Notes Toward an Essay on the States of Matter, or: we, the bubbles

1 Farnsworthanddog

Figure 1. Dr. Edith B. Farnsworth gardening, with dog. Photographer: William E. Dunlap. Courtesy David W. Dunlap.

This is a photograph of the doctor kneeling in the dirt, kneeling with the dirt. She is gardening; there is a poodle in the frame, a dog she will describe as black in her memoir but is gray here, running, with what might be a number scratched into the emulsion over its fur. Behind them, the house awaits its glass.

In the photograph, her back is turned toward the river and she farms by hand, kneeling on the ground in dirt that was once a “practical laboratory for agricultural innovation” owned by Colonel Robert McCormick, who also owned the Chicago Tribune and whose wealth was the direct result of the McCormick Reaper, a machine that cut fields of grain without the use of the hands, exponentially increasing agricultural production.

Her own wealth was the direct result of labor that took place in logging camps and company towns in Wisconsin and Michigan. Her practice was medicine; the camps were founded by her grandfather. The reaper was patented by his grandfather, Cyrus McCormick.

This photograph of a woman in the dirt begins with her purchase of it, which begins with the U.S. entering the Second World War, which resulted in the organization of medical units that drained off male doctors everywhere, including at Passavant Hospital, where she worked. Their patients became hers. It was for the elderly, the medically disqualified, or the occasional woman doctor to accept the office records as they were dealt out by the departing colleagues who were distractedly making their wills, trying on their uniforms and reassuring their patients that they would be taken care of just as well, if not better, by somebody else.1 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Edith Farnsworth, Memoirs, Chapter 11, unpag.

What must it have been like, the men gone, inhabiting this sudden world of women: so much now available?

An abandoned farmhouse on fenced-in land that sloped down to the river.

We climbed the gate and walked down to the riverbank where we found the most delightful easy-chairs between the swelling roots of two immense black sugar maples whose shade was repeated and extended by the hackberries and lindens and the walnut trees grouped about us. In the water close to the shore, a milk white heron stood, motionless, at the foot of his rippling image.

I imagine that we^ both dreamed in the shade of the black sugar maples that night.2 Ibid.

^ Sue, she notes, was the wife of one of the younger surgeons who had left with his unit.
Chicago Tribune

Figure 2. Tribune Farm's Plan for 1936, Chicago Tribune, May 17, 1936.

The doctor purchased the land, an abandoned alfalfa pasture, in 1943, residing for a time (weekends) in the farmhouse, where a neighbor helped her install a stove, and plant a tree in the dooryard.

If you are reading her memoir, she will refer to it as the Fox River property, not as the house that bore her name, as history will insist on recording it. But the McCormick Reaper would always be called the McCormick Reaper, though the mechanical reaper was not invented by Cyrus McCormick; and his patent of the project depended upon the free labor of a slave, Jo Anderson, who lived with his father’s family, as well as two decades of work by his father, Robert McCormick, who had built a beta version of the implement that was unsuccessful.

The McCormick Reaper was not the first reaper. Nor was it the best reaper. Other, simpler, reapers had appeared centuries before, and were forgotten in the Dark Ages, before the name McCormick was made synonymous with agricultural innovation; which didn’t fully happen until McCormick was able to acquire rights to the cutter-bar mechanism of Obed Hussey’s reaper in 1850 and incorporate it into his own.

These are the histories that naming conventions can erase. And just because we have named something does not mean we have made it.3 Jonathan Hill, Weather Architecture (Routledge, 2012), 219.

By 1938, the architect who would design the house that is just beginning to rise behind this woman had changed his name to be more palatable to the affluent clientele he sought to attract. He came to the United States from Germany on the invitation of his first American client. Once he had crossed the ocean by ship, she invited him to fly with her to Jackson, Wyoming from New York, but he would insist on taking the train, meeting her days later, his white shirt now gray. This has been narrativized as evidence of his desire to understand a landscape that was new to him.

Perhaps, though, it has something to do with the architect’s well-documented preoccupation with death, which is a fear of both endings and beginnings, of both what is beneath the surface of the earth and behind the blue-tinted edge of the firmament.

This evening some thirty years later I came across the photograph of Mies evidently taken shortly before his death in 1972 in a London paper, the face of a man in the upper eighties ^

        ^ pitiless and hard as 
           he turned out to be, 
           but also defiant
           and fearful.
        ^ and I recall the
           affectionate concern
           with which we tried
           to shield him from the
           intolerable apprehension of his
           down extinction.4 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Edith Farnsworth, Memoirs, Chapter 11, unpag. 

