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Reflections on Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's organic architecture masterpiece

Last year, I had a Frank Lloyd Wright calendar on my office wall; the entry for Fallingwater noted the house was located in Pennsylvania. On a whim I started doing some Googling and found that it was within reasonable driving distance of my in-law's home in Manassas, Virginia. Wouldn't it be neat to see in person? I thought. 

I've been casually interested in modern architecture most of my life. My family owned a set of Grolier encyclopedias ("Our Wonderful World" in the blue and white covers, if I recall); in one article was a picture of Wright's Fallingwater.

I was intrigued by the way the house seemed to be part of the landscape, and how the terraces defied gravity. I emulated the effect in my own Lego constructions during childhood--minus the water. I've had that particular image of Fallingwater kicking around in my mind for about 30 years.

On July 7, 2009 I visited the Fallingwater house with my father-in-law. We drove to Mill Run and arrived a couple hours before our 4:30PM tour; this provided time to see the gift shop (which would be closed by the time our tour returned). We headed down the pathway where the other tours were going, and took pictures of the stream and landscaping. Farther down the path--the driveway of the house, we later discovered--the woods seem to close in a bit more. We took a sharp right bend toward the stream, and there it was!

First view of Fallingwater during our walk around the grounds before our tour.

The house seemed to fit right into the landscape, as if it was supposed to be right there. We took more photos and even walked down the "the view" location, where the Fallingwater exterior is most frequently photographed.

After an hour of walking the grounds and taking lots of exterior photos and video, we relaxed in the Visitor's Center and waited for our group to be called. We were on the "In-depth" tour, which is two hours long, includes secondary rooms of the house in addition to the main rooms, covers the guest house, and permits photography everywhere inside the house. The standard one hour tour does not permit photography. I figured if I was going to see it, I was going to take some pictures of my own.

Our group of 9 (smaller groups on the in-depth tour... bonus!) met our guide and started down the path to the house. En route we were given some ground rules (don't touch anything, don't sit on the furniture, take all the photos you like, ask questions any time, and keep your camera bag and such in front to avoid knocking into things). The tours follow the original driveway route; you cross the stream on a bridge and enter the house from the "back". Our tour actually started in the second entrance at the kitchen; then we exited the house and circled back to the "front" door.

As we entered the main living space of Fallingwater, I had a bit of the kid on Christmas morning vibe--"oh boy oh boy oh boy!" This soon morphed into the same feeling I had the first time I saw a coral reef in the wild: what do I take a picture of first? It all looks so neat! Now, granted the furnishings are showing their age--the house is over 70 years old you know--but the overall concept has aged very gracefully, and would look quite "at home" in any modern architecture magazine.

Several features really stick with me:

  • Square footage does not equal value. Fallingwater is smaller than I imagined: its total square footage is about 2,800 sq. ft. for the interior space and 2,500 sq. ft. of terraces. The ceilings are quite low, and the hallways and stairwells are very narrow. Even the writing desks in each bedroom are designed so the windows will open rotating through a slot in the desk, and there are bookcases lining the stairwell walls.
  • This is a house for grown-ups. Fallingwater has a few locations which really warrant some additional safety features for kids! And then there's the collectable artwork adorning the walls, and the fact that pretty much everything above waist level is glass! However, the original owners had only one son, and he was grown by the time Fallingwater was built. It was a perfect fit for their needs.
  • Living spaces are for living: bedrooms for rest and repose. The bedrooms are small enough for a bed, a desk... and that's about all. Each bedroom has its own terrace and windows which open to the outdoors. The main living space is a combination dining and living room, with two terraces of its own and a stairwell down to the water's surface. It's quite obvious that the intent of the layout was to bring people to the center of the home--and not to crowd around an entertainment center.
  • No garage, and nowhere to hide junk. Our tour guide said that Wright hated clutter, and provided nowhere to accumulate it. I think I rather like that idea! Wright even coined the term "carport"; there are 4 of them at the Fallingwater guest house and service quarters. No garage doors here. And the basement is just barely large enough for the utilities.
  • The sound of water. The design of the house ensures you can hear the waterfall from anywhere inside. The stream flows under the bridge, directly under the main terrace of the house, then turns sharply left before cascading down the rocks. (Visually, it appears the waterfall runs directly out of the house itself!) Not only is this sound naturally soothing, but it masks the acoustic "liveliness" of the stone and glass construction. If the stream were silent, the slightest sound would probably echo through the entire house.
  • Good design withstands time. Although fraught with technological challenges, Fallingwater's design essence is solid and timeless, so far as I'm concerned.
  • Visionaries push the boundaries of technology. Let's face it: there's nothing very exotic going on at Fallingwater which you haven't already seen at Disney World or any other theme park. But keep in mind this was started in 1936, and you have newfound respect for what it must have taken to create Fallingwater. This was before many of our exotic building materials and methods were available.
  • Everybody's human--and a pretty house doesn't mean a tidy life. Dig a bit into Wright's family life, and you find a rather... well, let's just say he would have been fodder for all the gossip shows. Same goes for the Kaufmann family who owned the place. Ouch.

Overall, I think Fallingwater is a must-see for anyone who has any interest in design or architecture. I'm quite a neophyte in this realm, but still found it quite fascinating.

Now, if they'd just let me rent the place for a weekend...

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