Translator’s Introduction by Keith Harris

hortly after the completion of what will be one of Mies van der Rohe’s most famous American projects – the Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois – a local plumber visits the house to work on a recurrent leak. I confess, I’m probably not the most qualified person to be writing an introduction to Paul B. Preciado’s work: I am a white, heterosexual, married, cis-gender father…with multiple engineering degrees, even. But I did translate this article – and I did it because I wanted to share how Preciado, who has traversed the territory from identifying as a lesbian to becoming transgender man, thought about space and queer theory. In late 2016, I was preparing to teach a junior level colloquium in the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) department at the University of Washington, and I was exploring resources at this intersection, mostly reading work by urban planning theorists and geographers, such as Petra Doan, Larry Knopp, Michael Brown, and Natalie Oswin, among others. But Preciado’s name was lodged in my head, ever since a friend who was working at my local grocery co-op had mentioned it to me a year or two earlier (we had bonded over various critical theory authors after she caught me carrying a copy of Eugene Holland’s Nomad Citizenship (2012) through her line). A subsequent search introduced me to Preciado’s Testo Junkie (2013), which is an account of his experiments with taking testosterone outside of a prescribed medical regimen – that is, recreationally, or aesthetically, like Walter Benjamin’s experiments with hashish or Sigmund Freud using cocaine. As McKenzie Wark writes in General Intellects, Preciado’s work was “a protocol for experiment not sanctioned by the state or the professions, and to be understood more as the construction of situations in everyday life” (Wark 2017, Chapter 15).

Wark’s invocation of Situationists here is revealing, for what is Preciado’s experiment with testosterone other than the détournement of endocrinology, pharmacology, research, and even the notion of the body? Showing their Foucaultian roots, Preciado considers the body to be “a living political archive” that is explicitly linked to space and technology – an archive that is “connected to the history of the city, the history of design, technologies, and goes back to the invention of agriculture” (Tucker 2013). But going beyond Foucault, Preciado’s experimentation with their body supersedes practice and reaches the biochemical stratum. Similarly, Preciado’s other books – Pornotopia: an essay on Playboy's architecture and biopolitics (2014) and Countersexual Manifesto (2018) – reinforce this approach to scholarship. In the Manifesto, which was first published in French in 2000, and then revised for publication in Spanish in 2002, Preciado critiques Foucault and others for not taking their historical accounts of the emergence of normative heterosexuality far enough; instead, the countersexual field is re-envisioned as one of endless experimentation, play, and a new technics that Preciado calls “dildonics.” Then, in Pornotopia, Preciado – who studied philosophy with Ágnes Heller and Jacques Derrida at The New School before earning a Ph.D. in architectural theory at Princeton – explores the ways in which the rise of Playboy reconfigured the relationship between gender, sex, and architecture in the mid-twentieth century. Finally, I recently made a discovery that hit close to some of my other translation work on the constellation of authors and researchers around Félix Guattari who wrote about urban issues in Recherches from 1966-1983: the infamous issue 12, Trois milliards de pervers (Three Billion Perverts), which was published in March 1973, seized by the French government for indecency, and landed Guattari in court, was edited by Guy Hocquenghem, “a former Revolutionary Communist Youth militant, homosexual activist, and founder of the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action” (Dosse, 2010: 273). In 2009, the Spanish publisher Melusina published a translation of Hocquenghem’s book, Le Désir Homosexuel, which was accompanied by “Anal Terror,” an epilogue by Preciado that gestures toward a radical, de-genitalized posthuman sexual democracy. Imagine my surprise, then, as someone who does not typically work at these intersections, when I realized that a search through Environment and Planning D’s archive did not return even one reference to Preciado. A minoritarian thinker indeed, to invoke Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) term, but that is even more of a reason to pay attention to a compelling and original voice steeped in the continental philosophy and radical politics to which so many critical spatial thinkers are committed.

