Frank Lloyd Wright’s distinguished career centers on his most famous structure: Fallingwater. Originally a weekend home he designed in 1935 for Liliane and Edgar J. Kaufmann, it’s sparked wonder for many who dream of what it would be like to live over a waterfall in the remote forest of western Pennsylvania. In exploring the history of the house and Wright himself, I’ve come to appreciate that it represents the rebirth of Wright's career after a long period marked by frustration and unfinished projects. It is a masterful application of Wright’s unique style, and I hope you enjoy the history and thoughtful design of this home as much as I do.
During the two decades preceding Fallingwater, Wright saw his personal and financial lives collapse. His precious Wisconsin home, Taliesin, had two fires, and then he had to give it up due to bankruptcy proceedings and divorce litigation. Between 1925 and 1934 only five of his commissions were built, and he struggled to survive financially. The general public assumed he had retired. He needed a project that would rescue him from the doldrums – both financially and publicly.
For Wright, the problem with modern architecture was how to harness new materials to create a humane environment. Due to Hitler forcing many artists and architects out of Europe and after a 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art the International style began to take hold in America. Wright, however, disliked its sterility, boxiness and disregard for the individual and site. While working under Louis Henry Sullivan in the late 1800s, Wright learned how to synthesize the sensuous, tactile, emotion-based architecture theories of John Ruskin with the structural rationalism approach of the modernists. For example, the Wainwright skyscraper of 1890 in St. Louis, Missouri is a successful culmination of rational use of modern materials with richly decorated details.
Fallingwater displays Wright’s distinct modern yet organic architectural style in what proves to be his most successful union of building and site. Wright took what he learned from Sullivan, Ruskin and even the International Style architects (although he would not care to admit it) and developed his own organic-modern style. Wright’s homes displayed unifying themes such as,
Though Wright referenced his predecessors and contemporaries, his style was more natural and personal than the Internationalists, more innovative in the use of industrial materials and methods than Ruskin, and less decorated than Sullivan.
To describe his unique style, Wright said in his essay “The Natural House” that the proper house should be one that is “Integral to site; integral to environment; integral to the life of the inhabitants.” Houses had to be fitted to the client as well as the land it sits on, and the design should be so in tune with the surrounding landscape that the site would be lacking without it. He called the style “organic architecture.” His style was uniquely his, and all that Wright needed to emerge from the longest drought of his career was a client who shared the same ideals.
Liliane and Edgar J. Kaufmann were wealthy Pittsburgh department store owners who were looking for a weekend retreat. They were committed to bringing their Bear Run property back to life from years of overworking by the mining and lumber industries. Mr. Kaufmann cleared away distressed or dead trees and re-forested the property with native trees and plants. He also revitalized the fish and game on property by providing grazing lands and winter feeding areas.
For their weekend home on their beloved property, the Kaufmanns wanted to put the land before architecture. They had no interest in building a huge castle or chalet like the vacation homes of their contemporaries. It was of utmost importance that this home would live in harmony with the land and even enhance the natural elements around it. They hoped to build a country house in which they could renew themselves in nature.
Even though modern architecture was not very popular in the United States in the early 1930s, The Kaufmanns grew to appreciate the modern aesthetic through their many visits to Germany and California where Bauhaus, Modern and International Style architecture had taken hold. With their appreciation for nature and their interest in modern architecture it only seemed natural for them to approach Frank Lloyd Wright and ask him to design their weekend home.
In describing his first impressions of the Kaufmann’s property, Wright commented: “There in a beautiful forest was a solid, high rock ledge rising beside a waterfall and the natural thing seemed to be to cantilever the house from the rock bank over the falling water…Then came (of course) Mr. Kaufmann’s love for the beautiful site. He loved the site where the house was built and liked to listen to the waterfall. So that was a prime motive in the design. I think you can hear the waterfall when you look at the design.” Wright’s prime motivation for the design was to preserve the site and enhance the natural elements around it.
