Treacherous Transparencies: Thoughts and Observations Triggered by a Visit to the Farnsworth House

Treacherous Transparencies: Thoughts and Observations Triggered by a Visit to the Farnsworth House

Reviews: Books

Jacques Herzog, with photographs by Pierre de Meuron:

Treacherous Transparencies: Thoughts and Observations Triggered by a Visit to the Farnsworth House

By Curtis Roth
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The peculiar thing about beginning a review of a book (ostensibly) about the Farnsworth House must also be the most difficult thing about writing a book (ostensibly) about the Farnsworth House in the first place. That is: that the obligatory opening paragraph of any book review, the one perfunctorily situating the book amongst other related scholarship, promises to quickly devour my allotted word count while doing little to illuminate the specificities of Treacherous Transparencies, a recent book (ostensibly) about Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, authored by Jacques Herzog with images by Pierre de Meuron. Or, to put the problem I now share with these venerated Swiss architects slightly more obliquely: on December 12, 2003, when the Farnsworth House (i.e., Lot #800) was hawked by Sotheby’s for a price of $6.7 million, the associated catalog advertising the contents of the sale bluntly described our most famous (read: infamous) midcentury American villa as a simple collection of objects consisting of “white-painted steel, glass, travertine, plaster ceiling, precast concrete planks, [and] primavera wood.”1 In short, perhaps nowhere else in the history of architecture has so much been said about so little.
     But while I’m on the subject, I’ll admit that it’s perhaps all too easy to imagine the fondness Mies might have felt for Sotheby’s willfully reductive description of his work. Whittling his ambivalent architectural object into its naked components so as to serve as some kind of framework for a close reading, in precisely the moment that his house abdicated its status as real estate altogether in favor of that more abstract kind of value associated with rarefied art commodities. And if the Farnsworth House’s terrifying reduction toward architecture’s zero degree seems to beg for an equally ice-cold analytical disposition, this is precisely what’s delivered by Treacherous Transparencies’ most striking feature: Pierre de Meuron’s incisive photographic analysis of Mies’s work. The fourteen expertly constructed photographs of the house read like a long-lost companion to Sotheby’s auction catalog, defamiliarizing the painfully familiar house through often uncomfortably cropped images, desaturated in the sober light of an overcast Illinois winter. With each successive image, de Meuron’s forensic photography makes the house strange again in ways that are both unnerving and often profound, intimating a promise paralleled by Herzog’s opening text that provocatively calls for a return to a close reading of an already overread villa, liberating Mies’s intentions from the house as a tired trope of transparency gone awry.

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Photograph by Pierre de Meuron, fall 2014.
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     The book itself was conceived by the duo in the months following their first visit to the Farnsworth House in the fall of 2014, on the occasion of their acceptance of IIT’s MCHAP Prize. And while a handful of de Meuron’s photographs appear to have been taken during this initial visit, more conventionally depicting the Farnsworth House surrounded by the electric yellow maple leaves of a Midwestern autumn, the image captions indicate that de Meuron returned to the house in 2016 in order to photograph the home again under the distinctly less photogenic light of an overcast sky. These stunning, contemporary images of the home, situating it as but one more object littered in a field of scattered Canadian geese, entirely un-electric dead leaves, and disordered lawn maintenance equipment, appear alongside more recognizable historical imagery depicting the curtains pulled high above rising floodwaters and Edith Farnsworth gardening in front of the still-unfinished steel frame. But if it reads as if I’ve already spent far too much real estate appreciating de Meuron’s fourteen photographs, it’s only because Jacques Herzog’s associated text is every bit as difficult for me to understand as Mies’s intentions seem to have been for the Swiss architect during his original trip to Plano.
     If the analytical ambition of de Meuron’s photography is reminiscent of Sotheby’s reductive 2003 catalog, Herzog’s companion text reminds us that for all that Mies’s alienated object asks for a close formal reading, its legacy in architectural discourse has, more often than not, been as a straw figure, a limit case in object lessons on everything from modern architecture’s construction of gender to the mechanical gaze of medical imaging equipment.
     Perhaps symptomatic of the book’s eponymous treachery, Herzog’s text delivers precisely the Farnsworth House we all already know so well. Sitting awkwardly alongside the close gaze of de Meuron’s photography, Herzog delivers a laundry list critique only ever comprised of the usual suspects. Proceeding in rapid-fire format from a mile high, the criticisms are distinctly prosaic, dialectically pitting Mies’s purportedly single-minded pursuit of an abstract notion of aesthetic essences against the home’s assumed obligations toward Edith Farnsworth’s comfort and the home’s natural context. The critique might be biting if it didn’t feel so entirely well rehearsed, and while fans of Herzog’s work may relish a more informal perspective on the Swiss architect’s impressions of the Farnsworth House, the analysis adds little to a deeper understanding of the house itself.