The “Mi(e)s-conception” essay was originally published in 2000, so it is undoubtedly an example of Preciado’s earlier work, but at the same time, it can also be read as the beginning of his trajectory toward more developed thinking on gender, sex, and the built environment, as evidenced in Pornotopia. The question, for geographers and other spatially-oriented thinkers, is How can this corpus of work be productively adapted to their research? The return to the body as a site for unsanctioned experimentation certainly seems like one path, while the specific focus on architecture might be another reminder – and this comes from my own research program – to think about the productive role of aesthetics in our ongoing critical interrogations of the production of space. At best, this essay will inspire researchers, artists, and activists to further explore a thinker who Wark has placed among the “general intellects” – that is, their version of the contemporary public intellectual – of the twenty-first century. At less-than-best, this translation makes a work already available in the original Spanish and a French translation in Multitudes, available for a wider audience. So let’s start there and see where it leads us.


Deleuze G and Guattari F (1987) A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Massumi B. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Dosse F (2010) Intersecting Lives, trans. Glassman D. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hocquenghem G (2009). El deseo homosexual, trans. Huard de la Marre G. Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain: Melusina.
Holland E (2012) Nomad Citizenship: Free-Market Communism and the Slow-Motion General Strike. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Preciado PB (2013) Testo Junkie. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY.
Preciado PB (2014) Pornotopia: an essay on Playboy's architecture and biopolitics. Brooklyn: Zone Books.
Preciado PB (2018) Countersexual Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press.
Tucker R (2013) “Pharmacopornography: An Interview with Beatriz Preciado.” The Paris Review. Available here.
Wark M (2017) Chapter 15. Paul B. Preciado: The Pharmo-Porno Body Politic. General Intellects [e-book]. New York: Verso.

Mi(e)s-conception: The Farnsworth House and the mystery of the transparent closet

Paul B. Preciado. Translated by Keith Harris


hortly after the completion of what will be one of Mies van der Rohe’s most famous American projects – the Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois – a local plumber visits the house to work on a recurrent leak. Surprised by the power failures and the water that beads up on the interior faces of the glass walls, the plumber calls the house a “mies-conception” (Farnsworth, n.d.), opening the door to all the names that will appear in English regarding the perverse homophony between Mies and “mis-.”

The first domestic “glass box” in the history of architecture, and the first of his Mies-conceptions, also produces a continuous discursive leak: the disagreement between Mies and Edith Farnsworth becomes subject to public opinion in July, 1951, when Mies begins the judicial process against his client, demanding payment for the cost of the house ($3,673.09 plus fees for architectural and supervisory services). In response, Farnsworth signs a counter offer that accuses Mies of fraud. At the same time, American architecture magazines participate in the litigation by opening a public debate over the right of European modernism to conquer the house of the American countryside.

Half a century later, my intervention into this debate is no more than a posthumous work of discursive leaking.[1] As in a noir story, this essay’s first hunch appears in the form of a suspicion. The different texts interpreting the Farnsworth House (as much in popular culture as in history or in modern architectural theory) seem to be supported by a double contradiction: first, the opposition between an aesthetic of transparency and display that seems to emanate from the tectonic qualities of the Farnsworth house, and the opacity of the discourses generated around the house and the owner, Edith Farnsworth; second, the narrative tension between the urgency with which the glass house is identified as the product of a heterosexual romance between Mies and Farnsworth, and the unanimity with which these accounts recognize the lack of evidence of this relationship. Perhaps the case of the Farnsworth House responds to the trope of the perfect crime: there is no better secret than that which hides behind the transparency of glass. But what was the secret of the Farnsworth house? Who was Edith Farnsworth, really? The old maid that would have wanted “the architect to come with the house” (Cohen, 1996: 93) or the successful doctor, with a cold and calculating mind that pushed Mies up to the limits of his own ring of glass and steel?

