September 16, 2013

New Farnsworth House Director Maurice Drue Parrish on Experiencing Modernism

Exterior view of new Farnsworth House

Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois

Maurice Drue Parrish recently joined as the new director of the Farnsworth House, a National Trust site in Plano, Illinois -- and one of the most iconic expressions of modern architecture.

Parrish was born in Chicago and grew up just miles from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology campus. He studied architecture at University of Pennsylvania and Yale University, before entering arts and museum administration. This summer, he found himself in charge of another Mies van der Rohe design: the Farnsworth House.

He has important visions for the house museum, including protecting the house from recurring flooding. Now, he's here to share his appreciation for modernism, the unique challenges of a modern house museum, and why visiting the site means a personal experience with art.

What makes the Farnsworth House so iconic of modern architecture?

For anyone who studies architecture, the Farnsworth House is an iconic design that immediately captures your attention. For me what makes it iconic is that it intellectually poses the question: in using that particular style, how far could you reduce the materials and still create an aesthetically pleasing space? The single family dwelling is one of the most difficult challenges in architectural design. Mies van der Rohe showed his genius in being able to answer that question more successfully than anyone had been able to do before.

Left: Maurice Drue Parrish. Right: The Mies van der Rohe-designed S.R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

photo by: 1001nights, Flickr

Left: Maurice Drue Parrish. Right: The Mies van der Rohe-designed S.R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

You have a strong education and background in architecture -- what attracted you to it?

I was born and grew up in Chicago, and there’s so much great architecture in the city. There, it’s part of general conversation. So I became interested in architecture from a very young age. I traveled around the city and certainly passed by IIT and a number of other significant architectural expressions. I learned that the IIT campus was designed by Mies van der Rohe because people told me that it was designed by Mies van der Rohe, even people who had no background in architecture. Like I said, it was part of the normal conversation.

The interest I had was focused on how architecture -- how the built environment -- could influence people and their lives. I enjoyed looking at buildings, I enjoyed going to the buildings, and watching all the different ways people enjoyed them. That was the fascination for me.

Do you have a favorite style of architecture?

When I worked in an art museum, people would always ask me if I had a favorite style of art. My answer was that, being surrounded by so many different styles of art, I have the ability to like it all and find something to appreciate in all art -- the same goes for architecture. I try to understand and appreciate every different style of architecture that I encounter. Certainly modernism has had much more of an impact on the world of architecture than just about any other single style.

How about architects that you admire?

Certainly Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. I also admire Louis I. Kahn as one of the great form-givers when it comes to architecture. And then there are the postmodernists who, when modernism became mature, decided that there’s a way of reimagining some of its tenets and using historical forms to link back to some of the earlier styles and bring them forward. Michael Graves is one who comes to mind but there are, especially right now, so many people doing so much good work that it would be unfair to single out anyone.

Chicago overview

photo by: Kmf164, Wikimedia Commons

Chicago, Parrish's hometown, boasts significant works of architecture.

So why love modernism?

There’s an honesty that comes through with good modernist design. In expressing the structure, expressing the materials, and being clear about the spatial forms, there’s a clarity to the design that’s different from the styles that preceded it. Some people would argue that previously, designers, in using decorative styles, did not have to be as thoughtful about the spaces they were creating with their buildings. But with modernism, the nature of the space is clearly expressed with minimal use of materials. It's reducing design to the essentials and still being able to create wonderful buildings.

Tell us about Farnsworth House and why it’s a unique kind of house museum.

It’s a special kind of house museum in that we focus on the house itself: the design of the house and the stories that it can tell, as opposed to other types of house museums that are just as important but tell stories that focus not on their design but on the particular events or people that they are associated with.

We still have the challenge of describing the relationship of the Farnsworth House to the rest of the built environment, to the rest of the experience of human creativity, and of making those stories engaging in ways that interest and attract visitors. We can’t simply fix the Farnsworth House in time, as in it was done at that time, and let that be the only story.

Exterior view of Farnsworth House

photo by: Stephen Clark

Visitors at the Farnsworth House.

What visions do you have for the Farnsworth House?

What we’re looking at now is how can we describe more types of relationships that the Farnsworth House has with the world. There’s the story of its architecture and aesthetics, the relationship between the building and its site, the relationship between Mies van der Rohe and his client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, that’s interesting as well. There’s the relationship of modernism in architecture to the other arts that were changing during the same time period, and there’s the relationship of modernism to architecture that preceded it and styles that came after it. How do we engage people in thoughtful discussions on all of those various relationships and, beyond that, how do we keep finding ways to express the continuing relevance of the Farnsworth House to people’s lives and the world?

There are any number of things that any individual can learn when they engage with a work of art. What we want to do is facilitate that engagement without dictating what the outcome needs to be. It’s personal. That’s what we want to stress: it’s a personal experience.

Most of our visitors already know about Mies van der Rohe and have an idea of what to expect but it’s not at all unusual for people, once they are actually on the site and looking at the building, to get a sense that it’s much more than what they expected. There’s no way that any number of photographs, models, or other people telling you about a work of art can really compete with that personal, authentic relationship when you encounter the actual work of art. And that’s what happens everyday here at the Farnsworth House. People have that type of emotional engagement with a great, iconic building.

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