House in a Bag?

A giant Ziploc is but one proposed protection against the flooding that plagues Farnsworth House, the glorious landmark by Mies. But are floods yet another natural disaster we just can’t outwit?

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The Fox River was still rising, so Whitney French pulled on her fireman’s boots and sprang into action. French is the site director of Farnsworth House, the architectural shrine in Plano, and she was moving “flood remediation tools,” decidedly low-tech items such as milk crates, duct tape, and two-by-sixes, to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s crystalline glass structure.

Just last spring, French had practiced the same drill after a broken dam in Aurora threatened high water that didn’t come. This time, the downpour of Saturday, September 13th, caused the river near Plano in Kendall County to overflow. By that afternoon, French was scurrying around the landmark as water surrounded the house. A groundskeeper came to her rescue in a boat, but not before French got two dozen pieces of museum-quality furniture raised on crates, out of harm’s way. Then 18 inches of murky river came rushing inside.

Many local residents fought similar battles that weekend. A minimum of 2,500 homes were flooded by the Fox and other rivers in the metro area, according to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Experts point to increased amounts of rain, but nature is only partly to blame. Increased development has led to more pavement and less soil, which, in turn, has caused swift runoff in watersheds along the Fox River in Kane and Kendall counties in particular. Now the problem is worsening along the Des Plaines and Chicago rivers.

Starting with the big flood of 1996, when Farnsworth took in more than five full feet of water, floods have hit the Chicago region with more frequency and widespread impact. Most homeowners can do only so much: Some clear their basements; others buy canoes. But Farnsworth House is different from a tract house in Kane County or a bungalow along the Chicago River. The 57-year-old house, which the New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger recently called the “ultimate expression of architectural genius,” was built to resist high water. By design, it sits on five-foot pylons, partially to render its otherworldly, gravity-defying appearance. But more to Mies’s quintessentially rational point: pylons, steel frame, and travertine pavements were intended to resist even the highest “100-year” floods, which Mies guessed would never rise higher than the raised floor.

Illustration by Mario Wagner

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