The first clue seems to suggest that both the architectonic description of the Farnsworth House, as well the arguments of the American critique of European modernism and the narration of the relationship between Mies and Farnsworth, would be able respond to the same rhetoric: the story of “coming out.” In April, 1951, the American architecture magazine House Beautiful began a campaign against Mies van der Rohe and the International Style, taking the Farnsworth House as a paradigmatic example of “bad modern architecture.” Far from a description of the errors of modern architecture, the editorial of the magazine is a first-person narration: “I have decided to speak up” (Gordon, 1953: 126). The narrative voice of Elizabeth Gordon, driven by the performative force that has the power to produce the truth, moves step by step through the rhetoric of confession that characterizes “coming out” stories. But without Gordon herself being the person concerned, the confession is transformed into an “outing,” a public denunciation that has to be confirmed later by Edith Farnsworth herself:

What I want to tell you about has never been put into print by us or any other publication, to my knowledge. Your first reactions will be amazement, disbelief, and shock. You will say, “It can’t happen here! But hear me out. You may discover why you strongly dislike some of the so-called modern things you see. You may suddenly understand why you instinctively reject designs that are called ‘modernistic.’ For you are right. It’s your common sense speaking. For these things are bad – bad in more ways than in their lack of beauty alone (Gordon, 1953: 126).

Modernism, considered as a new visual regime and as a transformation of the limits of privacy, is described by Gordon as a “cultural dictatorship” that tries to “tell us what we should like and how we should live” (Gordon, 1953: 126). In the corner of a page, House Beautiful offers the reader a table of characteristics that will permit them to recognize “bad modern architecture.” In parentheses the table warns: “remember some of first seven [characteristics] may occur in good modern architecture” (Gordon, 1953: 129). The tight margin between acceptable and unacceptable modernism seems to depend on the step from the “elimination of partition walls so that a house tends to be one public room with open areas for sleeping, eating, playing, etc.” to the “maximum use of glass without any corrective devices for shade or privacy” (Gordon, 1953: 129). Modernist architecture entails, as Gordon suggests, an excessive “outing” that necessitates “corrective mechanisms” to become social.

The use of the rhetoric of “coming out” in the pages House Beautiful is by no means exceptional if we consider that the American public discourse of the 1950s is the space of emergency of this performative formula.[2] The disciplinary practices of secrets and confessions of “sexual truths” (that Foucault would bring forward in his analysis of parrhesia, exomologesis, and exagoreusis)[3] find their model in modern production in the call for a “code of honesty” during World War II, and its institutional formalization during the Cold War. The mobilization of forces had led men and women as far as the spaces of sexual segregation of the barracks of war, far from the domestic structures of the family and traditional society (cf. D’Emilio and Freedman, 1988).

In 1941, the Army and the Selective Service System included, for the first time, the specification of  “homosexual proclivities” in the list of “disqualifying deviations” (Kaiser, 1997: 29). The verification of these “deviations” is a double procedure, both visual and linguistic; it is an unfolding that reproduces the complicity of technologies of imaging and technologies of reason in the modern production of sexual truth (Katz, 2007). First, it required a genital exam and/or an x-ray with the objective of confirming the existence of internal feminine or masculine organs. Second, for the first time, the army included the demand for a signed declaration in which the recruit admitted the “truth” of their sexual identity. The duty to respond in the affirmative or negative to the question, “are you homosexual?” creates a radically new condition of speaking in the space of public American discourse. The contradiction between the practical impossibility of the phrase, “Yes, I am homosexual,” and the institutional possibility of being registered as such, produced the “homosexual” as a subject (although paradoxical) of public speech in North America for the first time.

Outing as a strategy of forming limits was central in the process of the reconstructing the postwar American identity.[4] The “Fight for America” campaign – directed by Senator Joseph McCarthy – began as a hunt for communists and ended being converted into an operation to uncover gays and lesbians holding institutional positions. In 1950, just two years before House Beautiful opened fire on modernism in the name of the Farnsworth House, the Lonergan Case presents the first debate in the American press on homosexuality. The Washington Post describes the national situation generated by the release of an official Department of the State document, according to which 91 employees had been fired between 1947 and 1949 for “problems of homosexuality,” as a “homosexual panic.”[5]

The Cold War had displaced the confrontation from the geographical space of the nation-state to the superficial sliding of bodies that could be “penetrated” and whose secrets could be brought to light in an act of sexual espionage. For the media of the 1950s, homosexuality condensed in public discourse via analogies of sickness – “an epidemic infecting the nation” (D’Emilio, 1983: 44, as cited in Kaiser, 1997: 79) – and war (“a nuclear ‘missile gap’…between the United States and the Soviet Union”[6]), represents the more serious threat against the American “social body.” As a possible ally of the communists, and virtually Jewish or foreign, the “homosexual” occupies a space of intersections of all the “outsides” that support the identity of postwar America.

