“It was all really controlled,” Nora Wendl described of her visits to the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illi., “but I'm a woman, so I'm used to that.” The house that Wendl—who is an architect, writer and artist—described is something of an enigma. Completed in 1951 by renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, the house is made entirely of glass and steel. To look at pictures of it, the metal joints fade away, and what you see is flat planes of glass bounding in the living space, upheaved on stilts, the structure bleeding into the forest, paralleling the Fox River, which runs just 100 ft. away.
There were many impediments to Wendl's explorations of the house—exorbitant fees for visiting, navigating intrusive guardianship of the space, difficulty in accessing documents and artifacts that speak to the truth of the house, the muddied accounts of the relationship between Farnsworth and the architect, and hidden somewhere beneath all this, the reality of Farnsworth's experience of the place. “Given all this difficulty, why did you still do it?” I asked Wendl. Her reply came immediately, “Because I'm pissed!”
And, when you consider the prevailing discussion around the house, the conventions around discussing architecture and the slanted canon of history, you can understand some of Wendl's fury. She first became engaged with the house during graduate school when a professor left a magazine article on her desk. It was titled, “Sex and Real Estate.” It was about the Farnsworth house, but the tack it took was to explore the disastrous events unfolding around the house through a lens that amplified the relationship between Farnsworth and Mies van der Rohe—claiming that they were lovers and the court battles that followed the construction of the house were the result of the deterioration of the romance.
“It was so inflated and so hyperbolically about this love affair,” Wendl said. “I looked through all the histories of the house, all the books that had been published—there's a reason to sell that narrative.” Those reasons being that the house was very poorly received after its construction (this was the '50s, coming into the era of McCarthyism, and Mies van der Rohe was German—it was even billed as a “threat to democracy”), and after the construction Mies van der Rohe sued Farnsworth for significant sums of money that she had never agreed to pay. She won the court case and Mies van der Rohe ended up looking “a little bit like a naïve diva.” The narrative of the house being reduced to a love affair gone wrong protects the legacy of the architect, pinning the responsibility for its sullied past on a scorned woman.
“I thought, if they could re-write the story, I can, too,” Wendl said. And so, for the past 12 years Wendl has been studying the house—visiting it, reading about it, examining Farnsworth's diaries, letters and archives, learning every detail she can about the woman who lived in the glass house. “As a feminist, as a historian, as an architect, how can I tell the history of the house? But not tell it in the mode of academic writing, which is a mode I've inherited from male academic scholars, but tell it in mode of women? … I thought, what if I tell a more intimate history of the house?” She asked. “If you assemble all the pieces and allow it to be complicated, there is more room for nuance, which is more like reality.”
As such, Wendl is authoring a forthcoming book that is many things—the history of the house and Farnsworth's experience of it, but also Wendl's own contact with the place and excavations of history. “I was writing these academic articles about the house, and what was behind them was the scaffolding of all of my experiences about how difficult it was to get information. … I was like, why am I making my own labor, my own struggle impossible? That's not helping tell the story of this person, and if I want to tell her story, I want to tell my story,” she explained, allowing that her own story provides a foil to Farnsworth's, and reveals something more that underlines both of their stories: “I think it is important to talk about the institutions of power that control knowledge, to call them out for what they are, to speak to the experience of someone trying to navigate them for the purpose of retelling history. And retelling history is hard because there's a lot of political momentum behind keeping a narrative a certain way.”
Wendl pushes that narrative into new territory not just through the book she is writing, but through an installation that opened on Jan. 26 in Central Features' (514 Central Ave. SW, Ste. 2) Venture Room, called I Listened for the Echoes of Your Voice. The installation uses sound captured during Wendl's last visit to the house, text from the poems Farnsworth translated herself from their original Italian, and images of Wendl in the house, to create an experience of the place for visitors far away from it. “I wanted to take that experience I had at the house and make that felt for somebody.”
To be in the house is itself, strange. “You can't hear anything—it's silent,” Wendl detailed. “You see the world but you can't hear it. It's glass, so its more reflective than it is transparent most of the day. … You're constantly seeing yourself. And then it gets dark and you have to close all the curtains because otherwise you're visible to everybody, and then you don't know what's happening outside. There's all these subtle experiential qualities that are very unsettling.” The metaphors abound and these qualities, perhaps, expose a gulf of experience and understanding that existed between the woman meant to live in a glass house, and the architect, a man. If more people can have their own experiences of the house, perhaps they can uncover their own narratives that exist outside of the established history. “Glass is really an impenetrable surface even though it appears transparent,” Wendl said. “That became a metaphor for me in this project.”
Gain your own experience of the Farnsworth House by visiting Central Features from Thursday to Saturday, 11am to 4pm to see I Listened for the Echoes of Your Voice, which is on display until March 10. Stay attuned to Wendl's ongoing work on the house, like an upcoming traveling exhibition, and the release of her book (“I keep joking that I want this to be the first architecture history book that someone reads in bed to their lover”) by visiting her online at norawendl.com.