Regular visitors to this site will recall a major dustup in the blogosphere back in September over the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and in particular over Fallingwater, the 1937 mountain home whose vast terraces are cantilevered over a small waterfall. (Go here to trace the thread.)
Here’s part of what I wrote:
Much of the recent wrangling has centered on Fallingwater, the Wright-designed Pennsylvania home… whose unusual design required substantial ex post facto structural work in order to keep it from fallingdown. Of course I don’t know what it would feel like to live there, but Fallingwater–as well as many of the other Wright houses I’ve seen and in some cases toured–seems to me both remarkably and self-evidently beautiful. This says nothing about the no less self-evident structural unsoundness of the house’s design and original construction, but I don’t really think that’s relevant to the issue of its beauty….I dare say my opinion of Fallingwater is far more widely shared than that of Wright’s detractors, and not just by art critics, either.
What struck me about this imbroglio was that none of the participants (so far as I can recall) had ever seen Fallingwater, myself included. That’s understandable–it’s in the middle of nowhere–but the fact remains that we were all holding forth solely on the basis of photographs, of which there are many, Fallingwater being Wright’s best-known building after the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Still, the inevitable inadequacies of our discussion were underlined when a reader who had actually spent a week living in a Wright house sent me an e-mail describing the experience (she called the house “exquisite” but “damnably uncomfortable”).
As soon as I got her e-mail, I made up my mind to go to Fallingwater and see for myself, a visit from which I returned yesterday. It isn’t easy to get there, but it’s absolutely worth the trouble, especially if you take the two-hour guided tour of the house, which costs forty well-spent dollars. The guides are comprehensively informed and impressively thorough (thank you, Sue Celaschi!), and the tour is leisurely enough that you get every opportunity to see the house from top to bottom. (Go here for information or to make a reservation, which I strongly recommend.)
I don’t want to waste your time telling you what Fallingwater looks like, not only because it’s so famous but also because written descriptions can’t begin to convey the effect of actually seeing the house, whether in person or in photographs. If you don’t know what it looks like, go here for a fine assortment of on-line photos. Beyond that, all I can say is that everything you’ve read about the house is true. It’s a Cubist painting in ochre, sandstone, and Cherokee red, and it seems to melt into the surrounding landscape as if it had somehow grown out of the stream and rocks.
The problem is that when you’re looking at Fallingwater in person, it’s hard not to be so overwhelmed by its beauty that you forget to reflect on its function. The house was a weekend retreat for E.J. Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department-store magnate, and his wife and son, and the Kaufmanns didn’t hang Fallingwater on their wall–they lived in it. So as I walked through the house, I kept asking myself, What must it have felt like to live here?
That may seem like an obvious question, but believe me, it isn’t. I just finished reading Franklin Toker’s Fallingwater Rising, a formidably smart, engagingly written new book that discusses the house from every conceivable angle, not merely as a piece of architecture but as a cultural event. Yet the one thing the author failed to do was convey a clear sense of the experience of living in Fallingwater. Was it comfortable? Awkward? Awe-inspiring? Frustrating?
Like all geniuses, Frank Lloyd Wright attracts aggressive partisans who refuse to consider the possibility that any of his work might have been less than perfect. I’m no Wright partisan, merely a passionate admirer of his work, and my admiration, while considerable, is not blind. So here are some of the things, good and bad, that occurred to me as I walked through Fallingwater:
• Fallingwater still looks modern, though not ostentatiously or forbiddingly so. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that it looks fresh. Unlike many other “modern” homes of the same period, it looks as if it could have been built yesterday, or 20 years ago, or 20 years from now. It hasn’t dated at all.
• The complex floor plan, including the labyrinthine staircases that link the different floors of the house, adds a note of mystery and unpredictability to Fallingwater. My guess is that children would love it for that reason–as did I. (Think of all the places to hide!) On the other hand, it would be unmanageably difficult for anyone who had the slightest difficulty climbing steps. It’s not a house for old people.
• The servants’ quarters are as beautiful as the rest of the house–a lovely and generous touch.
• Everyone who writes about Fallingwater talks about the noise of the waterfall. Robert Hughes, who considers Fallingwater to be “one of the most astonishing tours de force in all modern architecture,” goes on to speak of “the perversity of Wright’s idea of building a house over a waterfall that can’t be seen from inside it, but only heard: a dull, continuous roar that, in spring-melt time, must have rendered life in Fallingwater nearly insufferable.” I can’t tell you how loud it is in the spring, but in late November the sound of the waterfall inside the house is nothing more than a soothingly musical background rush of white noise.