At the same time, the narration of “coming out” appears as a literary genre with novels such as Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948) and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956). In each of these, the story of “coming out” describes the process by which the main character acquires a voice and visibility as a “homosexual.” In both cases, this process of verbalization and becoming visible is inseparable from the negotiation of public gaze’s accesses to private space, and from the search for strategies to theatricalize (to simulate or dissimulate) the secret in public space. In a period of less than ten years, the structures of the “closet” (in the sense that “coming out of the closet” means to openly declare oneself to be homosexual) – that is, the production of the truth and the concealment the secret – first dissolve in institutional and legal forms of “outing,” then in rhetorical forms of the literary narration of “coming out,” and finally in political practices of declaring one’s identity.

Eve K. Sedgwick (1990) has described “coming out” not as an isolated event of exposure, nor as a unique form of confession, but as an interminable process of managing information – of revelation and hiding – through which the “homosexual” produces their identity by means of a process of (auto)representation. Foucault’s genealogical analysis comes to reveal, first, that the limit between the private and the public is an optical and discursive effect of a game of hiding and showing; and, second, that the so-called “modern individual” is but the result of the constant inspection and disciplining of this limit.[7] The split and the unfolding between the private and the public that structures the closet, and its work as a constant “filter” of information permits the “homosexual” to be made to pass publicly as a heterosexual, keeping their sexual practices in private space, at the same time that it generates the illusion of the performance of heterosexuality as transparency from the private realm into public space. In the discursive economy of the closet, homosexuality operates, in David A. Miller’s terms, as an open secret. That is to say, the function of the closet is not so much hiding or blocking knowledge, as it is “to conceal the knowledge of the knowledge” (Miller, 1988: 206). As Arlene Stein suggests, the practice that the America of the 1950s called “coming out of the closet” does not only apply to the declaration “I’m gay/I’m a lesbian,” but also to a structural manner indicating the process by which all identities – homosexual as well as heterosexual – are constructed. There is no identity except for a process of auto-narration and exhibition, of privatization and public revelation. “Coming out,” Stein says, “is as much a practical creation of the self, a ‘be-coming out,’ as a matter of revealing or discovering one’s sexuality” (Stein, 1997: 67).

The closet as a regime of visibility and as a filter of information can be used as an analytical model for understanding the play between transparency and opacity in the Farnsworth House. We could apply the word closet to all regimes segmenting spaces of visibility and knowledge that take the management of (homo/hetero)sexual identity within the public/private opposition as their object. According to Alan Bérubé (1990: 271), even though the closet has existed at least since the beginning of the century, the peculiarity of the American culture of the 1950s was responsible for the increasing repression and medicalization of sexuality, “expanding the ‘closet,’ making it a roomier place to live.” Beyond the discursive level in which the battle for the “good” modern architecture plays out, the same mechanism of “outing” that courses through House Beautiful seems to operate at the level of materials and structures in the case of the Farnsworth House, as if the issue of House Beautiful were a simple mise en abyme of a larger apparatus, a closet-apparatus, that previously operated in Mies’s architecture. The most potent strategy of the Farnsworth House’s architecture (already used in the Tugendhat House in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1930) had been to transfer glass from the construction of public, institutional, and office buildings to domestic space. With this gesture, Mies displaces “domesticity” itself, and expresses the mechanisms that maintain the fictional boundary between the private and the public, to suddenly underline and display the operations of theatrical representation – display and concealment – that permit the construction of domestic space as private space.