They met in person once before they began taking trips to the site together, their first trip at so unfavorable a season, traversing frozen meadow grass and dormant brush.5 Ibid. In her memoir she writes that his arthritis prevented him from sitting directly on the ground, that he would perch on a stump. In an archive, I find the contrary, a photograph of them both on the ground, sitting as though sitting had not yet been invented, both of them awkward and at angles.

Duckett Farnsworth

Figure 3. Mies van der Rohe with office associates at Edith Farnsworth Residence Site, Plano, IL, 1945-1949. Pictured: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Felix Bonnet, Edward Duckett, Edith Farnsworth, and Edward Olencki. Duckett Collection, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago. Digital File #198602_160627-001.

Beneath them lie the remains of what will be referred to in trial transcripts as the last remaining untouched camping site of this East-West crossing of the Indian tribes in this area, a discovery that would go unnoticed until the county decided to widen the road, which would mean condemning over two acres the doctor’s land.6 Steven Pratt, “‘Glass House’ Owner Asks for New Hearing,” Chicago Tribune, Thursday, August 15, 1968. The doctor took the county to trial, arguing for the sudden cultural relevance of the site; there is real violence in ceasing to exist until you are reinvented.

     Q: “Is this camp site recognizable? Could I go down there and see it? What does it              look like?”
     A: “No.”
     Q: “Why not?”
     A: “It is under ground.”
     Q: “So, in order to see it, you would have to dig it up?”
     A: “That is right.”
    Q: “So, as of right now, you cannot point out this particular camp site?”
    A: “Yes, you can point it out as to where it is.”
    Q: “You say it is under ground, you cannot see it?”
    A: “Well, the litter is on the surface. Yes, I can show you in the plowed          fields.”7 Trial Transcript, The County of Kendall, a Body Politic and Corporate vs.       Richard F. Feeney, Mae C. Feeney, Edith B. Farnsworth, Emma Towne Buckley, Joann B. Hartley, Thomas N. Roth, Susan Buckley Roth, Warren Buckley, Et Al. (March 1, 1968), pg. 65

And later, in a notebook in which she practices poetry translations from Italian to English:

Who knows what lies below?
Too small are the holes made by my eyes
Through you.8 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Box 3 Folder 44 , Poetry Translations, Albino Pierro, “Who Knows” trans. Edith Farnsworth, undated.

What is not yet beneath them, not yet mingled with the remains of past inhabitants, are the systems that support the house’s riot against the ground—the black-painted cylinder through which electricity and water flowed in, through which all the shit flowed out; the trenches into which the shit continued to flow; the concrete foundations into which the delicate nibs of steel columns were set; the roots of things she planted, tangling up the white steel columns in that way that she tended everything that grew on the ground, cultivating it up until the glass house was, to him, furiously unrecognizable.

Forever not visible in these two photographs: the labor that makes escaping the ground possible.

Mies Farnsworth

Figure 4: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois. 1945. Watercolor and graphite on tracing paper, 13 x 25". Mies van der Rohe Archive, gift of the architect.


In the first watercolor sketch that is historically determined to be the origin of the house’s design, the house is shown effortlessly fighting gravity—a bubble. The ground from which it emerges is one straight graphite line. Four white vertical columns rise to frame an interior space behind glass, a space comprised of overlapping volumes and a view to the other side. Trees rise in the distance, trees without trunks, fed by an invisible river.

Or perhaps I have misunderstood this drawing, and the line that appears to be the ground is in fact the surface of the river: and the river is blank, reflecting the manila blankness of the sky. This would align better with the photograph of the house taken in 1950, during construction, with the water rising up to the floor level, the ground swallowed.

6 Floodedfarnsworth1950

Figure 5: Flooded frame of the Farnsworth House, 1950. Photograph printed by Hedrich Blessing in 1966.

The architect requested information from the Illinois State Water Survey concerning the highest flood stages of the Fox River, but was informed that such records were not kept and was advised to “interview old settlers in that vicinity.”9 Division of Waterways, State of Illinois, letter to Mies van der Rohe, 8 June 1945. Mies van der Rohe Archive, Museum of Modern Art. None of these conversations are recorded.