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Photograph by Pierre de Meuron, spring 2016.
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Photography by Pierre de Meuron, spring 2016.
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     But this complaint is less problematic than it is telling of Treacherous Transparencies’ oblique motivation. Despite the fresh intensity of de Meuron’s imagery, as Herzog’s text unfolds, one gets the sense that the Farnsworth House is hardly the point at all. For Herzog, transparency precipitates blind spots, affective treacheries that epitomize the highest political metaphors of early modern architects like Bruno Taut and Ivan Leonidov, while impoverishing transparency’s built realizations, like the Farnsworth House, through the unforeseen treacheries of heat gain, caustic reflectivity, and the impossibility of interior privacy. This cursory critique of the Farnsworth House only serves to expediently establish Mies’s masterpiece as a disastrous reminder of these treacheries, against which Herzog posits the presumably more perceptive deployment of transparency as a critical instrument within the visual art oeuvres of Marcel Duchamp, Dan Graham, and Gerhard Richter.
     Herzog’s argument repetitively proceeds thusly: if) the Farnsworth House shortsightedly privileges transparency, as an abstract essence, over glass, as a physical material, then) Duchamp’s Large Glass mines the ambiguity of glass, as both an essence and a substance, in order to grapple with the historical legacy of the canvas as a support material that we see beyond by looking at. If) Mies was unable to negotiate the divergent demands of Edith Farnsworth’s comfort and the aesthetic obligations of the house as an austere art object, then) Graham’s alterations of prototypical suburban homes turn Edith’s much-documented discomfort into a prolonged critique of contemporary suburban lifestyles. And if) Mies’s single-minded pursuit of an entirely erased perimeter short changes a more nuanced relationship between the house and its context, then) Richter’s Aucht Grau leverages a more generous experience of glass, putting to work its edge conditions, its coloration, and its reflectivity in order to interrogate the delicate relationship between a work of art and the context in which it is staged. As his critique unfolds, it’s clear that Mies’s failure is only an inevitable imperative allowing Herzog to push beyond the political metaphors of transparency, long relished by architects, toward the more nuanced critical dispositions of twentieth-century visual artists he admires.
 

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Photograph by Pierre de Meuron, spring 2016.
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But the structure of Treacherous Transparencies’ if/then critique continually relies on an argumentative bait-and-switch, whereby Herzog criticizes the Farnsworth House for not adequately fulfilling the prosaic functional obligations of a home, derogatorily labeling it an aloof art object, only to paradoxically find more favorable alternatives in a collection of equally aloof art objects. While the utility of the Farnsworth House as a perpetual straw figure relies on its ambivalent qualities as an object, Herzog ultimately refuses to afford the house (as an object) the same courtesy he gives to Duchamp’s transparent canvas or Graham’s glass models. This is to say that while the strategically inconvenient relationship between Duchamp’s Large Glass and the context in which it sits can be understood as a critical stance against the institutional conventions of the gallery, Herzog never entertains the possibility that Mies’s house might have the right to be every bit as inconvenient to live with as a glass canvas.
            As Irene Sunwoo has observed, when Sotheby’s published their catalog advertising the sale of the Farnsworth House, the investment was framed less as real estate than as a fine art object, reminding us that for its short life as a residence, the Farnsworth House has lived a far longer afterlife as a rarefied work of art.2 And while Edith may never have felt entirely comfortable in her Plano fish tank, the house itself seems entirely comfortable circulating through the collections of twentieth-century art connoisseurs alongside the works of Duchamp, Graham, and Richter. While offering moments of real insight, ultimately, Herzog and de Meuron’s Treacherous Transparencies underscores the simple fact that no matter how far an architectural object distances itself from the prosaic economies of conventional use, the specter of convenience proves to be an imminently difficult ghost to shake, damning either the Farnsworth House or a book (ostensibly) about the Farnsworth House, depending on the reader’s own proclivities.
 

The Farnsworth House: 1945–1951, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (Sale no. 7957), appended to Important 20th Century Design, 248 (New York: Sotheby’s), December 12, 2003.
Irene Sunwoo, “Taming the Farnsworth House,” Thresholds, no. 31 (2006).
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Photography by Pierre de Meuron, spring 2016. 
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