At the same time, during the 1950s, “glass,” “invisibility,” and “transparency” are tropes that name conditions of ambiguous citizenship in relation to public visibility, as in the cases of immigrants, Jews, Blacks, and homosexuals. So, for example, the San Remo Club – one of the few openly homosexual establishments in New York City during the 1950s – was renown for its extensive use of glass and, subsequently, for the transgression of the limits of visibility imposed on homosexuals in public space. As Jack Dowling recalls, “It was all glass, a big long rectangular room and one whole wall of windows looking out onto Bleecker Street. It was not the kind of bar you went into to hide because it was open to the world” (Kaiser, 1997: 107).

The mechanisms of the closet are also present in Edith Farnsworth’s description of the house in House Beautiful, not so much for the literal reference to the house’s closet, but rather for the enormous importance that Edith grants to this architectonic space as the ultimate reduction of privacy: “There are too many practical things they (Mies disciples) refuse to consider. For instance, Mies wanted the partition closet five feet high for reasons of ‘art and proportion.’ Well, I’m six feet tall. Since my house is all ‘open space,’ I needed something to shield me when I had guests” (Barry, 1953: 266). The openness is not only an effect of glass.[8] With the elimination of internal partitions, privacy was eliminated from every possible interior space: “The house was unlike any conceived before it. It was a totally glassed-in rectangular box, consisting of roof slab and floor slab – the latter suspended five feet above the open ground…The spaces between the planes and the columns – the walls, that is – were given over completely to single panes of one-quarter-inch-thick glass…The interior was a single space, one room, whose major subdivision was provided by a freestanding, longitudinal, asymmetrically placed core containing kitchen to the north, bathrooms to east and west – separated by a utility space – and fireplace to the south. A freestanding cabinet-closet close to the southeast corner and parallel to the east wall bordered the sleeping area without enclosing it” (Schulze, 1985: 253-4).

Mies, who had presented the house as a privileged space for the transcendent encounter between man and nature (cf. Norberg-Schulz, 1991), places Edith Farnsworth in what could be called a post-domestic space, to express the theatrical structures of concealment and exhibition that ground the regimes of private and public visibility during the 1950s. In this situation, the closet and the bathrooms appear as genuine refuges from the public gaze, as a kind of backstage that divides the open space of the house into stages and stalls. Farnsworth adds: “I wanted to be able to change my clothes without my head looking like it was wandering over the top of the partition without a body. It would be grotesque” (Barry, 1953: 266). As in a collage, the house as a method of representation produces the image of a divided subject: the head or the body, voice or action, vision or touching…However, it is not just the body but, surprisingly, the garbage can is also subject to this visual restriction. Farnsworth searches desperately throughout the closet for a new repartitioning of interior space into public and private realms: “I don’t keep a garbage can under my sink. Do you know why? Because you can see the whole ‘kitchen’ from the road on the way in here and the can would spoil the appearance of the whole house. So I hide it in the closet farther down from the sink” (Barry, 1953: 270).

The particularity of the mechanisms of the gaze in the Farnsworth House appears more clearly when comparing the glass house with the Tugendhat House or with Philip Johnson’s house. While the Brno house already seems to aestheticize the otherwise comfortable life of the heterosexual Tugendhat family – Mrs. Tugendhat describes the open spaces of the house as “austere and grand – not in a way that oppresses, but one that liberates” (Tegethoff , 1985: 97) – the Plano house converts Farnsworth into “a prowling animal, always on the alert…always restless” (Barry, 1953: 266). Edith confesses that she feels like “a sentinel on guard day and night” (Barry, 1953: 266). Edith Farnsworth’s scopic crisis is generated not so much by the intrusion of strange eyes into her private space, but by her own need to remain on the lookout. The architecture of “skin and bones” is not only, as is frequently underscored, a massive mechanism of exhibition for the inhabiting subject, but it is also and above all, to judge from the experience of Farnsworth, a device for multiplying the angles by which the inhabiting subject can visually access the exterior. On the one hand, the domestic space displays itself to the eye that circulates the exterior. On the other hand, that same domestic space transforms into a station of intense vigilance that obliges the eye that inhabits it to be permanently open, 24 hours a day. It is a double lens that at the same time, and with a single gesture, displaces the interior outside and converts the exterior into an interior, thereby leaving the subject in perpetual liminarity. Finally, the different changes of light and darkness, as in the possibility of closing the curtains or not, offers the transparent surface of glass up to an infinite and unresolvable game of reflections, openings, and mirages. The glass of the Farnsworth House shelters all the possible pathologies of the eye that Sartre obsesses over during the 1950s[9]: the paranoia of being seen by the other, the desire of exhibition, the narcissistic immersion in one’s own reflection …and, of course, the limit of visibility and delirium: blindness.

