Visiting Falling Water

November 6, 1998

Flew to Pittsburgh. Completely ordinary and unremarkable. But then I did something I don't often do: I rented a car for just the day so I could go check out something that I've wanted to see for quite a while -- Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous house, "Fallingwater."

It felt a little like a pilgrimage; a little as though I were going to Canterbury -- as Chaucer writes -- "the holy blissful martyr for to seke..."

Like that.... only without the Wife of Bath. Just me in a green Hertz rental to drive the 90 miles southeast out of Pittsburgh, toward house that's held in high esteem, on a creekside hidden away in the southern mountains of Pennsylvania.

It's quite a drive. It's an interstate highway through 80 miles of late fall weather. The tree's colors still hang on, muted a bit by being so late, but still lovely with tones of quiet red, auburn and russet clustering as Impressionist paintstrokes on the hillside waves of earth and stone.

And after driving the last bit through rolling hills, past anonymous rural urbian settings of Seven-Elevens and gas stations, you start to pass the more distinctive signs of the outland life: meat lockers for smoked venison behind the local butcher's shop with white smoke pouring out, men walking down the highway in cammies and orange with rifles slung underarm, the sheared greensward of a dairy farm field hard after a long stretch of forest.

In the middle of one forest stretch is an unremarkable sign: Fallingwater. On 1200 acres of Conservancy preserve, there's a building that has essentially defined "organic architecture" and become iconic to a couple generations of designers.

It's just a summer home built for wealthy patrons, in this case, the Kaufmanns of Pittsburgh wanted a nice summer home in the mountains. They already owned this nice spot with a modest waterfall on a stream in the mountains, and they knew this architect, Wright. He'd done some work for them before on their commercial buildings so perhaps, just perhaps he would design something for them.

Wright visited the site once, and had a topographic map drawn up for him. Based on that small appreciation, he designed a set of planes and boxes that set into the rock walls of the gorge with such ease and clarity that designers have praised it continually since then.

You've seen the building before -- it's all glass and tan/buff colored cantilevered planes that suspend over the waterfall running through the house. And I've seen it too. But from all the maps and diagrams and photos, I could never *get* the sense of the space. In all the pictures, somehow it never captures what it would be like to walk through the house and see how it all fits together.

That's why I had to go: to see the three dimensionality of the place, to evaluate it for myself, to understand it.

The tour is a walkthrough. And if you've read the literature, you can pretty much ignore the guide... you already know all that stuff. But what she can't tell you is what it feels like to walk into the living room from the main entrance. Surprisingly, the main entrance is quiet and unimposing: it's just a smallish doorway tucked back next to the driveway with a small fountain. It leads into the main space, the big floor, the main box with glass perimeter that hangs off the central core.... and that's the first attraction, the open plan living space. Walk in, and there's a long ribbon of horizontal glass for 100 degrees around. It's as though the woods have come into the house, or rather, as though the divide between interior and exterior is gone.

I've visited many other Wright houses, and sometimes they get pretty fussy with interior planes that I'm sure he liked, but that just subdivide without benefit. He also loved to play with lots of decorative elements. But here, the effect is pretty clean and clear and simple. The floors are polished stone, and blend into the rock walls of the falls; the walls and glass all merge together and *sweep* around. It's a view house -- it gives you a view, and creates one when you look at it from almost any vantage point.

It's not a perfect house. For all Wright's Usonian ideals about usablity and living in his homes, there are lots of small blunders -- instances where his design esthetics overcame good sense from a user's perspective. The kitchen is really an afterthought, there are endless drainage problems, the covered walkway looks like something from Mars, the cantilevered section isn't level (because he forgot to tell the construction foreman to tilt the section up a bit to allow for stretching), and so on.

Common wisdom is that these gotchas are tolerable because, after all, he's Frank Lloyd Wright! And maybe they are... The overarching vision of the house and so many individual elements are SO right, I guess I'll forgive him for making the doorways too narrow in the upper levels (everyone turns sideways to get into the 2cnd floor study). Not because he's Wright, but because it provides a vision of design far beyond simple usability.

There's a dividing line between art and design. Rich Gold says that "Designer's make something, and then hold it up, saying 'Like this?'" While artists make something and say, "I like this."

It's not just self-centeredness, but a different sense of what is valued in the evaluation. Most architects try to satisfy the customer by doing the craftwork to solve problems as best they can. An artist tries to amplify or articulate a vision of what something could be.

We can't all be artists... Or can we? When does the dividing line between pushing the vision and solving the problem have to be drawn in the metaphorical sand?

I've said before that one should "live one's life as though it were a work of art." And now I'm beginning to understand what that really means.

After walking through the house, I went back to the visitor's center. A nice enough place that seems to consciously try to honor the Wright legacy: open spaces, view windows everywhere, ornamentation of the everyday utilities. (e.g., specially made stainless steel urnials) But it just didn't quite work out. There wasn't a consistency that surpassed the present. And that makes all the difference.

I drove back to Pittsburgh over a different route. The southerly way passes through Civil War battlefields, monumental markers, and small towns. "Caution, buggy ahead" signs are everywhere. Mostly it's just like all the other small towns of upstate New York or Pennsylvania, they all blur together after a while.

But then I drove through a place where the hillsides seemed to flow together in a way that made more sense than elsewhere; fewer distractions and less of the arbitariness. Why here? What's special about some places? Wasn't designed. But the slope of the hillside, the growing green and dried up corn stubble was all in just the right shape and space. It just worked.

An maybe that's what I liked about Fallingwater. It just works visually and spatially when you walk through it. Even better: It speaks a language of its own, and sets out a vision for what an architecture can be. (I know this sounds awfully like "Fountainhead," but perhaps even though it seems deeply obvious, it's what Rorke's constant fight was all about.)

I realize that I’m looking for my art.

Also on the trip back – I passed a house that was being remodelled. The siding was off the house and you could see that it once was a log house... the logs must have been 14 X 14”, and they were squared off. Huge trees went into that house... and it didn’t seem to be anything special. Of course, there were no such trees around any longer.

Last edit: 6/25/07