On her first night in the house, the river is back in its place, covered in ice. The phone rings. It is one of the neighbors calling. The neighbor can see her alone in the house. Remembering hearing that other voice forty years later and thousands of miles away, she would write it would have been easier to face the situation for which I was prepared: the raw house, the seamy flood-meadows, and the young moon over the black river.10 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Edith Farnsworth, Memoirs, Chapter 13, unpag. The woman on the phone inquires about the short distance between her house and the river. “You don’t know how quick the river can rise. Often I can’t sleep at night for fear it’s going to drown us all. Once it came up and flooded your barn so that the farmers could catch fish with a pitchfork.”11 Ibid.

This is years before the countersuit she files in response to the architect’s suit against her.

After several floods, the architect would explain under oath that though there was higher ground available on the property, he “proposed to Dr. Farnsworth to build close to the river where there were beautiful old trees. She was afraid that the river would go over the bank, but I still stuck to this place because I thought that [the problems could] be overcome in one way or the other.”12 van der Rohe v. Farnsworth, Trial Tr. at 316 This will be historically recorded as the architect’s careful understanding of the site’s hydrology.13 Robert Silman Associates, Flood Mitigation Options for the Farnsworth House, (Chicago, IL, 2014), 3. Accessed April 12, 2014. 

Perhaps this proximity to the river has nothing to do with modernism or domesticity. Perhaps this proximity to the river is a reckoning with death. An invitation to it. A call. And a flood, a reminder of death’s certainty: a sudden, thin graphite line, a crack between the ground and the sky.

There are many interpretations of the architect’s philosophy of the house embracing its natural context, of his brilliant comprehension of a site dedicated to the contemplation of nature and a silent dialogue with the world.14 Fritz Neumeyer, The Artless Word: Mies van der Rohe on the Building Art, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994), 50. Of the river he said very little, and of the site, the doctor records just one statement from him: I would think that here where everything is beautiful, and privacy is no issue, it would be a pity to erect an opaque wall between the outside and the inside. So I think we should build the house of steel and glass; in that way we’ll let the outside in.15 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Edith Farnsworth, Memoirs, Chapter 11, unpag.

Standing on the terrace of the house, it is impossible to ascertain the river. A witness in the second trial would argue that as the house is now situated, one looks from the porch off into what to the eye seems an indeterminate distance.16 Trial Transcript, The County of Kendall, a Body Politic and Corporate vs. Richard F. Feeney, Mae C. Feeney, Edith B. Farnsworth, Emma Towne Buckley, Joann B. Hartley, Thomas N. Roth, Susan Buckley Roth, Warren Buckley, Et Al. (March 1, 1968). The deposition of John Maxon, pg. 15.

The acknowledgement of this important feature of the house, to conjure the indeterminate, prompted theoretical speculation of the architect’s command over the production of infinite space, which is only a misreading if one thinks of the infinite as linear, rather than cyclical, a return.

This rich soil is glacial in origin. In centuries glaciers gave way to shallow, warm inland seas. Every river has a memory of this.

There are three ways in which floods are recorded: the year they occurred, the height to which they rose, and an estimate of their damage. Though increasingly prompted by human development, they are still considered acts of God. She did not believe in God, and perhaps for this reason, during her inhabitation of the house (1951-1971), we have only one record of any flood activity.

1950 – no record but one photograph
1954 – 2.8 m above the meadow / 1.2 m above the floor /
destroyed carpets and furniture
1996 – 3.1 m above the meadow / 1.5 m above the floor / cracking two glass walls and destroying wood-veneer, carpets, furniture and fittings
1997 – A couple inches above the main elevation
2007 or 2008 – .5 m above floor
2013 (March) – Terrace flooded
2013 (April) – Within inches of the reaching the interior of the house

Of this particular river, she wrote little. References to sailing are many: the father who would collect the family (a wife, two daughters, one unmentioned and beautiful son whose travel documents I find later among the doctor’s personal affects), into a steamboat that would pull away from the lumber village—a company town he owned—and toward business trips that had to be conducted on the water. There were the months she spent on the S.S. Berlin in her twenties, sailing back from Germany, where she had heard the sound^

^ barely identifiable, stupefying, of marching feet, blindly
marching feet carrying the world forward to another great
disaster.17 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Edith Farnsworth, Memoirs, Chapter 6, pg. 74. 

She spends weeks on the deck of the S.S. Berlin with a doctor named Elis Berven, listening to his description of the characteristic lesions of tuberculosis. She came to understand the dignity of faithful description, of concrete fact perfectly stated and decided to dedicate her life to this.18 Ibid, pg. 78.

Later came the necessary tending to corpses washed up on the beach.19 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Edith Farnsworth, Memoirs, Chapter 11, unpag.