But if the house of glass brought about a massive “outing” of the private space of Edith Farnsworth, the public discourse that circulates in the media is responsible for reconstructing Edith Farnsworth as a single heterosexual woman, and the house as a result of her architecturally reproductive romance with the architect. Whereas the glass displays everything, the discourse around the house acts as a second wall, opaque and encompassing, that exempts the private life of the alleged single woman though the production of a convenient “miss-conception” over the sexual preferences and the gender identity of Edith Farnsworth. Perhaps it would be necessary to describe this discursive production as “texture” – a tectonic discourse – that functions as a genuine second architecture, supplementing a corrective mesh or structure (like the “curtains” or the “blinds” of which Gordon speaks) that compensates for the nudity of the glass.[10]

For example, Franz Schulze – the classical biographer of Mies – uses the same series of adjectives that characterize the figure of the lesbian vampire in Pulp novels of postwar Americana to describe Edith Farnsworth. Edith Farnsworth, like Doctor Bolgar – the main character in Arthur Koestler’s Arrival and Departure (1943) – is described as an independent woman who has been successful in her professional life, but who is excessively tall and ugly. “Edith,” Schulze (1985, 258) notes, “was no beauty. Six feet tall, ungainly of carriage, and, as witnesses agreed, rather equine in features, she was sensitive about her physical person and may very well have compensated for it by cultivating her considerable mental powers.” Edith is presented at a threshold between femininity, masculinity, and animality – a space occupied by the vampire and the lesbian– as a woman of excessively strong and threatening features. As an urban Amazon woman deprived of her horse, Edith seems to be possessed by animal characteristics.[11] It is within this comparison where the description of Farnsworth as “equine” makes sense for the first time.

The logic of compensation established by Schulze (ugly/intelligent, unmarried/successful professionally, etc.) reaches its highest point in the narration when the house appears as a necessary supplement that comes to reward the lack of marriage, of family, and evidently of sexual satisfaction. The house would be, in the horizon of the life of the unmarried Farnsworth, the ultimate hope of happiness and fertility. Only within this therapeutic economy is it possible to understand Alice Friedman’s insistence that the house is the only remedy against Farnsworth’s “boredom.” According to Friedman, before meeting Mies, Edith Farnsworth went through “a period of ‘tired, dull Sundays’ when she would have nothing else to do but stretch out on the sofa and listen to the New York Philharmonic on the radio” (Friedman, 1998: 132). Mies appears as a man “of great charm and charisma,” while Edith “was painfully lonely, bored, and overworked” (Friedman, 1998: 131). To judge by the narrations of a Mies-Farnsworth romance, the relationship would last exactly the same amount of time that Mies had needed to complete the design and the construction of the house (between 1946 and 1950). When Edith moved into the house in December, 1950, the roof leaked and the heating produced a film of vapor that condensated on the inside of the glass walls. The procreation of Mies was achieved, but without success for Farnsworth. The Farnsworth House was a mies-conception. From this moment on, the question of the relationship, of the propriety and of the name, would be open.

