Written by Christine Madrid French
Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe are two of the most significant architects of the twentieth century, designers that impacted the lives and work of thousands – if not millions – of people. Though their approaches to design differ, the works of both men are critically important to understanding and interpreting the context of modern architecture. Within their respective oeuvres two buildings stand out: the Edith Farnsworth House outside of Chicago, designed by Mies in 1951, and the Glass House, created by Johnson on his New Canaan, Connecticut estate in 1949.
These modern homes appear similar at first glance, marked by all-glass walls, flat roofs, and steel frames. Though the Glass House was completed first, Johnson was inspired in his work by Mies’ evolving design in Illinois. This close architectural dialogue originated from entirely disparate circumstances, however. Mies created the Farnsworth House in close consultation with his private client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Their long-term relationship was marked by frustrations on the part of both architect and patron as the deceptively simple house took shape.
Philip Johnson, by contrast, had only one client in mind – himself – when he began the process of designing and building the many structures that dot his property. He countered the transparency of the Glass House with a nearby building known as the Brick House, creating a yin-and-yang composition of materiality in architecture. The sublime character of the buildings differs as well; where Farnsworth as structure floats above the land, a third-party observer rather than participant, the Glass House grounds itself with its solid, fraternal twin, and becomes part of the verdant grounds. Whitney French, Executive Director at Farnsworth, sees the two buildings together as a singular “composition of earth and heaven.”
Unfortunately, it is the very earth and the heavens that are now working to reclaim these modern architectural icons. Degradation of materials due to weathering, flooding (at Farnsworth), and mold infestations (at the Brick House) threaten the longevity of these precious works. Luckily, both are stewarded and protected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which counts 29 historic sites under its supervision across the country, ranging from nineteenth-century Virginia mansions to California adobe pueblos.
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