Though the location on the side of a steep hill was challenging, it demanded that Wright be creative with the design so that it not only conformed to the site, but also enhanced its beauty. The house would be anchored to four giant sandstone boulders at the top of the twenty-foot falls. Cantilevering the house over the falls would imitate the layered sandstone ledges that extend from the boulders alongside the stream. Terraces extend to different lengths and in all different directions to reflect the trees surrounding the site. The colors he chose for the finishes were pulled right from the landscape around the house. Wright loved to abstract pieces of the landscape into visual design elements of his architectural creations.
The masonry walls of the building core were constructed from sandstone quarried on the site, and they were laid to resemble the cliffs bordering the house. Some stones thicker, some longer, some jutting out a bit further than the others, and with nearly invisible mortar joints, the stone looks as if it was naturally stratified. The creation of this stone core creates a strong base that makes Fallingwater appear as if it is an extension of the waterfall.
From this central stone core, terraces and canopies constructed out of reinforced concrete create clean horizontal planes that contrast with the strong, vertical stone walls. The first floor slab extends eighteen feet over the stream. To Wright, the composition of terraces extending from the stone core is reminiscent of branches extending from a tree trunk. Because the terraces were cantilevered through the use of steel reinforced concrete, the outer walls were not load bearing and could be open to nature through wall-to-wall windows.
The Kaufmanns wanted above all a place to enjoy nature, so it is only natural that the spaces inside Fallingwater bridge the gap between nature and shelter. The entry to Fallingwater is relatively nondescript, but once inside the visitors are drawn through the uninterrupted interior to the expansive windows and eventually back outside. True to his organic architecture style, Wright believed that buildings should provide a special kind of shelter: “I began to see a building primarily not as a cave but a broad shelter in the open, related to the vista without and the vista within.” The interior of a house should feel safe and protected, but in no way cut off from the natural world around it. The massive stone walls at the north side of the house provide the sense of protection that Wright desires. In contrast, the wall of windows on the opposite side opens up views of the vista over the waterfall, and allow for abundant light to shine through year-round.
The windows themselves create a linear contrast to the natural, irregular stone walls and the natural world outside. To further enhance the view, the windows are framed in a color Wright called Cherokee Red. He used this color extensively in his organic architecture because it is a deep, natural red color that is reminiscent of fall foliage or iron’s natural patina. The metal serves as picture frames for the ever-changing views of the outdoors.
The living area bridges nature and shelter in other ways as well. In the living room, a clear skylight frames the sky over a dramatic staircase that plunges directly to the water below, bringing the outside inside: water and sky unite. The bathroom off the main bedroom features a sink that is set in an alcove of windows like a window box. Even invisible corner joints serve to make the view to the outdoors seemingly seamless.
Wright designed the house so that the boulders that the house is anchored to will peek through the waxed flagstone floor – again abstracting the natural world. With the boulders peeking through the shiny, water-like floor, it is as if the interior is sitting in the stream outside. The focal point of the living room is the boulder-framed fireplace upon which the entire house is centered. The kitchen includes another boulder in the floor that creeps inside, providing a place to set pots as the inside and outside become entwined with only a pane of glass in between. Even hallways are treated to the outdoors with man-made stone walls giving way to natural boulders.
The furnishings inside Fallingwater are mostly custom designed by Wright to reiterate the linear, cantilevered forms of the exterior. Within the living room, Wright defines areas for dining, listening to music, reading, and writing by varying the ceiling level, quality of light with direct or recessed lighting, furnishings, and wall sections. The black walnut veneered furniture also counters the straight, horizontal lines with some curved edges and soft, upholstered accents. The natural tones of the upholstery fabric enhance the simple palette of the outdoors. As a whole, the interior design reflects and enhances the landscape seen all around it.
I hope you enjoyed learning some of the history of Fallingwater, what led to it’s design, and how thoughtfully it was executed. It is the ultimate display of Wright's organic architecture style with its unification of modernism and landscape, but it may have never happened if not for the Kaufmann family and their appreciation for both modern design and preserving nature. This home is unique in architecture in that it displays both Wright’s creative genius and the natural landscape surrounding it. If you ever find yourself in western Pennsylvania, I highly recommend stopping by for a tour.