Since its completion in 1951, the Farnsworth House, situated 58 miles southwest of Chicago in Plano, Ill., has been susceptible to flooding. Its quiet elegance, delicately placed in communion with its surroundings, was designed by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and built next to the tempestuous Fox River. Knowing his site, Mies envisioned floodwaters passing underneath the home’s steel-column stilt supports, used to poetic effect to raise the interior.
But the water has not so much passed as it has infiltrated the house. The first time the house flooded was 1954, and in recent years suburban development has sprawled across the site’s watershed and pushed more runoff into the adjacent Fox River, precipitating more flooding.
As suburban development and climate change exacerbate the severity as well as the frequency of these flood events, the fate of Mies’ Farnsworth House is tied to two possible solutions that remove it from harm’s way: a hydraulic lift system that would elevate the house during a flood (a solution that was endorsed by its owner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in November); or moving the entire home to a nearby, yet less flood prone, location on the site. (A third option, to raise the home on its site by placing it atop nearly 7 feet of infill, has garnered no further discussion.)
None are ideal solutions. And within the historic preservation community, they have inspired an oftentimes contentious battle over the proper approach to maintaining the architectural integrity of the building while grappling with changing environmental and site conditions.
The most damaging flood occurred in 1996, as a historic torrent of 17 inches of rain over a two-day period doused the area. One of the home’s signature plate-glass windows was bashed in by debris, allowing a wave of silt and mud to cake the home’s travertine floors and washing away works of art by Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. (British developer Peter Palumbo owned the home at the time, which is now run as a museum.)
Since then, floodwaters have approached the home on multiple occasions, the most severe flooding occurring in 2008 when 15 inches of water entered the home and prompted its closure to the public. A 2013 hydrological survey commissioned by the National Trust and prepared by Wright Water Engineers, found that flooding of the area around Farnsworth was “expected to happen more or less on an annual basis and may actually occur multiple times in any given year as the river rises and falls periodically in the spring in response to snowmelt and rainfall events.”
Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of the preservation organization Landmarks Illinois (which relinquished everyday management of the property to the Trust in 2009, but still holds an easement as a result of their partnership with the Trust on the winning bid to procure the home in 2003), says that any solutions employed to preserve Farnsworth must take into account “not only today’s Fox River, but tomorrow’s Fox River,” as a result of increasing climate change. Last June, it was widely reported that the Trust was likely to move forward with the relocation option, although after it endorsed the hydraulic jack option last month, relocation is off the table. Mindful not to speak directly to the pending decisions surrounding Farnsworth, McDonald says, “The approach to [preserving] any building is to look first to a passive approach.”
Her thoughts are echoed by Katherine Malone-France, vice president for historic sites at the National Trust, who—similarly careful not to speak directly of Farnsworth— said the Trust’s “early advocacy for preservation of the modern” encourages a “deep engagement” for the design principles embedded within the organization’s most prominent modern residential properties, including Farnsworth and Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Malone-France, who speaks of a “midcentury moment” happening within the greater public—“It’s partially the Mad Men effect,” she says, “but it is also nostalgia for Boomers, a clean aesthetic that resonates with Millennials”—noted that the Trust takes a “project-specific approach to preservation that balances honoring the original design intent” and saving the structure. (Members of the National Trust staff who work at Farnsworth House declined to comment for this story.)
Some in the preservationist community wonder at what cost the structure will be saved. The hydraulic lift solution—which involves jacking the house out of the flood plain when threatened, allowing water to collect in a “pit” underneath the home—was proposed as early as 1997 by Mies’ grandson Dirk Lohan, FAIA, who performed extensive rehab work on the home after the 1996 flood and remains committed to the idea. For others, such an approach is anathema.
John Vinci, FAIA, of Vinci | Hamp Architects, winner of the 2015 AIA Chicago Lifetime Achievement Award, was one of the more vocal opponents of the hydraulic proposal. “These are all flawed solutions,” Vinci says, “but architecture has to have its groundings. You don’t turn Mies into Rube Goldberg.”