Was he sleeping…?

Then he roused and stretched.
He surveyed the water languidly. A dart,
his body.
Then he left the earth.20 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Box 3 Folder 44, Poetry Translations, Penna, unlabeled fragment of poem, trans. Edith Farnsworth, undated.

And something must be said about the fact that her memoir begins with a book on each page [of which] appeared the picture of a famous vessel, complete with sails and rigging, sailors standing on the dock or climbing the masts, flags and pennants fluttering in a smart breeze. Each stupendous hull glided onward over immeasurable depths or cleaved the wild waves with her lofty prow, plunging into dark, sickening chasms under raging storms. You turn the page and there was a different one riding the ocean in some impressive kind of weather, her long bowsprit pointing toward danger, victory or shipwreck in the distance. If it was all too vast and terrible, you could turn the page again.

But there was one page which was so shocking that it had to be forestalled by learning the pages which went before and after, so that it could never unfurl its terror when you weren’t expecting it. That was the one which showed a sinking vessel in flames. You could see how it had keeled over, and the struggles of the drowning crew as they escaped from the garish flames into the dark eternal depths.21 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Edith Farnsworth, Box One, Blue Journal, unpag. 

The lawyers who are trying to determine who is at fault for the flooding of the house will question the distance between the house and the bridge over the river, trying to ascertain how distant the house is from this edge, and get nowhere with an expert witness who will argue that “it is by nature of the siting of the house that it is not immediately clear as to where the river actually is. It is very difficult for me to estimate the distance from the front steps of the house to the water’s edge.”22 Trial Transcript, The County of Kendall, a Body Politic and Corporate vs. Richard F. Feeney, Mae C. Feeney, Edith B. Farnsworth, Emma Towne Buckley, Joann B. Hartley, Thomas N. Roth, Susan Buckley Roth, Warren Buckley, Et Al. (March 1, 1968). The deposition of John Maxon, pg. 24.

The pleasure of drawing close to what had been remote, and becoming fond of what was distant, left me abruptly and completely, she writes.23 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Edith Farnsworth, Memoirs, Chapter 6, unpag.

7 Riverreflection

Figure 6. Photograph of Fox River, near Farnsworth House, in summer or early fall. Photographer unknown, presumed to be Dr. Edith B. Farnsworth. Printed by Gorman Child Photography, undated. Edith Farnsworth Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago. Midwest MS Farnsworth Box 1 Folder 13.

This portrait of the river is composed with the river’s surface as the horizon, a near-perfect mirror toward which the trees bend, their trunks and branches arcing low, touching a symmetrical forest, inverted and rippling, that grows toward a distant sky.

8 Riverice

Figure 7. Photograph of Fox River, near Farnsworth House, in winter or early spring. Photographer unknown, presumed to be Dr. Edith B. Farnsworth. Printed by Gorman Child Photography, undated. Edith Farnsworth Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago. Midwest MS Farnsworth Box 1 Folder 13.

And this portrait of the river is mostly a sky that glows gray, is black branches and only partly river, dark and frothing with ice.

There is no attribution to these two photographs—no names, no dates. Who photographed them and why is unknown. They are glossy, 8x10 professional black and white prints with large white borders.

Perhaps part of the miscalculation of the relationship between the house and the river is due to the house being built in a floodplain and the idea that, as scientists suggest, floodplains should not be thought of as adjacent to rivers, but as being rivers. And perhaps the architect knew this, but intended to submerge the house—as evidenced by the fact that he continued to build high-rises sixty miles away in Chicago, contributing to the paving over and expansion of the city, which increased the volume of water run-off, which caused the flood-levels to rise dramatically beginning in the 1950s. Perhaps everything he built was another stone contributing to raising the water line. Perhaps he dreamed of the ocean that carried him away from Germany, which was a convenient and cleansing territory to cross in 1938, distancing him from questions about his political affiliations, his wife.

Or maybe the soft, soft ground simply provided less resistance as he limped across it, arthritis already setting in, the body slipping the mind a subliminal message on the avoidance of pain.

By 2014, the house’s fate is in the hands of engineers, who produce a report that promises that damage to the house will be averted, that [t]he system is quite simple to understand and at times possesses a certain elegance. The system that is proposed will be such that damage to the house will be averted from every conceivable sort of malfunction of the components.24 Robert Silman Associates, Flood Mitigation Options for the Farnsworth House, (Chicago, IL, 2014). Accessed April 12, 2014.

