Clean Living

  • 2006
  • “Clean Living,” solo-exhibition in Idle Hands series
  • Fitch Gallery 
  • Des Moines, Iowa, USA
Within the interior environment of the Farnsworth House, ordinary objects undergo a certain magnification, becoming more tangible, more material, in contrast with the austere interior landscape of the architecture itself. Beinahe nichts, almost nothing, is this landscape, an invisible background against which objects enter a realm of hyperreality, superauthenticity. In this long drawing, the objects rendered superauthentic are the contentious belongings of Dr. Edith Farnsworth.


There are three very distinct versions of the Farnsworth House (Mies van der Rohe, Plano, Illinois, 1951). The Farnsworth House as Dr. Farnsworth inhabited it. The Farnsworth House as Lord Peter Palumbo ‘restored it’—though, in truth, he did not restore it to its prior condition, but rather to Mies’ original vision, unfettered by Farnsworth’s inhabitation. And third, the Farnsworth House at present, as museum and occasional overnight residence to the die-hard Miesian willing to pay $5,000. Each is a version of the truth, set apart by the objects and people permitted to or prohibited from entering the house.

The exhibition Clean Living speaks to the first version of the Farnsworth House. Focusing on Dr. Farnsworth’s active consumption of modern architecture and her rebellious inhabitation of the Farnsworth House, it draws from Mies’ vocabulary to render the persona of the doctor through the vehicle of her collected everyday belongings, her visage, and her recollections. It is comprised of a physical inventory of her possessions (“Archive”), a rendering of the floor plan of the Farnsworth House as reconstructed from her possessions (“Inventory”), and a collection of her memories—before, during, and after the Farnsworth House (“Recollection”).

This exhibition is a study in revealing un-cited histories, and diversifying the way we approach, represent, create, and speak about architecture and architectural history. This architecture as archive, as installation, as archive again is a series of representations—artifacts—a collapse of Farnsworth/van der Rohe into one.

“Archive” begins humbly, with the accretion of each day’s detritus. A critical mass of collected materials, combined with the passage of a significant amount of time, becomes history. In the case of the Farnsworth House, two separate and intersecting histories are produced from two distinct and cloistered locations: Mies’ Archive, held at the Museum of Modern Art, and Farnsworth’s Archive, stored in Chicago’s Newberry Library. While each is a seedbed of coveted-away, first-hand knowledge, they are structured by very different systems. The Miesian will be organized by project, its sketches, photographs, correspondence and paperwork structured by a palatable, perhaps chronological, and externally sensible order. The Farnsworthian archive will be structured by a series of events that make a life, and the spaces that those events once filled. In part, it will be organized around the Farnsworth House, but that space will be just one in a number of lived spaces.

To both the client and the architect, the design of the Farnsworth House was to represent an ordered space free of distractions. Distractions took the form of job responsibilities, intrusive neighbors and, in the eyes of the architect, the artifacts and personal possessions that asserted Dr. Farnsworth’s identity and claim to the free space. These historically taboo objects are re-presented publicly in a glass-topped Archive of white-painted steel, travertine, and glass, an appropriated Miesian language. A wide range of Dr. Farnsworth’s re-presented belongings are framed within this Archive, bursting out of either open end. 

* * * 

This is architectural history: “Edith was no beauty. Six feet tall, ungainly of carriage, and as witnesses agreed, rather equine in features, she was sensitive about her physical person and may very well have compensated for it by cultivating her considerable mental powers.” (Franz Schulze, Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985)

This is architectural history: Re-Collection: forty-eight envelopes, each containing private information sourced from Farnsworth’s archives, detailing a selected recollection. One direct, descriptive quote is inscribed here in correspondence to the visual element enveloped within the (1) memory, a 35 mm slide contained within a vintage aluminum slide-frame.