When Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr. and his wife Liliane commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935 to design a summer house on their sixty-acre woodland retreat in the Allegheny Mountains 70 miles south of Pittsburgh, little did they know the result – Fallingwater – would be an architectural masterpiece, a work of art unlike anything that came before.
It so happened that Bear Run, a 5.0-mile-long tributary of the Youghiogheny River, ran through the property and cascading down a small waterfall in the woodlands. It was a delightful spot and so the Kaufmanns gave no objections when Wright suggested he was to place the waterfall at the center of his designs for the house, envisioning the fantastic view that it was to provide. One can imagine their shock when the first plans were unveiled showing a house position directly on top of the falls!
Fallingwater incorporates the waterfall as an active component of the building design, rather than serve as passive scenery. In this, it can be seen as a zenith in the expression of Wright’s deep founded belief of architecture as a means to enhance man’s interaction with nature, as a means to bring man in closer harmony with nature.
It is not by accident that the color of the external walls match with the withered leaves in the photo. It is said that Wright choose the color “Covered Wagon” for the interior and exterior walls as the hue is reminiscent of the “sere” or dying leaves of the rhododendron, which are in great abundance around the site.
A geometrically flat sprawling structure, the house perfectly blends into its surroundings with the protruding cantilevered components acting like giant steps extending down the hillside. Wright often focused on the use of one prevailing geometric shape as a central tether his design (think of the Guggenheim and its circling spiral), and for Fallingwater it was rectangles.
Reflecting the influence of Eastern architectural philosophy, the main entrance is hidden from view, tucked in an corner on the “backside” of the house.
Upon entry from a confined dimly lit foyer, one is hit full frontal with a big open space filled with windows and bright natural light. A common feature in his designs known as “compress and release.”, Wright intentionally added in small tight spaces and lowered the ceilings so one would be forced to point their gaze outward, drawn to the beckoning windows and the nature outdoors.
A pair of French doors from the living room opened unto stairs which allowed one direct descent into Bear Run, right atop of the waterfall.
The entirety of the open space area was suspended above the water using cantilevered rebars hidden underneath the concrete flooring.
Nature even seamlessly protruded into the house. In the image below one can see how rather than excavating existing cliff side rocks, they were harmoniously infused into the interior decor. Much of the furniture were custom built and designed by Wright specifically to fit the spaces.
As essentially a pure concept house built through trial and error, Fallingwater took 3 years to complete with the cost ballooning from an original estimate of $35,000 to a final cost of $155,000 (~$2.7 million today). From 1938 through 1941, more than $22,000 additional was spent on details and changes in the hardware and lighting to fix various structural issues and make the house “inhabitable”. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that the design was so ahead of its time that much of the construction materials available at the time were ill-equipped to handle what Wright wanted to achieve. Through the years, the house was constantly in need of repair with roof/water leaks and floor cracks being commonplace nuisances.
Upstairs, the second and third floors housed the bedrooms. In keeping with the flat rectangular motif, the window panes are broken upon by beams. Yet, one could open them, each individually, to gain an unobstructed connection with nature outdoors.
In another architectural first, the covered awning over the outdoor stairs leading to the guesthouses was conceived as a single piece of reinforced concrete angled so it would support its own weight like a catenary arch. The mold was built onsite and concrete poured in separate settings. Once completely dried, it took a team of men working collaboratively to raise all sides in one go. Part of the roof actually collapsed on the first try. Eventually, though the structured proved to be free-standing, steel support poles were added at intermittent intervals as a precautionary measure.
One can better see the arch in its entirety below, in the middle of the bird-eye view image, connecting the main house at the bottom with the rooms nestled in the hill side above. And yes, the smoke is rising from the central hearth in the living room – a visual unto the beating heart of Fallingwater. As Wright is quoted to have said, “The hearth is the psychological center of the home.”