because nothing must interfere with the “pure” form of their rectangles—no overhanging roofs to shade you from the sun; the bare minimum of gadgets and possessions so as not to spoil the “clean” look; three or four pieces of furniture placed along arbitrary pre-ordained lines; room for only a few books and one painting at precise and permanent points; no children, no dogs, extremely meager kitchen facilities—nothing human that might disturb the architect’s composition. [https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/moma_learning/docs/CL_5.pdf]

Despite the lawsuits and the acrimony the 2,215 square foot house in Plano has stood the test of time and the ravages of nature.  It is now viewed as one of the great triumphs of Mies van der Rohe’s career, more or less.


Or is that less is more?

4 comments:

Jill Bartholomew said...


Mies van der Rohe being sued really was a surprise. The court system was slow back then too. Looks like Mies was winner in the end, but issue must have been a real threat to his work at the time. Very interesting story and great picture of the house.

Ellde said...

Rule #1, you don't bad mouth your opponent in court before judge.

Ellde said...

Rule #1, you don't bad mouth your opponent in court before the judge.

M. W. Bohrer said...

My grandfather was an excellent attorney, my father slightly less so.

I wasn't alive when this case was tried, so I don't know any details, but civil cases are always messy.