Alas, Plato!


Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. Photograph taken by Zbigniew Bzdak for the Chicago Tribune.

We came across this photo a few weeks ago, and it got us talking once again (we’d never really stopped) about how one of the architectural pearls we most love, by one of the architects we most admire, is so often flooded when the river running alongside it rises.

The house is slightly raised above ground level to protect it from flooding, and that objective is almost always achieved, but sometimes the water rises higher than was expected and enters the inner sanctum, ruining furniture, flooring, curtains, and carpets.

In the photograph we can see how the amount of water makes it impossible to enter or leave the house except by boat, but the interior seems not to have been affected too much. The problem isn’t the flooding (the water level will recede), but the filthiness of the roof. That really is unforgiveable.

Mies van der Rohe waged an epic battle with Plato, and for a while seemed to be winning. The Greek philosopher had said that anything in this real world is no more than a pallid reflection of an idea, and that it’s impossible for us to create anything tangible and specific which possesses the unattainable perfection of our intuitions and desires. The architect’s response was to defy Plato, the gods and matter itself by proposing something quite simple, and yet perfect: a simple parallelepiped – unadorned, guileless, straightforward, unexciting, but absolutely irreproachable. This approach was not in the least motivated by a sense of modesty. Quite the contrary, it reflected a determination to be more than a human being, more than a body made up of flesh and bones, more than a mere mortal. It was a yearning to be angel-like, a devilish act of defiance against the gods. (What could the complaints of a customer or a builder matter in the face of such arrogance?)

Without going to such obsessive, superhuman extremes, those of us who talk about and try to create architecture often fool ourselves into thinking that architecture can ever produce a clean, honest, purely expressed space. That’s a wasted effort, an effort always, predictably, doomed to failure.

Our hearts sank when we first saw the deplorable, grubby guttering of the Farnsworth House. But now, looking at that disgusting, grimy roof with its stained, patchy beams, we wonder whether Mies van der Rohe’s bid for perfection was worth the effort, or if it was all boorish poppycock, a clamorous descent into withering disgrace.

If the work of this colossal architect succumbed so grotesquely to disaster, what will happen to our own feeble efforts? Evidently all is lost before we even start, and it’s a mistake to think that architecture has such a sublime dimension. Instead, we should be aware (and I think nearly all of us already are) that the most we can aspire to is to work honestly, to create imperfect buildings which despite their imperfection can still help us to lead comfortable lives, and to be absolutely sure that both we and our works are destined for cruel entropy, imperfection, defeat, death and oblivion – but also for the day-to-day contentment (or at least consolation) of triviality.

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Soy arquitecto desde 1985, y desde entonces vengo ejerciendo la profesión liberal. Arquitecto “con los pies en el suelo” y con mucha obra “normal” y “sensata” a sus espaldas. Además de la arquitectura me entusiasma la literatura. Acabo de publicar un libro, Necrotectónicas, que consta de veintitrés relatos sobre las muertes de veintitrés arquitectos ilustres.

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