Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is renowned as one of the most influential architects of the Modernist movement in America during the post-World War II period, and one of his most famous and loved projects is the Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill. Designed in 1945 for Dr. Edith Farnsworth and completed in 1951, the house is regarded as an icon of mid-century modern design and a monument to Mies’ genius.
As fascinating as the house itself is the relationship that developed between Mies and Farnsworth. So fascinating, in fact, that a play about their relationship will debut on New York's Theater Row on May 9.
The Glass House, written by architecture filmmaker and playwright June Finfer, offers a glimpse inside the relationships among Mies, his longtime companion Lora Marx, Farnsworth, and the architect's student and colleague Philip Johnson.
While conducting research about the Farnsworth House for a documentary, Finfer became fascinated by the dynamics among the Mies, Farnsworth, and Johnson. In the five years between the house's design and its completion, the architect and client became close, but eventually were driven apart. In particular, Finfer wondered why two people who had become so close, and had so many goals in common for the project, would turn on each other.
"They finally built the house, and then they sued each other," Finfer says.
After reading Farnsworth's memoirs, interviewing her nephew, and talking with colleagues of Mies’, Finfer pieced together her story. At its core, The Glass House is about how people with great ambitions and strong personalities pursue their goals and bend others to their wills to get what they want.
In Finfer's play, which is largely based on documented events but does take some creative license, Mies, Farnsworth, and Johnson each needed the others to get what they wanted out of the Farnsworth House project, and their relationships were at times fraught as a result of clashing egos, persuasion and manipulation, intimidation, and codependency. She posits that Farnsworth and Miesdeveloped a romantic relationship during a yearlong break in Mies’srelationship with Marx. Johnson is depicted as a puppet master and mischief-maker. Describing his character as a kind of Iago to Mies’Othello, Finfer says she uses Johnson to shake things up.
"It's a fascinating chapter in American architectural history," Finfer says. "We look back now and recognize [the house] as a work of art, and many people wonder how it was created. ... It's ethereal. It's pure.” But its existence was endangered by the souring personal relationships and ambitions of the people responsible for its creation.
Extraordinary architecture doesn't usually happen where bad architect-client relationships exist, and the Farnsworth House was frequently at risk of never being built. "The product in this case turned out well—eventually," Finfer says. "But it did affect it. This is a morality tale for architects and their clients."
A production of the Resonance Ensemble, The Glass House premiers at the Clurman Theatre in New York alongside a production of Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder. Each season, the theater company pairs a classic play and a contemporary play with similar themes to demonstrate their ongoing relevance to contemporary culture.
Both plays center on an egotistical architect protagonist who must learn to change or suffer, notes Resonance Ensemble's artistic director Eric Parness. "There are certain constants within the human experience that shine in these plays," he says.