This past Saturday, I fired up the 'rolla and took a long, meandering drive through some handsome corn fields out to Plano, Illinois, to see the Farnsworth House by Mies Van der Rohe. One might consider it a sort of pilgrimage -- Virginia Tech's school of architecture was grounded in the Bauhaus tradition, the pioneering German modernists who found a home in Chicago after fleeing Nazi persecution. The modernists in general, and Bauhaus in specific, have been the subject of much criticism and revisionist history. However, for all its faults, the Farnsworth House is a master lesson in the origins of modern design, a building that dragged architecture, kicking and screaming, into the post-war era.
Parked up by the visitor's center was Virginia Tech's winning entry in the Solar Decathlon, the LumenHaus. This portable, solar-powered prototype has been a on a victory lap all over the world, stopping in Madrid, New York, Blacksburg, Chicago, and Plano. The juxtaposition of LumenHaus with the Farnsworth was jarring: as proud as I am of my alma matter, the little house was a riot of colors, materials, and flat-screen televisions. Every system was automated so that the whole thing could be controlled with an iPad. This stood in stark contrast to the Farnsworth house, with simple radiant-floor heating, no a/c, no tv, and no internet. Our tour guide cracked a joke, although he didn't laugh: I mean, do I need to reboot the whole damn house every time the toilet clogs? He had a point, given the rapid obsolescence of technology, the bugs inherent in every software program, and the difficulty of upgrading built-in systems. By automating everything, you become a passive prisoner in an active house instead of an active participant in a passive house.