Co.Design

Mies Van Der Rohe's Farnsworth House Is At Risk

To protect against future flooding, preservationists want to raise Mies's masterpiece with hydraulic jacks.

At Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House—built on a flood plain in Plano, Illinois—preservationists are desperate to ensure that future floods don't wash away one of the most famous residential examples of mid-century modernist architecture in the country.

Despite being built on stilts, the house, completed in 1951 and now a museum owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has repeatedly flooded in recent years. The Chicago Tribune reports:

[T]he Fox River has shown little respect for Mies' brilliant juxtaposition of the natural and the man-made. In the past 18 years, the river has inundated the house three times. The worst flood, in 1996, smashed one of the home's huge plate-glass windows, sending more than five feet of water inside and causing thousands of dollars in damage.

As the likelihood of devastating floods increases in the Midwest, the necessity of protecting architecture's greatest historical treasures takes on new urgency. Should the house be moved out of the river's way, which would destroy its original context? Or should it be left as is, where it will surely be damaged the next time the waters rise?

Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. Chicago History Museum

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a bolder plan to save the house and its site-specific context. (It's one that the organization's board still has to approve.) As the Tribune notes:

The trust is considering a daring plan that would temporarily move the house from its site, build a pit beneath it and insert hydraulic jacks that would lift the house out of harm's way the next time the Fox attacks it.

These concerns aren't limited to the Farnsworth House, or even to the Midwest. The architectural icons of the 20th century are aging, and are genuinely threatened—not only by climate change but also by neglect, structural issues, demolition, and more. To save the great works of modernist architects for future generations to appreciate, preservationists have no choice but to come up with creative, even daring, preservation strategies.

It's more complex than simply losing significant works by important radical thinkers such as Mies. We'll lose some of the variation in our buildings, too. "Having a range of building styles gives the built environment complexity and richness and texture," Roberta Lane, a senior field officer and attorney at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, tells Co.Design.

"It’s a period that obviously represents amazing design departures from all the periods before," Lane says of modernism, a style of building the organization says is being demolished at an alarming rate. "It's a matter of caring about history," she says.

[H/T: Chicago Tribune]

[Image: Farnsworth House via Wikipedia]

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Full disclosure - I work for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so might be a bit biased, but...

    The Trust is seeking public comment and engagement on this project. Visit farnsworthproject.org to learn more about all of options under consideration and to weigh in on the debate.