Architecture and the Law (Or an Excuse to Talk About the Farnsworth House)

Although duty-bound to report on the Ark Group seminar on Legal Project Management held last week in Chicago (led by Stephen Levy of Lexician and Patrick Lamb of the Valorem Law Group) — which I will do shortly — I will instead first post a SLAW travel tip that will highly recommend a visit to the iconic Farnsworth House about 1 hour outside of Chicago in Plano, Illinois (and yes, if you bear with me, there are several law-related components to this travel story, if only slight).

To hear about or see pictures of the Farnsworth House does not do justice to the elegance and simplicity of the design by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (“Mies”, pronounced “meez”) that you get from an actual on-site visit and guided tour, that includes going inside the home.

Farnsworth House

The author in front of Farnsworth House, with iPad in tow

Among other things, Mies designed the TD Centre in Toronto (which I can see from my office window and which houses a number of large Canadian law firms – the first “law-related” component of this story). Known for a number of larger buildings designed in what was at the time a relatively unique modernist view of architecture, Mies undertook a commission to design the Farnsworth House from Dr. Edith Farnsworth, whom Mies had met at a dinner party.

During the close to 5 years of construction from 1945 through to 1951, it was suggested by our tour guide that Mies and Farnsworth developed a friendship that may have amounted to a romance but that when Mies was more interested in architecture than in Dr. Farnsworth, they started to fight, culminating in unpleasantness and a lawsuit filed by Dr. Farnsworth for a run-up of increased costs (in response to the saying by Mies that “less is more“, Dr. Farnsworth is reported as complaining that “Less is not more. Less is less.” As the story goes — and here is our second law-related aspect — Mies was careful to have had Dr. Farnsworth sign all change orders on the project, resulting in the lawsuit being settled on terms favourable to Mies (lesson: document everything).

Farnsworth House 2

Farnsworth House from the rear, showing kitchen

Dr. Farnsworth lived in the house for close to 20 years, apparently never entirely happy. In 1972, she sold the house to Baron Peter Palumbo who owned the house for the next 30 years, restoring the house to take into account the original intent of Mies for simplicity (by removing, for example, the screen windows that Dr. Farnsworth had installed to keep the bugs out and by asking a grandson of Mies, Dirk Lohan, to design furniture for the home that Mies never completed due to the breakdown of his relationship with Dr. Farnsworth).

Apparently, despite being a happy owner and careful steward of the property, Palumbo is alleged to have sold Farnsworth House in 2003 in part to settle allegations by some of his children that he was dissipating their inheritance, allegations that apparently have recently re-surfaced in a different context (thus, our next law-related component: minimize intergenerational family disputes through effective estate planning).

Tragically, the house has been damaged a number of times by severe floods from the nearby Fox River (since, although Mies designed the house with sufficient clearance for floods, urban and industrial development upriver in ensuing years caused the river to flood more extensively than Mies had anticipated – click here for some horrifying pictures of some recent flooding).

The Farnsworth House is currently owned and maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

As part of the tour, my Luddite tendencies were lessened somewhat by learning that Mies also designed Barcelona chairs, thereby establishing another minor law-related connection with Mies and the Farnsworth House: my firm has Barcelona chairs in the reception of our Toronto office:

Barcelona chairs

Finally — and without taking law-related connections to the breaking point — my family had a discussion on the bus ride home to Chicago on building our own version of the Farnsworth House, thereby raising the question of copyright in architectural plans: to what extent can a person use someone else’s architectural plans (i.e., the plans Mies used for the Farnsworth House) to create their own three-dimensional structure? Alas, the Canadian Copyright Act expressly provides for protection of architectural plans and works and an entry in the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest cites Hay v Saunders (1958), 30 CPR 81 (Ont HC) as authority for the notion that “An architect may have a copyright in the building plans as a literary work and in the design of the building as an artistic work when it is erected.” And although I don’t think it would be too practical to live in a glass house in a crowded residential Toronto neighbourhood, it appears there may be good legal reason to not attempt to recreate the Farnsworth House based on the plans created by Mies.

For more on architecture and the law:

  • The seminal Canadian text remains the following slightly dated treatise: Beverley M. McLachlin, Wilfred J. Wallace Q.C. & Arthur M. Grant, The Canadian Law of Architecture and Engineering, 2d ed (Toronto: Butterworths, 1994).
  • There are 88 hits on the truncated term << architect* >> in the Index to Canadian Legal Literature, many with a "construction law" component on the liability of architects
  • Farnsworth House is mentioned in three American law journal articles:
  • Janet Elizabeth Haws, "Architecture as Art? Not in my Neocolonial Neighborhood: A Case for Providing First Amendment Protection to Expressive Residential Architecture" (2005) BYU L Rev 1625
  • Adam T Mow, "Building with Style: Testing the Boundaries of the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act" (2004) Utah L Rev 853.
  • Elizabeth A Brainard, "Innovation and Imitation: Artistic Advance and the Legal Protection of Architectural Works" (1984) 70 Cornell L Rev 81.

While in Chicago, stay at the St. James Hotel, try an Italian meat sandwich at Mr. Beef, and enjoy a cold beer and Japanese “izakaya” snacks at Oysy River North. The Art Institute of Chicago was also a lot of fun.

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