This past Saturday, I fired up the 'rolla and took a long, meandering drive through some handsome corn fields out to Plano, Illinois, to see the Farnsworth House by Mies Van der Rohe. One might consider it a sort of pilgrimage -- Virginia Tech's school of architecture was grounded in the Bauhaus tradition, the pioneering German modernists who found a home in Chicago after fleeing Nazi persecution. The modernists in general, and Bauhaus in specific, have been the subject of much criticism and revisionist history. However, for all its faults, the Farnsworth House is a master lesson in the origins of modern design, a building that dragged architecture, kicking and screaming, into the post-war era.
Architecture, especially residential architecture, was once dank, dark, low-ceilinged, unsanitary, and uncomfortable. Expensive glass and masonry structural systems kept windows small, fireplaces kept houses cold, and lack of plumbing kept them dirty. The Farnsworth house, admittedly, was extremely expensive (~$581,000 in today's dollars), but the revolutionary use of light steel structure, huge expanses of glazing, and an open floor plan flooded the house with light and air. Each glass window was ground flat and polished, reducing glare and distortion. You can see through the house; from a distance, you can't tell the glass is even there, and the house disappears into pure planes of white. Inside, the spare interior is well-appointed with only the necessities (it was designed as a weekend retreat), and the raised foundation gives you a sense of floating above the earth as you look out over the Fox River.
Parked up by the visitor's center was Virginia Tech's winning entry in the Solar Decathlon, the LumenHaus. This portable, solar-powered prototype has been a on a victory lap all over the world, stopping in Madrid, New York, Blacksburg, Chicago, and Plano. The juxtaposition of LumenHaus with the Farnsworth was jarring: as proud as I am of my alma matter, the little house was a riot of colors, materials, and flat-screen televisions. Every system was automated so that the whole thing could be controlled with an iPad. This stood in stark contrast to the Farnsworth house, with simple radiant-floor heating, no a/c, no tv, and no internet. Our tour guide cracked a joke, although he didn't laugh: I mean, do I need to reboot the whole damn house every time the toilet clogs? He had a point, given the rapid obsolescence of technology, the bugs inherent in every software program, and the difficulty of upgrading built-in systems. By automating everything, you become a passive prisoner in an active house instead of an active participant in a passive house.
However, there are clear similarities between the two houses: both are extremely expensive showcases, each meant to push design forward by changing the conversation about what is both possible and desirable. Each failed in big ways -- the Farnsworth house is an energy apocalypse, barely insulated and sheathed in single-pane sheet glass, and the LumenHaus is a complex jewel-box that showcases new technology while simultaneously demonstrating its impracticalities. A cost breakdown on the Department of Energy FAQ page about the Solar Decathlon said they would award points to homes that cost less than $250,000. That's $500 a square foot on the low end, compared to a developer-built tract house at $150 a square foot, or a 20K House, at $40 a square foot.
So what are we to do? Here at Object Guerilla, I am primarily concerned with the lightweight, the low-cost, the recycled, the nomadic products and structures lashed together with the waste from our profligate society. I propose a $50,000 Solar Decathlon house: topped with used solar panels; sheathed in road signs and license plates; framed in recycled lumber and off-the-shelf components; furnished with chairs made from pallets and kitchen appliances ripped out of abandoned foreclosed homes. Build me a house that directly confronts today's challenges, instead of dropping a Jetsons-inspired contraption in an Illinois cornfield and calling it innovative. Mies said it first: less is more! Strip it down and pare it back, in cost, in construction, and in complication.