“Fallingwater in its setting embodies a powerful ideal: That people today can learn to live in harmony with nature.” Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.
This is the 16th article in the series based upon the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.” What is amazing about today’s entry is that it is about the home of an ordinary, albeit wealthy, person – not a king or queen! Think of it! On a list that includes places like the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China is someone’s small, four-bedroom home. Make no mistake about it, this four-bedroom home is anything but “usual.”
The “Fallingwater” home was designed by the widely acclaimed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1935. This world-famous house was intended as a weekend home for the family of Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr., a prominent Pennsylvanian family, to replace their deteriorating summer home. Nestled along a stream in Bear Run, an Appalachian reserve, this property was a perfect fit for Wright, whose nature-inspired approach to architectural design came to the attention of Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, owners of the Kaufmann Department Store chain.
Fallingwater was built in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, 43 miles outside of Pittsburgh. Its most attractive feature, of course, is that the house was built above the property’s naturally-occurring waterfall. As the story goes, Wright designed this unique home in a single morning! Wright’s apprentices have repeatedly related the story about an early morning phone call informing the architect that Kaufman would visit him later that day “to see the plans” that Wright has drawn. While Wright had “thought a great deal” about the design, according to these apprentices, he had not yet drawn anything. Kaufman had said in the phone call that he “couldn’t wait to see” what Wright had drawn. So, as the story goes, after breakfast that morning, a group of very nervous apprentices watched their teacher calmly draw the plans in the two hours or so it took Kaufmann to reach their location.
Wright told the Kaufmanns, who had hoped that the finished house would afford them a view of the waterfall, “I want you to live with the waterfall — not just to look at it, [I want it] to become an integral part of your lives.” This statement is often regarded as the integrating principle that informed the entirety of the architect’s work on this project.
After its completion, Time magazine referred to Fallingwater as Wright’s “most beautiful accomplishment.” The house was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966. In 1991, members of the American Institute of Architects named Fallingwater the “best all-time work of American architecture” and this year Fallingwater has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“It’s ugly,” some one said in whispered tones as I waited for the guide to meet the group who had bought tickets for the 11 a.m. walk-through. And I must say that my first impression of Fallingwater fell somewhere on the “unkind” side, too. But as the tour progressed and the guide explained the ideas behind its construction, the house began, to my mind, to make a certain amount of sense. I quickly realized that, at the end of the day, curb appeal does not actually count for very much when it comes to a place as unique as this. Fallingwater grew on me quickly once the tour began in earnest.
The inside of the house is open and airy. The beige concrete that dominates the exterior fades into insignificance as it is replaced by natural-looking stone, steel, and glass. And everywhere there is water, either in sight or in sound.
In keeping with the wishes of the Kaufman family, Wright took the groundbreaking approach of integrating the house into the 30-foot Bear Run waterfall. He designed cantilevers that project living areas directly over the stream and the falls. Full length windows, high ceilings, and almost 2,500 square feet of patio encourage the eye to wander and to appreciate the seamless merging of the house into its surrounding environment.
Wright also designed Fallingwater’s interior so that it, too, would reflect the colors and contours of its location in the natural world. For instance, at the center of the house is a sandstone fireplace built around two unmovable boulders. All of the accents are painted Cherokee red, a burnt crimson color reminiscent of lumber, while the floors are stone. The walls are covered in unwaxed cork. Large, corner-less windows seem to invite nature to come inside while enticing the house’s occupants to go out into its natural surroundings.
Everywhere in this house you are reminded of the natural world. Narrow hallways of rough hewn rock invite comparisons with caves. An unpolished boulder rises from the floor to form a hearth. The floor itself is highly waxed stone and generates the impression of a wet stream bed when you pass over it. This allusion is complemented by the ever-present bubbling of Bear Run falls just below.
Fallingwater marked a turning point in the career of Wright, who was 67 when this project was launched. The house symbolizes an organic connection with nature. “So what’s organic architecture?” one member of my tour group asked the guide. She responded by saying that “it is a style of creating a building that looks like it belongs in its environment.” Wright himself coined the term “organic architecture” in the early 20th century. He said that the idea of it was deeply rooted in his love of nature. Thus, for him, organic architecture’s primary objective is to unify a building with its natural environment. The goal is to visually blur the lines of distinction between the structure and its natural habitat.
This basic concept of bringing the outdoors inside and at same time enabling the occupants to see themselves “outside” is definitely evident in the freestanding and built-in furniture also designed by Wright. Fallingwater houses 170 decorative art pieces, each of which channels the outdoors through both its look and its feel. Several of these furnishings were made from North Carolina black walnut, a wood which has chocolate tones and that is veneered with sapwood. Amazingly, the house grants easy access to the outdoors in various and most creative ways. One of my favorites is the staircase that takes visitors from the living room directly to the stream.
When my tour group emerged from the house, this time from a different vantage point, I was genuinely surprised. From the south, with the majestic waterfall in full view, Fallingwater is more harmonious with its surroundings than it had first seemed. The stone facade appears to have been carved directly from the cliff side. Even the beige terraces, that are somewhat unattractive from the north, now seem to mimic the natural cantilevers of the falls. Most critics conclude that Mr. Wright knew exactly what he was doing. Fallingwater definitely belongs among the “28 Places to See before You Die.”
Next time: “The Yangtze River: Picturesque, vibrant, mysterious”