In an op-ed for Chicago Architect magazine [full disclosure: I served as editor of that magazine from March 2014 to October 2015], Vinci outlined his response to the hydraulic solution by mapping out a plan to move the house to a nearby meadow slightly northeast of the present site. Vinci said that this not only maintains the architectural integrity of the house but also repairs its relationship to the site by situating it some 200 feet further from a highway built in the 1960s; it would place the house roughly the same distance away from the newer highway as it was from the original road.
Vinci’s proposal seemed to be the motivating force behind the momentum for relocation, but with conversation stalled, a sense of anxiety surrounds the house. A partner at Vinci | Hamp, Alex Krikhaar, AIA, who worked as a grad student under the tutelage of Farnsworth’s structural engineer, Myron Goldsmith, sent an open letter to the Trust last August expressing concern over a wide spectrum of issues. Krikhaar’s main objections to the hydraulic system relate to the permanent separation of the house and terrace that its implementation would necessitate, requiring the addition of new non-original structural supports. In a separate conversation, Krikhaar says, “In a work as distilled as Farnsworth, there’s no room for interventions like that. The home’s architecture is based on its architectural purity.”
Krikhaar is also looking forward to a greater alliance with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about their post-1996 flood work on the Fox River Watershed Project, which calls for a series of interventions to alleviate flooding within the watershed. For its part, the Trust, in response to Krikhaar’s concern, stated that their own hydrological studies have referenced previous Army Corps findings, and that “the Army Corps of Engineers will be consulted when a conceptual proposal is selected.”
Others still recoil at any thought of disturbing the house. Whitney French knows the property better than most: She served as the executive director of the Farnsworth House from 2004 until 2012.
“You have to have had the privilege of experience that I had in knowing the house and the indescribable precision to which it was designed,” she says. French believes any movement of the house disturbs its absoluteness, and wonders why other approaches that involve treating the landscape, or erecting protective structures that could stand sentry against the house, aren’t being explored.
During her time at Farnsworth, French oversaw the development of a cursory engineering plan drawn up by students from the University of Delft that would create a two-part, steel-gasketed structure that would rise from the ground during flooding to deflect water. “Certainly if we can engineer a device to raise the house, we can raise a device to prevent water from reaching the house,” she says. “Think of the device as a reverse aquarium.”
Phyllis Lambert, hon. FAIA, the author of Mies in America and Building Seagram, and perhaps the most authoritative voice on Mies’ work, states her preference plainly: “Don’t touch the house.” Lambert acknowledges that flooding will most likely get worse over time but believes, “the most important thing to regulate is the rising of the water.”
“If Mies were around, we could ask him [what to do],” Lambert says. “But he’s not. Our obligation is to do the least damage to the house and respect the site.” Lambert contends that Mies “always made a gesture to properly build in connection to the site,” referencing his early work at the Riehl House in Potsdam, Germany, down to the Seagram Building, the New York office building that Lambert, the daughter of Seagram’s founder Samuel Bronfman, commissioned half a century ago. Lambert believes that any manipulation of Farnsworth that would require deconstruction or the replacement of walls and glass would be akin to “taking your appendix out and putting it back in.”
Although the issues threatening Farnsworth are site-specific, the questions of proper stewardship affecting the landmark resonate for preservationist projects of all stripes on all sites. McDonald, the Landmarks Illinois president, cautions that if the preservationist community as a whole “becomes complete purists where we can no longer adapt, then we run a greater risk of losing our heritage in a changing climate.”
“We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together in a higher unity,” said Mies van der Rohe in 1958, four years after the Farnsworth House’s first flood. Even today, that statement is no great irony—he believed that architecture could provide a window from which nature could be framed and appreciated.
“If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed from the outside,” Mies van der Rohe went on, describing a structure whose stilt-legs could elevate one’s view of the landscape while, ostensibly, allowing water to quietly pass through the site unencumbered. Decades later, and like the stilts it sits upon, the Farnsworth House’s future remains up in the air, as architects and preservationists work hard to both honor an iconic house and respect its surrounding environment. While the Trust-endorsed hydraulic lift system may seem unconventional, it highlights the capacity of historic preservation to adapt as a resilient practice that can be both innovative and reverent.