Of the four options, this one was determined to be impossible:

  •  Allow the house to flood, or make it watertight

Instead, please See Existing Options:

  •  Elevate the house in place
  •  Relocate the house to high ground
  •  Apply a technology to elevate and then reset the house, employing a hydraulic or  mechanical system: pneumatics. Technical recommendations are provided by  experts in the field of hydraulics and house raising, and determined to be both f  feasible and reliable.25 Ibid.

In other words, to preserve the house includes the possibility of water and air run through machines to give the house its own tide in relation to the river’s.

The report does not question whether preservation is the right approach, what preservation means, how it is a death worse than the actual death of decay, which is not death, or death, which is not death, but an embrace of the translation from one form to another, from sensuality of the flesh to sensuality without the flesh ^

^ gold, liquid, and without form.26 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Box 2 Folder 39, Edith Farnsworth, forward to the unpublished manuscript “Fifteen Poets of the Twentieth Century,” undated. 

My cruel thirst, dearer you are to me
than all the sweet waters of the brooks.27 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Box 2 Folder 39, Poetry Translations, Gabrielle D’Annunzio, exertp from “Furit Aestus,” trans. Edith Farnsworth, undated. The strikes are Dr. Farnsworth’s editing of her own translation.


A glass shell that floats in the air.28 “A glass shell that floats in the air,” in House and Garden, February 1952.

Is it air that we fear?

Or do we fear what can survive within it, what doesn’t need or respond predictably to the ground?

This question became tangible one afternoon.

At this moment, the afternoon^ took on a different, a supernatural tint. The trees and meadows, as we saw them from our stone shelf, faded into a vision which we all saw and in the sky there floated a blush-pink celestial body like a pale pink moon, supremely large. We stared at one another and at the big pink heavenly body and at our altered world. “You don’t imagine that we might have slipped out of orbit, do you, after so many years in the same one?” suggested Mr. Dark, now quite subdued. The two horizontal planes of the unfinished building, floating over the meadow, were uncannily beautiful.29 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Edith Farnsworth, Memoirs, Chapter 13, unpag.

^ begun so unpromisingly

This would later be blamed on a Canadian forest fire; but imagine three adults circling a modern house under construction, believing they were experiencing an earthly slip of orbit in an age before men flew through space.

In a poem she translates, an inverse event: the sky collapses into the earth.

No higher than a hand’s breadth from the earth
is the sky to-day:
swollen, opaque and still, it closes in a dearth
of air the soul in shadow.30 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Box 3 Folder 46, Poetry Translations, Clemente Rebora, excerpt from “Lyric Fragments” “V The Infinite Finds Relief,” trans. Edith Farnsworth, undated. 

But the sky is only an illusion, sunlight scattered by gasses and particles of air. What surrounds the house and what fills it is not sky, but air. Breathing air into glass, as breathing air into water, produces a fragile body, renders form to expiration. A bubble is that which is animated by a living breath and turns to a living being, nefesh. 31 Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011), 36.

The glass walls of the house were not blown but slid into place, enclosing glass walls that are perhaps the circle the mind unconsciously draws around itself.

the mind, if it draws no images, ignores,
denies what it forgets.32 Newberry Library, Midwest MS Farnsworth, Box 2 Folder 39, Poetry Translations, Gabrielle D’Annunzio, excerpt from “Felicity,” trans. Edith Farnsworth, undated.

In that original watercolor drawing of the house produced by the architect, we take for granted that blank paper is air (which we ignore), and call it sky (which we invented). While land must be drawn, whatever is empty is our atmosphere, our sustenance, that which must fill and surround us; we, the bubbles

are made
of fleeting, secret things, of silences
and murmurs, airy33 Paul Goldberger interviews Lord Peter Palumbo, 2003.

When Dr. Farnsworth sold her glass house to Lord Peter Palumbo in 1972, he marked his possession of the house by swimming the Fox River, which in summer came only to waist-height. Palumbo would hire Lanning Roper to transform the landscape into something more akin to a meadow than retired farm land, and would install a sculpture collection on the grounds—48 works in all—from Floodstones, a site specific Andy Goldsworthy piece on the edge of the river, to a cupola from No. 1 Poultry Place, to a British call box designed by Gilbert Scott, to a piece of the Berlin wall. He would install a tennis court and swimming pool. In addition to these strange transformations of the grounds, he would spend millions recreating the house in the architect’s original vision: filling it with the architect’s furniture, and dwelling—most of the year—somewhere else.