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The flooding of Mies' Farnsworth House should agitate us

Seeing Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, up to its neck in floodwater is enough to bring out obsessive-compulsive symptoms in even the most relaxed of us.

Just imagining the whiteness of its frame and its transparent walls lapped by the muddy waters of the Fox River makes me itchy, uncomfortable and agitated.

The anxiousness that last month’s flood creates goes to the core of what makes Farnsworth House such an exceptional project. Part of the house’s sublime beauty is its precarious balance between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. The building exists in a state of hypertension, suspended on legs intended to protect it from floods, but which symbolically articulate the separation of distinct realms.

It’s a condition described by Peter Smithson as ‘ruburb’ – a compound of rural and urban that highlights the fundamental weirdness of the building, as though you’d cut out a picture of the quintessential metropolitan interior and pasted it on to a National Geographic spread on the flora and fauna of the Midwest.

When I last visited it, the house was still owned by property developer and art collector Peter Palumbo. Inside the oblong of warm air, Palumbo seemed to revel in the notion of his house as a piece of culture. In fact, you could interpret his inhabitation of it as a mixed-media piece about high Modernism, Cold War politics, international finance, 20th-century fine art, society marriages, the British monarchy and insurance claims – rather than anything resembling domesticity.

A letter of thanks from Margaret Thatcher hung framed in the bathroom. A photograph of Princess Diana was on a bureau behind a line of sharpened pencils, each with an embossed House of Lords motif. Looking through the house, beyond a stack of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, you could see the turret of the Mappin & Webb building, which previously occupied the site of James Stirling’s No. 1 Poultry in the City of London, where Palumbo battled for years to build Mies’ only proposal for the UK. Here, the old cupola was displayed like the severed head of a defeated chief, a kind of ritualistic offering of pagan apology to Mies. These artefacts were set in the almost-void of Miesian abstraction. Loading this strangely dematerialised space with objects dense with cultural meaning seemed to ramp up the hypertension of the house, aligning it not only with an architectural concept, but also with totems of the machinations of the abstract and artificial.

A series of framed photographs documented a previous flood, showing the same Brillo boxes floating in green-brown liquid. The interior of the house was filled with water, as though it were a fish tank, and the tension between landscape and architecture seemed to dissolve into a soup.

Farnsworth House’s suspension between nature and culture assumes that the definitions and qualities of the categories remain consistent and separate. The science of climate change, however, shows us that these are not distinct categories, and the intersection of the two creates new and very real kinds of environmental conditions – as the people of New Orleans might tell us.

The house allows us nostalgia for a view of nature as a romantic, idealised ‘other’, as seen from its cultured interior. Its flooding reminds us that any cultural interpretation of nature is likely to be overturned, and that the forces shaping a structure as seemingly artificial as Farnsworth House are the same as those shaping the landscapes and climates that surround it.

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