September 11, 2020

Two Modern Masterpieces: Farnsworth House and The Glass House, Side by Side

Hands down, two of the greatest Modernist masterpieces (and two National Trust Historic Sites) are Farnsworth House and The Glass House. At the vanguard of modern design, these homes were built to further connect the living space with its broader environment.

With that in mind, it is unsurprising that photographer Robin Hill, whose work blends architecture and design with the natural world, found himself inspired by the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson for a special exhibition called Side by Side | Farnsworth House + The Philip Johnson Glass House. Using diptychs, Hill brings similarities and differences of each house together to bridge the geographic divide and create, in a sense, a dialogue between the two spaces.

While the exhibition is physically at Farnsworth House, we wanted to share some of the images from the show online with special insight from Hill, including musical and poetic references, about his work and approach to bringing these two Modernist marvels together.

Detail view at the furnishings inside the Farnsworth House and the Glass House for Side by Side.

photo by: Robin Hill

"On the left is the original Barcelona Day Bed designed by Mies van der Rohe that still sits at the Glass House. On the right is a much newer version at the Farnsworth House which replaced the original after a flood. I tried to replicate the same angle at each house and used the same wide-angle tilt shift lens to photograph the two pieces. Lying on the floor in both cases required a steady hand and a certain amount of jiu-jitsu to get into the necessary position."

Much of your work deals with architecture, design, and the idea of space, both public and private, and everything from Modernism to landscapes—building a sense of human connectivity with the world. With that in mind, what is the first thing you do when approaching a project like Side by Side?

Leafing through an old copy of Home Miami Magazine, I came across two articles written about the Glass House. One was written by Hilary Lewis (curator of this show!) and the other was by architecture critic, Paul Goldberger . Both articles addressed issues of historic preservation and referred to some of the differences and similarities between the Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House. The idea popped into my head that here was a ready-made photo exhibition that could compare and contrast these two Modernist masterpieces next to each other—Side by Side.

From the start I felt a strong urge to treat this as a visual ‘conversation’ between two glass houses and between two architects whose lives and careers helped shape today’s world. I also felt strongly that this presentation was more ‘cocktail party’ than ’university lecture,’ hence the photographs ‘talk’ to each other as in normal conversation as opposed to any scientific analysis.

I followed my instincts and saw the two houses as different songs from the same album of what Goethe calls "frozen music". One half was ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and the other was ‘The Boxer’—one soared and the other sat. One dreamed in white and the other contemplated in black. The Farnsworth [House] reaching the highest pitch of human emotion and the Glass House grounding us into the earth.

Both houses hold their own capacity to delight and inform. Their transparency cuts through the division between inside and outside and gives rise to an appreciation for nature. It is also this transparency that adds another layer to the art of photographing these houses. It is at once complex and simple requiring patience, compositional rigor, and creativity whilst at the same time requiring an appreciation for light, geometry, and materials.

It was also an exercise in examining the reflective qualities of glass on one side of the house and how that interacts with reflective qualities of glass on the other in both houses. Shot through a lens of glass, transparency became my keyword and guiding thought behind the process to create the show. Once the photographs had been created it was then a question of editing which photographs of one house would best fit with the other.

Interior view of Farnsworth House and the Glass House for the Side by Side exhibition

photo by: Robin Hill

"On the top, the wide expanse of the Farnsworth House entrance delineates inside from outside as if they are one. On the bottom a view of the inside of the Glass House featuring the round shaped cone that houses the bathroom on one side and a fireplace on the other. Both of these photos were created with a panoramic lens which I used to help express the horizontality of each dwelling."

How does your work with photography help you to connect people with the landscapes and structures? How do you approach framing/telling a story with the pictures you take?

In the case of this show (Side by Side) the photography is defined more from the absence of people rather than their inclusion. Like the spaces between the notes in a piece of music. Ordinarily when photographing architecture, I will include people to give both a sense of scale and an idea of how the space is used by people.

My approach is rather intuitive and flexible—which for an architectural photographer is quite unusual. I approach architecture not from an academic or intellectual point of view but from a visceral sense of how the architecture is talking to me. As an architecture buff and amateur sleuth of all things architectural, I try to find a fresh perspective that is decidedly NOT one of the renderings an architect will have made of how he/she wants their project to be depicted.

Interior view of Farnsworth House and the Glass House for the Side by Side exhibition

photo by: Robin Hill

"Both houses were photographed on cloudy overcast days, which [tied] in the two houses with a white sky. I intentionally used the frame of the houses to create tension between the two of them...a bit of sibling rivalry to joust up their differences."

Exterior shots of the stairs at both Farnsworth House and the Glass House for the exhibition Side by Side.

photo by: Robin Hill

"I used the stairs in each house to help accentuate their differences. The Farnsworth sits five feet above the ground, but the effect is of a floating house that deftly touches the ground. In contrast the Glass House is earth bound requiring a simple one-two step. I then photographed each house from opposite diagonals to help create some tension in the diptych."

As a visual storyteller, how would you define a sense of place?

Architecture has the power to engage all our senses and is therefore one of the most powerful ways to create a sense of place. If I were to mention the word 'Miami' to you, chances are that a visual cue would jump into your brain that quite probably features art deco hotels on Ocean Drive. That would be an example of a type of architecture that really helps to define a sense of place, the same as Antonio Gaudi's architecture helps to define the sense of place in Barcelona.

In my line of work I often find that it's the visual interpretation of architecture that helps to define a sense of place but the visual is not the only sense involved. The smell of a place, the touch of materials, the sounds of the city, and the taste of the food all add up to defining a sense of place. There's a great poem by the wonderful architect Marcel Breuer that sums up this notion:

Colors which you can hear with ears;
Sounds to see with eyes;
The void you touch with your elbows;
The taste of space on your tongue;
The fragrance of dimensions;
The juice of stone.

"Side by Side" opens at Farnsworth House on September 13, 2020, and continues through November 22.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.


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