Thursday, March 27, 2014


From our very early days as architecture students, we were forewarned, over and over, of the trying relationship with clients that in our upcoming careers were going to haunt us through thick and thin, till it was engraved in our system in considerable depth. We were taught to be on guard and we quickly learned that it was always better to have the welding goggles on before the blistering spark of the client-types moved into vision range and blinded us with their pushy ignorance in future. If I remember correctly, this hypnotic idea of the difficult artist-patron relationship was enamel washed on that said engraving in my mind with the notorious example of the complicated architect-client association that shaped one of the finest buildings in the history of architecture- the Farnsworth House, a weekend retreat build by the visionary architect Mies Van Der Rohe, one of the flag bearers of the so-called modernism in architecture. Back in college, spellbound at the sheer magic of that transparent masterpiece, it didn’t take much for me to take sides. Obviously the client guy must have been nuts to sue the architect for budget inflation or whatever! I couldn’t see how somebody be so ungrateful to an artist who made it happen for him to live inside a piece of art that the world so looked up to. Ignorant bastard! It was only some time later that I got to know that the crazy client was a woman named Edith Farnsworth, a doctor or something- the faceless villain figure that I prayed to ward off in my daily life from then on.
Years later, during a conversation with a fellow architect friend when the issue surrounding the Farnsworth house bobbed up again, I decided to look into the matter as a trained grown-up, still not necessarily impartial. There was a slight hint of an affair between the client and the architect that came up in the chat, which is what actually got the ball rolling. And then for the first time, I was face to face with the bitter countenance of the force of nature staring out of Google that once hounded the creative genius that built the legendary Farnsworth House. Before further expanding my feelings towards the enemy, let me confess with my right hand over my heart how oblivious I was to the actual series of events that occurred during the making of this architectural landmark and the plentiful hurting that took place in its pretext. Looking into the matter, the layers crafted by the collective thinking of the architectural cult slowly fell apart, and I could suddenly see the elements of solidarity blinders that actually vilified a fine lady of artistic upbringing into a monstrous hater of art by spreading the feeling in areas where the gossips dwelled abundantly. I learned a great deal about this remarkable scapegoat overnight. The bitterness on that face was after all only an initial misjudging of the gleam of intellect in those stern eyes.

Dr. Edith Farnsworth (1903-1978) actually turned out to be a woman of exceptional learning and intelligence with interests divided between science and art. Before pursuing a career in medicine, she studied literature and wrote poems, and a number of unpublished novels. She was also very proficient on the violin. At the time she approached Mies to build her the weekend house on her riverfront property in remote Plano, Illinois, she was a prominent nephrology specialist and an ardent enthusiast of the progressive design school the “New Bauhaus “  (now IIT). She was an admirer of all of Mies’ works and was absolutely in the know of her prospective dream home’s historic significance and the likely place it was going to enjoy in the face of contemporary American Architecture and the Modern Movement when he agreed to take up the project. She was a passionate and supportive client from the very beginning. Mies and Edith became good friends very quickly. They exchanged books and picnicked on the proposed site by the river. Even though it is widely assumed that they were romantically involved, it was never confirmed. Even in Dr. Farnsworth’s unpublished memoir where she later recounts those days in retrospect, there is no indication of a romantic liaison whatsoever. Although separated from his wife and children when he fled Germany nearly a decade ago, Mies was in a long-term relationship with the Chicago artist Lora Marx in those days.

The planning began in 1946, and when the model of the house was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York a year later, it was received with much acclaim. It took another two years for the construction to begin and when it did, the shit-bag hit the industrial blower. The cost of construction estimated for the 1500 sqft steel-and-glass house skyrocketed to almost double its initial projection with Mies’ unrelenting hunger to make it perfect. Differences began to arise between the two when Mies, in order to maintain a “clear span”, refused to provide in the house what Edith required, and when Edith, after moving in, brought with her an eclectic mixture of furniture challenging Mies’ wish to specifically design them. Situation got ugly when she refused to pay him for the remainder of the construction costs. Mies filed a lawsuit- a legal battle that was covered by both the professional and popular press. Edith countersued claiming the house to be “unlivable”. Even though Mies won, and she had to settle the remainder of the bills, he never visited the site again, and never accepted a residential commission ever again. She frequented the house on most weekends for the next twenty years but was not without further troubles. There were times when stepping out of the bathroom she was jumped by unassuming tourists and enthusiastic students who hopped the gates or paddled across the Fox river to admire the beauty of the building, taking she was not around. And despite the five feet height the floor of the house was raised to, occasional flooding still spoiled the curtains. But despite all that and more, like she claimed in the lawsuit, was the house really “unlivable”? Many believe it was only a legal argument to dissuade Mies from pursuing his claim, and that she personally did not consider it “unlivable”.

Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s dream for a perfect weekend did in fact come true, but only for a steep price. After all the hullabaloo of construction and the madness that the fame of the end product brought, her peace of life went down the tube! We have to assume that she did reclaim some of it in 1971 after she sold the house to an English Lord, Lord Peter Palumbo, and moved to Florence when she retired. She returned to Chicago only after her death in 1978 in an urn. Now knowing the actual details of the differences between the architect and the client, it finally seems a little difficult to take sides! I guess, that welding goggles occasionally blurs the vision. It might be challenging for somebody to always have his way around, yes? And in this case, let’s say, when two quarrel, both are to blame!

