Mies van der Rohes Farnsworth House
  • Kate Joyce
  • Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

Last Thursday evening, Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Farnsworth House in Plano was bathed in computer-controlled lights in intricate sequences and patterns. A team of artists called Luftwerk—namely, Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero—was previewing for the press its forthcoming installation INsite at the 2,400-square-foot home, a modernist glass box that used to be a secluded escape for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago nephrologist.

Getting to the home, which is set between woods and the Fox River a little less than 60 miles from Chicago, required a golf cart and a flashlight-wielding guide. But entering the clearing while INsite is running—as dot patterns, intersecting lines, and waves of light wash over the steel-and-concrete structure and reflect off the glass exterior—is a revelation.

“People need to see this kind of iconic architecture,” says Bachmaier. “This project helps them engage in a new way and appreciate why it’s a great landmark.”

INsite consists of a loop of light patterns projected onto the surface of the home, accompanied by live music from Owen Clayton Condon, whose xylophone playing was pitch-perfect during the preview. Guests are free to tour the grounds and even walk inside the home during the performance, as illumination passes across vintage furniture. While the lights are transfixing, as moving shapes draw your gaze across van der Rohe’s creation, there’s a narrative behind the show, according to Bachmaier. The rectangle-within-a-rectangle shapes play off the outline of the home, and a series of abstract forms are created by refracting light through water, a reference to the nearby river; colored figures recall a since-removed tree that used to be on site.

Mies van der Rohe built the glass-walled, minimalist home between 1945 and 1951 and it’s come to be regarded as emblematic of modernist architecture. Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin called the home a masterpiece, praising its “brilliant juxtaposition” with the surrounding trees and river. That mirrors Mies’s take on his own work: “When you see nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it gets a deeper meaning than outside. More is asked from nature, because it becomes part of the larger whole.” Luftwerk’s installation heightens and exaggerates the forms at play, using lights and the blank canvas of nightfall to draw attention to the home’s shapes and profile.

Luftwerk had been investigating the possibility of putting on this performance for a few years, after staging a successful installation at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in 2011. They got the blessing of Maurice Drue Parrish, the executive director of the Farnsworth House, and moved ahead in January, running a successful Kickstarter in April to fund the project in May. While some early supporters already hold tickets to tour the installation, others are available online.

INsite runs October 17 through 20.