Alice Friedman’s 1992 description of Farnsworth’s sentimental relations is an exemplary case of the “closet effect.” Friedman’s essentialist and naturalist feminism operates only in the presence of pure feminine characters, that is to say, it requires the consideration of Farnsworth as a “woman” and, consequently, the purging of all those stated and anecdotal characteristics that could endanger her gender identity or her sexual orientation: “Although it was widely assumed that the two (Mies and Farnsworth) were romantically involved, there is nothing in Farnsworth’s memoirs to support that contention. Throughout her life she developed strong attachments to the powerful men she admired – to her teachers and supervisors at the hospital, to Mies himself, and, late in her life, to the poet Eugenio Montale, whose work she translated – but her closest relationships seem to have been with women” (Friedman, 1998: 133-4).

Friedman’s feminist interpretation cautiously omits that long before meeting Mies, Edith Farnsworth had been in many close relationships with different women. Her diary is surprising, not because of Farnsworth’s boredom, but rather for its intense and detailed descriptions of women and houses. Chapter 4 of her Memoirs, for example, narrates her relationship with The Female Radicals in New York and her trip to Paris, where Edith writes – undoubtedly playing with the double meaning of the expression – that the women went to be gay.[12] Like many other upper class lesbian women in the period before Stonewall,[13] Farnsworth probably did not identify as lesbian, but rather as a cultured woman that loved the company of other women and who, given her economic situation, was able to remain unmarried. It is not about taking Farnsworth into the closet once and for all, nor revealing her sexual identity, but understanding how the visual and secretive regimes that dominated the America of the 1950s were inscribed as much in the architecture of the “glass box” as in the discursive texture that made the house (in)tolerable in the eyes of America. The logic of compensation and restoration extends from the glass-curtain, transparency-opacity dynamic to the way in which the “secret” that the house left to be discovered would be “restored.” The fact that the “secret” was, without a doubt, known (by Farnsworth’s family, and perhaps by Mies) could only be seen as compensating by the incessant activity to keep it hidden: here I am pointing to a parallel between the performative structures of language and representative structures of architecture. This is the mystery of the Farnsworth House, the glass house that had been converted into the “perfect closet”: the more that was shown, the better her secret was guarded.

Friedman’s analysis rigorously follows the rules of displaying and concealing that characterize the logic of the closet. In this way, the revelation of her “relationships with women” cancels itself out twice: locally, with the naming of these relationships as “friendships” in the footnote; and structurally, with the articulation of the article’s thesis in the form of an opposition between Farnsworth and Philip Johnson – “Farnsworth was a single woman; Philip Johnson is gay” (Friedman, 1998: 148). In other words, the difference is between the Farnsworth House as an oppressive space for a single woman and Philip Johnson’s glass house as a “gay space.” Once again, feminism breaks downs in the trap of the closet.

The specificity of the visual regimes that operate in the Farnsworth House and in Philip Johnson’s house (in New Canaan, Connecticut) do not depend on any essential character of identity (“feminine,” “masculine,” “gay,” “lesbian,” or heterosexual”) that can determine the space – as in Alice Friedman’s or Paulette Singley’s (1992) interpretations – but rather on the sociopolitical context in which the space and possibilities of the inhabitant to manage the visibility and the access of the gaze to privacy unfold. As George Chauncey (1996: 224) has noted, “There is no queer space; there are only spaces used by queers or put to queer use.” The Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s house, far from being in opposition (as a “space of oppression of the female body” and a “gay space”), both function as “archi-closets” that negotiate the public display of their respective sexual identities. So, while the house of glass/house of guests would have allowed Philip Johnson to continue the game of “For-Da” between public display and hiding in private, facilitating his progressive and opportune identification as “gay” (not until after the 1970s), the complete transparency of the Farnsworth House is converted into the best screen across which to hide the possible eccentricity of the unmarried woman. In the Farnsworth House, the heterosexual narration of the Mies-Farnsworth relationship acts as a textual curtain that compensates for the transparency of the glass house. In Philip Johnson’s house (he was, at the same time, the architect and the resident), the same architectonic structure unfolds in two clearly differentiated spaces (the Glass House – transparent – and the Guest House – opaque) that materialize the economy of visibility and of privacy/publicity of the closet at the limit of impossible reconciliation. The two spaces are detached, opening up a break in the landscape that materializes the split of identity, and forcing the construction of a scene on the land that allows the inhabitant to transition between two rigid spaces through laws opposed to visibility.

