Seeing the Farnsworth House up to its neck in floodwater is enough to bring out OCD symptoms in even the most relaxed of us. Just imagining the whiteness of its frame, its transparent walls, and its reduced abstraction lapped by the muddy waters of the Fox River makes me itchy, uncomfortable and agitated.
The anxiousness that the recent Farnsworth flood seems to create goes beyond the simple everyday issues of orderliness to the very core of what makes it such an exceptional project. Part of the houses sublime beauty is its precarious balance between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. The building exists in a state of hypertension, held up on legs whose practical purpose is to avoid all but the highest of floods, but which symbolically articulate the separation of distinct realms.
It’s a condition described by Peter Smithson as “ruburb” – a compound of rural and urban which highlights the fundamental weirdness of the building, as though you’d cut a picture of the quintessential metropolitan interior and pasted it into the middle of a National Geographic spread on the flora and fauna of the mid west. The house exists as a juxtaposition: the raised platform of temperature controlled air and sanitation held between two slabs of whiteness against a backdrop of nature. The house is on the cusp of invisibility and impossibility.
When I last visited it, the house was still owned by Peter Palumbo. There was thick, virgin snow, and the house seemed to be more invisible with its structure camouflaged against the whiteness. Inside the oblong of warm air, Palumbo seemed to revel in the notion of the house as a piece of culture. In fact, you could interpret Palumbos inhabitation of the house as a mixed media piece about high Modernism, cold war politics, international finance, the cream of twentieth century fine art, society marriages, the British Monarchy, patronage, heritage and air freight, regular flooding (the ominous symbol of global warming) and insurance claims – rather than anything resembling domesticity.
A letter of thanks from Margaret Thatcher hung framed in the bathroom. A photograph of Diana was on a bureau, and in front of this a line of sharpened pencils, each with an embossed House of Lords motif. Looking through the house, beyond a stack of Warhol Brillo boxes you could glimpse the turret of the Mappin & Webb building, which had previously occupied the site of No. 1 Poultry where Palumbo had battled for years to build Mies’s only proposal for the UK. Here the old cupola was displayed like the severed head of a defeated chief, a kind of ritualistic offering of pagan apology to Mies.
Beyond that was a graffiti-covered five-foot section of the Berlin Wall. The proximity of the house to the wall was rich with irony and history: the most famous piece of free-plan without-walls-architecture set against a wall that had divided a continent and separated ideologies.
These charged artifacts were set in the almost-void of Meisian abstraction: Loading this strangely dematerialized space with objects dense with cultural meaning seemed to ramp up the hyper-tension of the house – aligning it not only with an architectural concept, but also with totems of the machinations of the abstract and artificial.
A series of framed photographs documented a previous, Palumbo era flood. These images showed those same Brillo boxes floating in greeney brown water. The interior of the house was filled with water as though it were a fish tank. In this liquid, the tension between landscape and architecture seemed to dissolve into a soup.
The Farnsworths precarious relationship between nature and culture assumes that the definitions and qualities of the categories remain consistent, and separate. The science of climate change however persuades us that these are not distinct categories and the intersection of the two creates new and very real kinds of new environmental conditions – as the people of New Orleans or Bihar, India and many other places that have experienced far more terrible flooding than a local incident on banks of a river in Plano, Illinois might tell us. The Farnsworth House allows us a nostalgia for a view of nature as a romantic idealized ‘other’ seen from its cultured interior. Its flooding reminds us that any cultural interpretation of nature is likely to be overturned, and the forces that shape a structure as seemingly artificial as the Farnsworth House are the very same that shape the landscapes and climates that surround it.