An house’s daring construction over a waterfall was instrumental in reviving Wright’s architecture career, becoming one of the most famous 20th century buildings in the process.
Fall and ascent
Fallingwater, a weekend residence built near Mill Run, southwestern Pennsylvania, designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright for the Kaufmann family in 1935 and completed in 1937.
Today, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) is revered as one of history’s greatest architects—but by the time he reached his late 60s, many critics considered him to be washed up. Wright had only built few of his projects in the previous decade, the Great Depression had diminished demand for new buildings, and, adding insult to injury, his younger peers considered his style to be anachronistic. Kaufmann—whose department store, Kaufmann’s, was later incorporated into Macy’s—helped resuscitate Wright’s career when he asked the architect to design a weekend home in the Laurel Highlands for his family.
Atop a waterfall
The waterfall had been the family’s retreat for fifteen years and when they commissioned Wright to design the house they envisioned one across from the waterfall, so that they could have it in their view. Instead, Wright integrated the design of the house with the waterfall itself, placing it right on top of it to make it a part of the Kaufmanns’ lives.
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The Kaufmanns loved Wright’s radical proposal to literally suspend the house over the waterfall. But Edgar Kaufmann Sr., ever the pragmatic business man (who had also studied engineering for a year at Yale) prudently sent a copy of Wright’s blueprints to his engineer; who found the ground unstable and did not recommend that he proceed with the house. Wright was not happy with his client’s lack of faith, but permitted an increase in the number and diameter of the structure’s steel reinforcements, Kaufmann agreed to proceed. Its worth noting that the engineer’s warnings later proved valid, an issue that “haunted” Wright for the rest of his life.
Edgar Kaufmann Jr. pointed out that Wright’s famous concept of “Organic Architecture” stems from his Transcendentalist background. The belief that human life is part of nature. Wright even incorporated a rock outcropping that projected above the living room floor into his massive central hearth, further uniting the house with the earth.
Can you say, when your building is complete, that the landscape is more beautiful than it was before?
– Wright, challenging his apprentices
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Wright further emphasizes the connection with nature by liberal use of glass; the house has no walls facing the falls, only a central stone core for the fireplaces and stone columns. This provides elongated vistas leading the eye out to the horizon and the woods.
An image of Modern man caught up in constant change and flow, holding on…to whatever seems solid but no longer regarding himself as the center of the world.
– Vincent Scully
The architect’s creative use of “corner turning windows” without mullions causes corners to vanish. Wright even bows to nature by bending a trellis beam to accommodate a pre-existing tree.
Foreign influence, local materials
Wright’s admiration for Japanese architecture was important in his inspiration for this house, along with most of his work. Just like in Japanese architecture, Wright wanted to create harmony between man and nature, and his integration of the house with the waterfall was successful in doing so.
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The house took on “a definite masonry form” that related to the site, and for the terraces they decided on a reinforced-concrete structure. It was Wright’s first time working with concrete for residences and though at first he did not have much interest in the material, it had the flexibility to be cast into any shape, and when reinforced with steel it gained an extraordinary tensile strength.
The exterior of Fallingwater enforces a strong horizontal pattern with the bricks and long terraces. The windows on the facade have also have a special condition where they open up at the corners, breaking the box of the house and opening it to the vast outdoors.
Wright wanted Fallingwater’s interior to feel like the surrounding forest. The 5300-square foot home’s walls and floors are constructed of local sandstone; a rock outcropping is incorporated into the living room’s hearth; each bedroom has its own terrace; and its cornerless windows open outward so windowpanes won’t interrupt visitors’ view. There’s even a glass hatchway in the main level’s floor that opens to reveal a staircase leading down to the stream below.
Fallingwater through the years
Fallingwater has shown signs of deterioration over the past 80 years, due in large part to its exposure to humidity and sunlight. The severe freeze-thaw conditions of southwest Pennsylvania and water infiltration also affect the structural materials. Because of these conditions, a thorough cleaning of the exterior stone walls is performed periodically. Various areas of the house are repainted as needed as part of the ongoing care of the masonry.
In 1995, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy commissioned a study of Fallingwater’s structural integrity. Structural engineers analyzed the movement of the cantilevers over time and conducted radar studies of the cantilevers to locate and quantify the reinforcement. These showed that the contractor had indeed added reinforcement over Wright’s plan; nevertheless, the cantilevers were still insufficiently reinforced. An architecture firm was hired to fix the problem. Both the concrete and its steel reinforcement were close to their failure limits. As a result, in 1997, temporary girders were installed beneath the cantilevers to carry their weight. In 2002, the structure was repaired permanently using post-tensioning.