Unlike Philip Johnson’s house, at the intersection between “texture” and tectonics, the Farnsworth House does not succeed in producing “the woman Farnsworth” as an appropriate inhabitant, but nevertheless achieves the construction of a heterosexual narrative that ends by restoring (compensation and doubt) the reproduction of the domestic architecture of Mies in America and the sexual identity of the owner Farnsworth.[14]

Translator’s Acknowledgements

Special thanks are due to Lisa Schoblasky at the Newberry Library in Chicago for tracking down the content of note 12 in Edith Farnsworth’s memoirs, as well as to Paul, of course, for trusting me with this translation.


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[1] Methodologically it is important to note the contributions of two recent anthologies by Colomina (1992) and Sanders (1997). While the first carries out a critical analysis of the inscription of structures of gender in the discourses and practices of architecture, the second picks up the impact of queer theory and poststructuralist philosophy in the contemporary analysis of architecture.
[2] For analysis of the notion of “performativity” in relation to sexual identity, see Butler (1997) and Sedgwick (1993).
[3] [Translator’s note: Foucault discussed these concepts late in his life in lectures at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Vermont. Transcriptions are available at available here.]
[4] John D’Emilio (1983: 24) described the situation thus: “World War II created something of a nationwide coming out experience,” as cited in Miller, 1995: 231.
[5] This scandal came to revive the rumor that already circulated in the corridors of the White House during World War II, according to which “Adolf Hitler had maintained a secret list of homosexuals in high government posts all over the world, and used it to blackmail them at will” (Kaiser, 1997: 69).
[6] [Translator’s note: in this passage, Kaiser (1997: 81) is discussing Joseph Alsop, a prominent closeted Washington journalist whom the Soviet Union tried to blackmail after he was seduced by a male KGB agent on a trip to Moscow after too much “fine wine.” Alsop blamed Eisenhower for permitting the missile gap to develop (to the Soviet Union’s advantage), an accusation to which James Hagerty – Eisenhower’s press secretary – responded with: “The guy’s a pansy. The FBI knows all about it.”]
[7] See Foucault’s interview with Paul Rabinow (Foucault, 1984).
[8] It is important to note that all the windows of the house had rough shantung curtains – information that goes unmentioned in House Beautiful.
[9] See the psychoanalytical interpretation of Sartre in Held (1952) [Translator’s note: Held’s essay is not available in English, but Martin Jay (1993) discusses it briefly].
[10] In this way, the study of the Farnsworth House questions the traditional critical and/or analytical division between discourse (texts and images that circulate in media around architecture) and architecture itself.
[11] Horses are, incidentally, a fundamental element of Farnsworth’s imagination. In her memoirs, Farnsworth recounts a youthful sight of a woman on a horse as an “epiphany,” a revelation of beauty that will accompany her throughout her adult life. See Chapter 4 of her Memoirs.
[12] Edith tells the story of two women who decided to escape to Paris: “‘Like Miss Furr and Miss Skem who went to Paris to be gay,’ Katherine would say, and we would laugh and laugh…I do not remember now, and probably did not then, how gay Gertrude Stein’s characters were in Paris. Gertrude’s writing [has been] out of fashion for some years and perhaps already then there were few readers who recognized the privations which drove Miss Furr and Miss Skem to Paris, to be gay” (Farnsworth, n.d.: Box 1, Folder 25).
[13] Eleanor Roosevelt is undoubtedly the best example of a closeted upper-class woman during the 1940s and 1950s.
[14] Final note: this rereading of the Farnsworth house seems to take Farnsworth’s supposed lesbianism as fact at times. However, as in any good closet, Farnsworth’s sexual identity (heterosexual or not) and her alleged relationship with Mies, remains in suspense to this day.