If you’ve ever read Ayn Rand’s book,The Fountainhead, whose protagonist is a visionary architect, you should visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania. Even if you haven’t read the book, you should still go on a Fallingwater tour. Really. Here’s why.
Maybe years gave me perspective, maybe reading The Fountainhead contributed to that, or maybe I just became more aware of how few visionaries there are in the world. In any case, fast forward 30 years or so and I found myself on a road trip to Pennsylvania, having made it my mission to go on a Fallingwater tour.
First You’ll Need to Find Fallingwater
Let’s start by saying that if you aren’t looking for it, you won’t accidentally stumble onto Fallingwater. Located about 90 minutes south of Pittsburgh, you need to drive through the middle of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, a beautifully wooded, very hilly part of the state, before you reach the road to the house. It’s not that Wright was purposely trying to hide the house – he was just building where the wealthy Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh already had a country getaway. The fact that there’s nothing much around is what adds to the beauty and peacefulness of Fallingwater.
An Architect’s Vision Comes to Life
Commissioned by Edgar Kaufmann to build a new summer home that would take advantage of the waterfall feature on the property, Frank Lloyd Wright took the opportunity to realize a revolutionary new design. He took Kaufmann’s request to the extreme: instead of situating the house with a commanding view of the waterfall, Wright built the house literally on top of it.
Wright’s vision was to integrate the structure into its surrounding landscape completely and he did so by cantilevering the house directly over the creek where it flowed over a series of naturally-terraced rockfalls.
Embracing Nature Inside and Out
Integration with its surroundings isn’t just about Fallingwater’s physical location. Everything Wright designed inside and outside the house is meant to direct the eye to the surrounding woods and blur the line between structure and nature.
Wright was also very intentional with how he presents the property to visitors: guests enter the house through an unobtrusive entrance under a portico that funnels them up a narrow staircase in single file, before opening up to a dramatic ‘reveal’ of the main living area: a large, open-concept space with walls of windows on 3 sides. Beyond the windows and the expansive concrete terraces is nothing but forest. Even the walls of the terraces are extremely low so as not to interrupt the view of the surrounding trees.
The height of the interior rooms was kept purposely low as well, one of Wright’s signature features in many of his homes. In fact, he designed the rooms at Fallingwater just high enough to accommodate the taller-than-average owner.
Inside Fallingwater, Wright designed windows so that they actually form the corners of the rooms. In some cases these windows open up like shutters, hinged so that there is no vertical frame in the centre to interrupt the view. Wright also refused to put screens on these windows as they would interfere with the open-air effect. (clearly he’s never been to a cottage in black fly or mosquito season!)
Wright took advantage of the outdoors to provide cooling for the house as well, with an ingenious ventilation idea that took advantage of the stream flowing below the living room area. Wright designed an open stairway from the living room down to the stream that allowed the cool air to ventilate the interior. On cooler days the stairway could be closed off with sliding glass panels.
As could be expected, Wright’s innovative designs ran waaaaay over budget which caused a lot of tension with the Kaufmans. Wright locked horns with his contractors, too, especially when it came to the concrete terraces which employed never-before-tried techniques in their construction. But through it all, Wright refused to compromise on his designs.
Whether you call him a control freak, an obsessive perfectionist or an arrogant megalomaniac, Frank Lloyd Wright executed his vision for Fallingwater right down to the smallest detail, from the colour of the red on the window frames to the design of the built-in furniture. (It’s hard to believe that these modern/retro furnishings with their Mad Men-like vibe were designed by him decades before the 1960s!)
Wright would no doubt have bristled when Mrs. Kaufmann insisted on her own choice of chairs in their dining room, as their ‘Swiss chalet’ aesthetic was not in keeping with the architectural integrity of the rest of the house.
It is Wright’s obsession with the smallest details of his projects that has led many to believe that Ayn Rand was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright when she created Howard Roark, the architect protagonist in The Fountainhead.
Behind the Scenes in Fallingwater’s Kitchen
The Brunch Tour of Fallingwater that Henk and I had chosen promised us access to rooms not on the standard tour, and one of these rooms was the kitchen. A modern marvel of its day, it boasted high-gloss yellow custom cabinetry and even included a state-of-the-art Kitchenaid dishwasher (keep in mind this house was built in the 1930’s!) And again, to bring the outdoors in, Wright continues the same exterior stone walls right into the interior space, separated only by a glass wall that dead-ends into the stone.
A Cottage ‘Bunkie’ Like No Other
Wright also designed space for guests of the Kaufmann family, but like everything else at Fallingwater, he ensured that nothing would disturb the owners’ privacy or the views from the main house. The guest cottage (part of which was used as servants’ quarters) is located up a gradual slope above the main house and is accessed via a covered walkway which provided protection in case of rain. But this is certainly no rudimentary ‘bunkie’. The two-story building is not as elaborate as the main house, but the long, low rooflines are similar and Wright designed everything inside and out with the same care and quality as he did in the main house, including the built-in furniture.
Fallingwater had me at ‘Hello’.
A dream cottage, a work of art, an architectural game-changer? You can decide. I’m no expert on architecture but visiting Fallingwater can’t help but elicit descriptors like ‘harmonious’, ‘tranquil’, and ‘inspiring’. I was smitten. Henk, being a contractor, had a more practical perspective, but there was one word we both agreed on: enviable. Because I couldn’t help feeling very jealous of the Kaufman family that called this place their summer home until 1963. It took imagination and ingenuity in the 1930s to build a house that extends out over a waterfall, and one that is not easily replicated even today. Because, as my husband has repeatedly assured me, with building restrictions these days, you could never build a modern-day Fallingwater “to Code”. Not if you wanted to do it the Wright way, that is. (pun intended)
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