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Mies' grandson: ‘We should not allow Farnsworth House to be moved'

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Mies van der Rohe’s grandson, Dirk Lohan has spoken out against plans to relocate Farnsworth House from its current site next to the flood-prone Fox River

Since 2013 the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been working on a much needed solution to avoid future repeated flooding of the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois.

The Trust originally assembled a group of eminent and concerned architects, engineers, and preservationists, called the Technical Advisory Panel (TAP), to discuss this issue and to make recommendations for a permanent solution. I was also invited to serve on this panel as I am particularly familiar with the house and had been in charge of maintaining it for many years during the ownership of Peter Palumbo.

After repeated and lengthy discussions and consideration of other options, the panel decided to recommend an underground hydraulic lift system, engineered by Robert Silman, which would be activated whenever dangerous floods were approaching. The concept was to design a lift system that was completely invisible during non-flood times so that the visitors to the house would not find an altered or modified architecture.

The other option still under consideration is to move the house to a remote location on the current property - not part of Farnsworth´s property at the time of construction of the house - which is significantly more elevated and not in the flood plain. This plan has not yet been discussed with the TAP but I feel compelled, at this time, to speak out against this plan for the following reasons:

Farnsworth House surrounded by flood waters

Farnsworth House surrounded by flood waters

  • As we all know, Mies knowingly designed the Farnsworth House to be in the Fox River flood plain and raised it on its columns to be safe from future floods. The elevation above the land was determined by historical records of flood elevations of the Fox River. Unfortunately, over the last 60 years, several floods occurred that were higher than recorded before. The fact remains that this house was conceived for the flood plain and it was therefore expected that the grounds would flood from time to time. There are numerous stunning pictures of the Farnsworth House, safely sitting in water, with its main floor above the flood level. These images convincingly explain why the house was raised on ‘stilts’. To move the house out of the flood plain would render its basic idea, of a house on stilts, as having no logic.
  • The relationship to the Fox River, is another memorable and dominant feature of its setting. One only has to spend some time living in the House, as I have done, to appreciate this particular relationship. To relocate the house several hundred feet from the river onto much higher ground will certainly save it from flooding, but it will also create an entirely new contextual environment that has nothing to do with the intended relationship to the natural features of the site that Mies had in mind.
  • The Hydraulic System was conceptually designed but was not yet discussed and reviewed in detail with the Technical Advisory Panel. As it happens I have had some experience raising a much larger and much heavier steel structure from the ground to a height of 28 feet. In 1967 the enormous roof of Mies’ New National Gallery in Berlin was raised in a few hours by 8 hydraulic jacks which were synchronized to move completely in unison. That was 48 years ago.

The New National Gallery in Berlin

The New National Gallery in Berlin

  • The Technical Advisory Panel should spend some more time brainstorming other possibilities that leave the house in place and make the technology as invisible as possible. I am convinced that is in the realm of feasibility.

The Farnsworth House already belongs to the history of architecture, and its own history is part of the story. The floods of the ground, the occasional flooding of the living floor, the construction of the nearby road and bridge, the landscape changes by Lanning Roper during the ownership period of Peter Palumbo, all have had an impact on how we and future generations experience this artistic masterpiece. It was purchasedby the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois to protect it from being moved away. We should not now allow that to happen.

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