The Reverse Aquarium

Farnsworth House Collages by Argitect (2001)

In an urban environment such as the Chicago Federal Center by Mies Van Der Rohe, we see the architecture primarily frames the sculpture in the plaza. The sculpture is a contrasting vitality. This is not necessary in a rural environment; the vital element to the architecture is nature itself. Nature is the contrasting element, nature is the dynamic force from which the neutralized architecture enhances by aggrandized contrast. Sculpture is the substitute for nature where it is lacking in the big city.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than at the Farnsworth House by Mies Van Der Rohe designed from 1945-1951. Nature is clearly the starring character of the house. The nature of the house is to frame its surroundings. There is no other possibility; one is simply consumed by nature when inside the house. The reflections of trees in the glass mixed with the complex tree filtered shadows create a richly decorative experience. The nature seems to encroach on the border like seeing an effective 3D movie at the theater. Reflection and shadow blur the line between inside and out. The only real cue that one is not in an open pavilion is the muffling of sounds. The tree will whip violently in the wind but one won’t hear the wind inside the house. It’s like a reverse aquarium where the surroundings are on display. The floating plane of roof has an even-handed diffusion that seems to glow with indirect reflectivity.

The Farnsworth House is also very much like tofu: it takes on the characteristics of its environment. As the seasons change so does the house. The dominant mood of the environment is reflected in the overwhelming sensations of transforming nature. The color of the house changes with the seasons as well, reflecting what is happening beyond the house. In fall, the house takes on a warm hue, a hue of deep colors and gathering fortitude for winter. I have not seen it in winter, but I imagine the house to be perfectly camouflaged and even more “not there” when surrounded by blinding white. Icicles have the potential to form on its eaves, the house becomes an ice fortress, although a freezing cold one with single pane glass!

Although I have not seen it at night, I believe the success of the Farnsworth House primarily happens in the daytime. The overwhelming inhabitation of the black night, I imagine, could be oppressive and ominous when inside the house. The reverse aquarium reverses, and one would feel as if they are on display to nature, or whatever else may lurk in the void of black night.

The architecture is nature’s frame. It is not overtly decorative in order that it does not compete with nature. Just as at a museum, if a painting is framed in an overtly ornate gilded frame the power of the painting is attenuated. A conspicuous frame will make one forget the frame and focus on what is important; the painting!

It is a hard task to ask the creative minds of architecture to design a building that is not meant to stand out, but instead enhance its surroundings by disappearing as much as possible. The ego wants to be noticed, it wants to be seen and admired. Mies teaches that a building that is meant to disappear, if executed with distilled perfection, can be successful both as architecture as well as an unintrusive framing device for nature (urban or rural) or it’s substitute (sculpture, painting etc.).

Photo by Argitect
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