FALLINGWATER


Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; completed 1937 Bear Run, Pennsylvania
Fallingwater, as the architect Frank Lloyd Wright named the house that he
designed for Edgar and Lillian Kaufmann, was commissioned shortly after
the Kaufmanns’ son, Edgar, Jr., joined Wright’s newly formed Taliesin
Fellowship in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Founded following the Great
Depression, the Taliesin Fellowship was instrumental in Wright’s
emergence at the age of 70 from 15 years of obscurity, signaled by the
construction of the Johnson Wax Building (1939, Racine, Wisconsin),
Taliesin West (1940, Scottsdale, Arizona), the first “Usonian House” for
Herbert Jacobs (1937, Madison, Wiscon-sin), and Fallingwater. After visiting the site for the Kaufmann house in 1934, a full nine
months passed without any drawings or other evidence that Wright was working on the
design of the house. In a famous story told by his Fellowship apprentices, Wright drew
up the design in the two hours that it took Kaufmann to drive from Milwaukee to Spring
Green on a Sunday morning in September 1935.
Wright’s design is first and foremost a brilliant piece of site planning. Kaufmann had
expected the house to be built to the south of the stream, looking north to the waterfall.
However, Wright sited the house to the north of the stream, above the waterfall, so that
the house opens to the south sun. As a result, it is the sound of the waterfall, not the view
of it, that permeates the experience of Fallingwater. Fallingwater is also the greatest
example of Wright’s capacity to draw the spaces and forms of his architecture out of the
very ground on which it is built. The house is anchored to the earth by vertical piers of
sandstone quarried 500 feet from the waterfall, the stones set to resemble the natural
strata of the rock exposed along the streambed. The floors of the house are constructed of
broad horizontal cantilevered reinforced concrete slabs that appear to float effortlessly
over the stream, for the structural beams are hidden between the flagstone floors and
plastered ceilings. As a result of these two complementary systems of construction,
Fallingwater is anchored to the ground by the stone piers even as its spaces float along
with the motion of the stream.
The spaces within Fallingwater are at once surprisingly small, with only 2,885 square
feet of enclosed space, and incredibly generous, opening in three directions to the east,
south, and west onto large exterior terraces that almost double the floor area of the house.
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 826
Glazing, set in red-painted steel frames, runs in continuous bands around three sides of
the main living and dining room, opening at the corners in celebration of the spatial
freedom given by the cantilevered structure. Wright detailed the house so as to reinforce
the integration of interior and exterior space, creating delightful moments such as the
glass that runs right into the stone wall without any vertical framing at the kitchen and
small bedrooms and the flagstones that are set into the floor of the living room so that
they appear to continue unbroken beneath the glass doors and out onto the terrace
overlooking the waterfall.
Perhaps the most poetic moment in this most natural house is the “hatch” that Wright
designed at the east side of the living room, whose glass doors may be opened to give
access to a suspended concrete stair leading down to the stream below. Descending these
stairs, we pass through the stone floor to find light stairs floating over water, in which is
reflected the sky, the roar of the waterfall behind us reverberating off the enormous
concrete slab overhead. In the living room, the dark gray color of the bedrock ledge under
the shallow water and the way in which the light is reflected from the rippling surface of
the stream are matched exactly by the waxed gray flagstone floor on which we stand. The
fireplace in the opposite corner, a half-cylinder stone cavity running from floor to ceiling,
built directly into the sandstone wall, has as its hearth the original boulder of the site, on
which the Kaufmann family formerly took picnic meals. This boulder, left unwaxed, rises
above the waxed flagstone floor like the dry top of a stone emerging above the water of
the stream.
In Fallingwater, Wright captured the perfect essence of our desire to commune with
nature, to dwell in a forested place, and to be at home in the natural world. Fallingwater is
often considered Wright’s greatest work, for he was first and foremost an architect of the
American house. In its startling integration of ancient stone walls anchored to the bedrock
and modern reinforced concrete terraces hovering among the leaves of the trees,
Fallingwater is both an organic, site-specific critique of the placeless products of the
International style and one of the greatest masterpieces of the modern movement. At the
time of its construction, Fallingwater was an instant success, the famous perspective view
from below the waterfall serving as the background when Wright’s photograph appeared
on the cover of the 17 January 1938 issue of Time magazine, in which he was profiled and the
house introduced to the world. More than any other single work, Fallingwater signaled
Wright’s return to preeminence in American architecture and initiated his final two
decades of incredibly prolific practice.
In its 60 years of existence, Fallingwater has proven to be one of the most influential
designs of 20th-century architecture, inspiring architects both near and far. This last is
exemplified by Alvar Aalto, whose Villa Mairea (1939, Noormarkku, Finland) is
indebted to Wright’s design both in its overall form and in its numerous natural details.
Fallingwater is also, and perhaps more important, ever more popular with the general
public, as demonstrated by the fact that nearly 150,000 people visit the house every year,
this despite its remote site. In recognition of the unique and unmatched importance of this
design, Fallingwater was named the best American building of the last 125 years by the
American Institute of Architects. Fallingwater is today, without question, the most
famous modern house in the world, reflecting its inspired embodiment of humanity’s
fundamental and timeless desire to be at home in nature.

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