“Curtained Walls”

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In 1985, Arthur Drexler, then Director of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), approached the architectural photography firm of Hedrich Blessing to commission new photographs of the Farnsworth House for an upcoming retrospective exhibition about the building’s architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Drexler explained that the original photographs, created by Hedrich Blessing as the Farnsworth House neared completion in 1951, featured the curtains too prominently—especially because in some instances they prevented views through the corners of the residence. Even after it was revealed that Mies had actually attended the 1951 shoot and had therefore presumably given his approval for portraying the building in this manner, Drexler insisted. According to Jon Miller, the Hedrich Blessing photographer who eventually produced the new pictures, Drexler was “not as concerned with the history of the matter as he was with capturing on film that transparent effect that is so much about Modernist architecture.”[1] Indeed, in a letter to Dirk Lohan, Mies’ grandson and a respected Chicago-based architect in his own right, Drexler described the stakes of photographing the Farnsworth House anew in the strongest possible terms:

Since the house now has curtains they must be positioned to leave the glass as clear as possible. Pictures which have solid curtains at the entrance corner misrepresent both Mies’ intentions and the reality of the house. For the Museum’s purposes they are worse than useless…I have to explain—although I think you already understand—that getting the right photographs has become something of a crusade. I don’t know how to explain to the world the misleading photos we would be forced to use.[2]

“Curtained Walls” concerns itself with “the history of the matter.” The study considers themes of enclosure and openness in the Farnsworth House’s photographic history by exploring the inclusion of curtains in pictures of the building over time as well as the exclusion of the screened porch in those same images. Why is it important that the Farnsworth House was photographed in a specific way in 1951, and why were images created with Mies’ blessing considered too opaque for expressing his vision in 1985? What happened in the intervening 34 years to encourage a discourse on this building that privileged “that transparent effect?” And did the 1985 re-photography project clarify the significance of Mies’ architecture or make other potential themes less visible? This study ultimately suggests that disentangling the connected histories of the 1951 and 1985 Farnsworth House pictures complicates our appreciation of a building famous for its minimalism and exposes the role architectural imagery can play in the development of narrative resilience.

. . .


Introduction notes

[1] Tony Hiss and Chicago Historical Society, Building Images: Seventy Years of Photography at Hedrich Blessing (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000), 39.
[2] Arthur Drexler to Dirk Lohan, 25 September 1985. “Mies van der Rohe Centennial Exhibition February 10-April 15, 1986. Misc. Correspondence” Folder, Curatorial File #1415, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York City, NY.

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Dreller, Sarah M. “Curtained Walls: Architectural Photography, the Farnsworth House, and the Opaque Discourse of Transparency.” ARRIS: The Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians 26 (2015): 22-39.


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“Award $14,467 to Architect of Glass House.” Chicago Daily Tribune. (June 9, 1953): 20.

“Charges Famed Architect with Fraud, Deceit.” Chicago Daily Tribune (October 30, 1951): A5.

Dreller, Sarah M. “Curtained Walls: Architectural Photography, the Farnsworth House, and the Opaque Discourse of Transparency.” ARRIS: The Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians 26 (2015): 22-39.

Dunlap, David. “House Proud: Personal Visions.” The New York Times (June 24, 1999).

Fitch, James Marston. “Mies van der Rohe and the Platonic Verities,” in Four Great Makers of Modern Architecture: Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Wright; The Verbatim Record of a Symposium Held at the School of Architecture, Columbia University, March-May, 1961. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970. This is an unabridged republication of the first edition, published by Columbia University in 1963.

Gordon, Elizabeth. “The Threat to the Next America.” House Beautiful 95 (April 1953): 126-30.

“Edith Farnsworth House, 14520 River Road, Plano, Kendall County, IL,” Survey number: HABS IL-1105. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Hitchcock, Henry-Russell. Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1958.

Johnson, Philip. “House at New Canaan, Connecticut.” Architectural Review 108:645 (September 1950): 152-59.

“Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth house in Fox River, Ill.” Architectural Forum 95:4 (October 1951): 156-161.

Summers, Gene. Interview by Pauline A. Saliga, 7-8 October 1987, compiled c.1993 under the auspices of the Chicago Architects Oral History Project. Department of Architecture, The Art Institute of Chicago.


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