For those of you who are interested, the series of events behind the making of this internationally famous architectural marvel, and the trials and tribulations in the lives of people associated with it is the subject of a play by June Finfer called "The Glass House". Here, taking clues from Mies’ girlfriend Lora Marx’s enhanced drinking habits during the Farnsworth days, the playwright has even romantically expanded the meaning behind the bitterness of the separation between Mies and Edith; that it was not just a dispute over the construction of the house which made the eventual fallout painful for both.


A LITTLE HOUSE IN THE COUNTRY- The Farnsworth House by Donald von Fennig Wrobleski, The Chicago Literary Club, February 23, 2009

Saturday, March 1, 2014


In a time when unveiled bloodlust is often seen seething on those strained lines that separate religions in many parts of the world, what more can one ask for in the name of its happy coexistence other than an interpretation of one’s holy text by the other? This is about the Muslim retelling of the Hindu epic Ramayana! Ever heard of it? I was quite delighted when for the first time I got wind of this groundbreaking move made by mankind towards that highly volatile concept called religious harmony. In fact this is not a newfound version composed by some ‘peace-loving’ radical, but has been around for quite some time in the oral traditions of the folk ballads in Kerala.  It’s actually called the Mappila Lamayanam and roots from the vernacular culture of the Mappilas of Northern Malabar, and is assumed to have taken shape sometime in the early 20th century.

Mappilas are the largest community of indigenous Muslims in Kerala, which formed as a result of Arab trade that found way to the Malabar Coast as early as 7th century AD. Over time the rich Arab traditions with their Islamic principles blend with the ethnic Malayali ways, and that gave rise to an interesting upshot shaping the Mappila culture, very distinctive and rather elaborate in its practices, cuisine, clothing, literature, song, music and dance. Even the local language Malayalam mutated with an idiosyncratic vocabulary into its Mappila variant. Having lived harmoniously under a string of non-Muslim rulers over centuries, Mappilas evolved plentifully exposed to the indigenous customs, one of which happens to be the tradition of the month-long Ramayana recital in every Hindu-Malayalee household during the Karkidakam month of the Malayalam calendar. It has to be assumed that the main plotline of the epic was picked from here about a century ago by the allegedly demented Mappila hobo called Hassankutty- ‘the mad’ who went around reciting his own interpretation of the epic far and wide in the form of Mappilapattu, a kind of folk ballad of the Mappilas, known for its simplistic rendition and intelligent humor. This version of the Ramayana supposedly created by the wandering Mappila, Hassankutty- the ‘mad’ is what is known as the Mappila Lamayanam where the renowned Hindu epic is set inside a Muslim world! Apart from these facts that we know through word of mouth, there are no written records about the exact origin of this fascinating addition to the hundreds of different versions of Ramayana known today.

In the Mappila Lamayanam, the principle storyline remains intact while placed within the social fabric of the Mappila community, but a few syllabic alterations to the names of some central characters can be seen. Like for instance, Rama and Ravana becomes Lama and Lavana respectively, and Hanuman becomes Anuman to cite a few. Acting out the events in the established Ramyana plotline, the characters are integrally Mappila in culture. Various terms of Mappila kinship are used all through the narrative. Here Rama (Lama) is a sultan from the kingdom of Kosala, and while evading sexual advances from Lavana’s sister Shurpanakha, he invokes the Muslim law of Shari’at. Apart from the underlying irony of placing a Hindu epic in a Muslim world, as some scholars have pointed out, the work at times also seem to subtly take digs at ‘the alternate religion of people coexisting with them’.

Be it sarcasm or puns or ironies, humor is omnipresent throughout the work from Hanuman’s intrusion to Lanka while “Ravana gets his ten beards shaved” to the details of Shurpanakha dressing up to meet Rama “dying her scattered grey hairs with charcoal and honey”, and “greedily decking up with her late great aunt’s gold”. The description of scenes involving Ravan’s advances to a captive SIta and the spoiling of Lanka by Hanuman are all laced with clever humor.

However what is most amusing about the subsistence of this interesting version of Ramayana is not its unlikely wit, but rather the way it was received by the Hindus and Muslims at the time in good humor. Maybe it was fairly clear back then that it meant no disrespect to either of the parties. Or maybe it was just the way things were grasped back then. The tolerance level for each other’s faith must have been evaluated with more regard and insight than there is today. Our ancestors with open hands accepted a topic that to today’s touchy communal sensibilities sounds far more inflammatory than what lead to the Godhra train burning or the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Fortunately it’s that ‘live-and-let-live’ communal approach of our forefathers that popularized this spirited version of the epic poem that’s an absolute sketch of religious harmony.

Sadly except a one fifth part, the major body of the Mappila Lamayanam is lost. Even so, what has survived the test of time remains one of the finest examples of one’s respect and tolerance for a fellow human being and his faith. Not a big fan of moral stories, but here there’s certainly something to take home!
Also from the Ramayana series:
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