On a recent family trip, we stopped at the infamous, Fallingwater; a building, often describe as the pinnacle of American single-family home design. It is impossible to mention the building without mentioning its architectural designer, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was equal parts, design genius and showman. When you visit, it’s clear that both characteristics are part of the building’s experience.
It’s important to mention that Wright was the first American-star architect. His innovative designs attracted outrageous commissions in the early 1900’s included places of worship, offices, museums, and a broad influence on residential design that is still strong and easily recognizable 100 years later. His biographies are filled with stories about his ingenuity and influence on the American buildings. His reputation, however, was not all positive. He was difficult to work with, stubborn, and his projects often went way over budget. In the early 1930’s, Wright was facing the downslope of his career and possibly his reputation (which appeared more important to Wright).
Fallingwater was designed for the Kaufman Family who owned several department stores in Pittsburgh, PA. They also owned a parcel approximately 45 minutes west of Pittsburgh in a laconic green place named “Mill Run,” where the Bear Run waterfalls poured over knobby outcroppings of sandstone, limestone, and shale. For many years the Kaufmans used the parcel as a camp where employees stayed in tents during visits with their families. In the early 1930’s, the Kaufmans decided to build a retreat on the site for family vacations. Mr. Kaufman already had a relationship with Wright because of several civic projects he chaired in Pittsburgh. Kaufman asked Wright to design a home that would face the waterfalls and celebrate the raw beauty of the site.
Wright convinced Kaufman that the best location for the home would not be facing the waterfalls, but over them. The perspective of photo #1 is taken from the site where the Kaufmans originally wanted to locate the house.
The legend persists that the overall design concept for Fallingwater did not take Wright very long to create; 9 hours according to our tour-guide. I wonder how close to the truth that is. A genius in his prime, faced with the specter of a declining legacy, creating a modestly sized building on a site that is an authentic natural wonder; a confluence of powerful energies.
One of the wonders of the building is how you approach it. You hear it before you see it. The waterfalls hiss and crackle behind tall medium-dark hedges. When you pass the corner to the approach (Photo #2), you see water to the left and right with the house straight ahead. The famous tan-colored cantilevers of the home reach out gracefully in various directions but they feel natural. Maybe that’s a masterful trick made by the stone facades on all the vertical design elements. Personally, it reminded me of the beautiful rock outcroppings I saw at the Grand Canyon as a child. I never stopped to think why the rock outcroppings were beautiful, they just are. Same for this building.
The building is not large inside, it feels smaller than the numbers show. It has two major phases; The lower phase (the one over the waterfall) is 4,410 square feet according to the Fayett County, PA assessor’s database. The building has an upper phase containing 3,359 sq. ft. of living space. The two phases are connected by an outdoor staircase that makes them feel separated. The staircase is not the most magnetic component of the building phases because the staircase feels like you are outside. That made me think, that particular staircase makes you notice how magical the building is. When you are in it, you feel like you are both inside and outside.
I love beautiful things that are functional. I like the feel of a good chef’s knife. I admire beautiful cars. I get knocked out by photographs with good symmetry. I carefully arrange the plating of my kid’s dinners. I especially love buildings, but I am a cynic. Maybe it’s all the dull office buildings I look at when I drive home. Maybe it’s all those years of framing McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. Maybe I’m just getting old. Even a cynic like me can be stirred by Fallingwater and its legacy. It’s a complicated masterpiece, created by a complicated genius, and somehow that is more interesting. It exceeds expectations.
Fallingwater is simultaneously simple and complex, like nature. Like nature, it stops you in your hurried, overly-intellectualized thought parade and demands that you feel, not think. A once in a lifetime experience that I’d recommend for any person who is into architectural design.