A townhouse, from 1860, was torn down on this site, which then became a vacant lot. In 1957, Metal Masters Company Inc. erected a one-story building for the manufacture and storage of toys – Herman H. Kline was the architect of record for the steel, wood and corrugated structure. In 1972 the then-vacant warehouse was demolished and in its stead was built this three-story, single-family dwelling with garage, by Nick James Chimes & Associates.
Simple and yet not so simple, unique in form but, in its use of brick and dark green trim, referential to its 19th-century rowhouse contextual neighbors. There is an architectural rhythm to the facade and, compared to its neighbors, an unusual balance of space.
Each story of the house has its own ratio of positive to negative space: the long, narrow, vertical windows with openings the same width as the spaces between them create a second story as a colonnade; the first-floor openings line up with those above, but having only two spaces creates the illusion of piers at the ground level; and the third story is recessed almost into nonexistence for a set-back deck with a single-plank railing, resembling a cornice, giving a narrow building on a narrow lot a wider feeling.
The minimal decoration between floors is a brick banding that enhances the horizontality as well. There is a playing with space – the openings are not just functional openings, but design. The language spoken here is architecture, giving us not just a practical building but a building with design intelligence, structural and subtle, not trying to be more than what it is but doing it in a very appropriate and sensible way.
This skeletal structure, the Farnsworth House, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is a non-native invasive in its simple riverside setting. And that would be just fine with modernist Mies. It is unforgivingly minimal in design and lovely in contrast to its context, although Mies would not care a wit about the relationship.
It’s difficult to imagine living comfortably in something akin to a fish tank, but it would be almost impossible to find an unnecessary element in its bare-bones presentation. The materials used in the interior, wood and travertine, add a simple beauty and warmth to a sketch of positive space, leaving a kind of negative space to be filled.
But that also works for the exterior to good effect. It is a death-defying dance between man and nature, but they manage to coexist so well – one forcing the other to recognize its best attributes. Despite the fact that the clever design of its floating is a result of practicality, in that the Fox River floods frequently, the proportions of the lift from the ground and the size of the terrace all interplay to create a theatrical result – a magic-carpet playhouse in the woods.
In comparison to Philip Johnson’s Glass House, there is no comparison. Farnsworth levitates whereas Glass sits clunkily, ham-fisted on the ground. If you are within striking distance of this isolated burg called Plano, the home of the McCormick Harvester in the heart of farm country, driving through fifty miles or so of rolling fields, the Farnsworth is a must-see diamond in the rough.
A house, angled on its site, has a special relationship to the street, its land use and its neighbors. It’s a geometry thing, and it’s a breaking-the-rules thing. Both things are seductive. And hip.
This house, built in a contemporary/modern style, probably in the 1980s, not only has a diagonal orientation, but it has a structural design that harkens back to Gothic cathedrals and their flying buttress supports, in this case, squeezed through a Modernist filter. The buttresses come out at the sides of the building supporting an almost free floating angled balcony that acts as a covered entry porch. An otherwise spare structure without decoration; it is minimalist, a rotated block with chopped corners. The result is a breaking up of the squareness, making it sculptural, faceted, almost cubist in the bisecting of shapes; as in origami, which takes a flat piece of paper, folds it and makes it planarly three-dimensional.
The buttresses give relief to the squarish form of the house, acting both as design and function – the function of dividing the front-most public areas from the more private rear ones. And because these large perpendicular rectangles could be heavy and dominating, their mass is offset by cutout holes, reflecting the windows, that lighten and enliven them as some sort of earflaps. The visual effect is one in which the house appears to be cupping its hands to listen, or perhaps, to whisper something from its skewed position. Also, these unusual extensions give the house an animated quality of dimensional wings or gills – like the frilled lizard with its ruffled collar expanded to scare off enemies. Nearly subversive in its context of ranchers and colonials, this is modern architecture that not only steps, but juts, outside the box.