Treacherous Transparencies: Thoughts and Observations Triggered by a Visit Farmsworth House, by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Actar, June 2016, 96 pages, $24.95.
In 2014, after accepting the inaugural Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron drove from Chicago to Plano, Illinois, to visit Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, completed in 1951. “I was ready to admire it for its beauty, but I discovered so many things that made no sense,” Herzog later reported. Those discoveries are recounted in a compact volume, with text by Herzog and photographs by de Meuron.
The book, Treacherous Transparencies, argues that the house leaves much to be desired and, perhaps worse, that “Mies’s statements on architecture are not coherent.” It is a rare attack on one of the profession’s deities, but Herzog supports his arguments with careful analysis and with de Meuron’s incisive, unflattering photos (taken during the 2014 visit and on a return trip in the spring of 2016).
Herzog dislikes the house’s use of glass—which is, of course, its defining feature. “The glass is not treated as a material,” he writes. “It doesn’t count and it has no identity; it would probably be better not to have any glass at all.” (Really?) As he also points out, the single layer of floor-to-ceiling glass works terribly in both hot and cold weather.
The building seems to Herzog to be a kind of torture chamber. He quotes Mies’s client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, who said, “Do I feel implacable calm? The truth is that in this house I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert.” And he compares it to a work by the artist Dan Graham, Alteration to a Suburban House, in which the front of an ordinary tract house is replaced by a sheer glass wall. “Exposing the interior makes viewers suffer an almost physical panic attack,” Herzog writes.
Herzog also examines glass surfaces in the work of other artists he admires, including Gerhard Richter, whose Eight Gray (2001) consists of eight large sheets of mirrored gray glass hung in configurations that vary depending on location. As he writes, “One cannot escape the way in which these gray, reflecting pieces of glass reach out and take possession of an architectural space, in full awareness of the psychological impact on viewers.” By contrast, according to the author, “Mies had no awareness of his house’s psychological impact.”
Herzog takes one point too far: he writes that Mies was “utterly blind to the disproportionate distance between house and ground.” But Mies—according to some scholars—chose the height carefully, ensuring that the view from the house would be equally divided among lawn, river, and sky. Is Herzog unaware of that explanation, or is he simply dismissing it? Moreover, Herzog focuses on the space below the house, calling it “extremely inelegant and uncontrolled” and noting that you can enter it “only by bending down and crawling in.” It’s not clear that anyone was meant to enter that space. Still, it’s great that Herzog and de Meuron inspected the house from every angle—and that their large body of work contains so many triumphs that they can critique Mies from a position of strength.