• Part of what keeps the house manageably quiet is the flagstone floor of the main living area, which extends directly over the water (one of the most striking features of the house is a glass-enclosed staircase that leads straight down to Bear Run). Those big flat stones are great to look at but less pleasant to walk on, and their surface unevenness makes it impossible to put down any kind of rug.
• Every guide in every Frank Lloyd Wright house I’ve visited goes out of his or her way to assure you that Wright’s small stature (he lied about his height and wore lifts in his shoes) had no effect on his architecture. Nonsense. The “human scale” to which Wright designed his houses was all too obviously calculated to suit the ego of a self-consciously short man. Sometimes the effect can be wonderfully cozy, as in the low-cost, small-scale “Usonian houses” Wright began to design for middle-class homeowners immediately after finishing Fallingwater (about which more later), but at other times it can be oppressive. I’m five foot eight, Wright’s “official” height, and I found the ceilings in many parts of the house–including much of the vast first-floor living area–to be about six inches too low. For the same reason, many other features, including the bathroom fixtures and Wright-designed built-in furniture, looked equally uncomfortable to me.
• The defining structural feature of Fallingwater is the huge amount of space allotted to the terraces (they occupy 2,445 square feet, versus a 2,885-square-foot interior). They’re as spectacular to stand on as they are to behold. But the fact that they extend outward from the main building with no visible means of support can be disorienting, especially since they now sag vertically by about seven inches, a long-term consequence of Wright’s faulty grasp of the load-bearing properties of the cantilever. The sag is evident to the naked eye, no matter where you’re standing, and even though the terraces were recently stabilized and are structurally sound, it remains more than a little bit vertigo-inducing. It also detracts from the beauty of the house, much of whose effect arises from the endlessly repeated horizontal lines of the terraces and the sandstone walls.
• The giant-sized terrace outside the master bedroom makes no sense whatsoever, especially in a house ostensibly designed on a “human scale.” It’s big enough to hold a cocktail party or a game of touch football, but accessible only to the occupants of the bedroom. As Franklin Toker readily admits, Wright must have built it that way purely to make a splash. He succeeded–it’s the first thing you notice when approaching the house–but I wonder what Mrs. Kaufmann thought of it, or whether she used it more than occasionally.
• Like so many of Wright’s buildings, including the Guggenheim, Fallingwater is designed in such a way as to make it all but impossible to hang paintings effectively. (This is no accident–Wright was a monster of vanity who disapproved of his clients’ displaying art in their homes, believing that his buildings were all the art they needed.) The only things that really look good on the walls are unobtrusive knick-knacks, which can be placed on the built-in horizontal shelves.
• Perhaps coincidentally–and perhaps not–Fallingwater also has comparatively few bookshelves, and most of those it does have are awkwardly situated.
All these cavils notwithstanding, I think it would be a profoundly soul-satisfying experience to live in Fallingwater–if you were rich enough to afford a staff of servants and young enough to negotiate the stairs. But two days after visiting Fallingwater, I visited Wright’s 1,200-square-foot Pope-Leighey House in Mount Vernon, Va., a prime example of his “Usonian” style, built for a Washington newspaperman who made $50 a week in 1939. It’s infinitely more modest than Fallingwater, but no less pleasing to behold, and in many ways a good deal more obviously comfortable. Here, Wright’s “human scale” takes a far more intelligible and convincing shape, without any reciprocal sacrifice of exterior beauty. The Pope-Leighey House isn’t perfect, either, not by any means, but I don’t have any trouble imagining living there, and I suspect it would be at least as soul-satisfying, even without the waterfall. (The best short book about the Usonian houses is Carla Lind’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses. For an online photo gallery of the Pope-Leighey House, go here. For
information about tours, go here.)
Yes, Fallingwater is one of the most extraordinary buildings in the world, fully deserving of its singular reputation. I’ve never seen a more beautiful house in my life. But I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if in the very long run, Wright’s Usonian houses prove to have been a more significant contribution to Western culture–which is the surprising conclusion I drew from my visit to Fallingwater.