One doesn’t usually think of organic and architecture together, but most of us don’t have the imagination of Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s best known architect.
I had heard the name all my life, but it wasn’t until I recently visited his most famous house design, Fallingwater, in southeast Pennsylvania, that I finally understood what sets his designs in a category all their own. To say he thinks ‘outside the box’ is pure understatement when you stand on the bridge that crosses Bear Run and look at the multi-tiered, rock and glass structure that both reaches for the sun and bends down to touch the cascading creek.
It’s been 150 years since the birth of Wright, and yet you realize looking at Falllingwater, that no-one has dared to blend earth, water and sky in quite the same way.
Conceived in 1935 (that’s the height of the depression don’t forgot), Wright was at a low point in his career. He took up a friend and work relationship with Edgar J. Kaufmann, owner of Kaufmann's department store in Pittsburgh and was contracted to design a weekend home on the property they owned in the Laurel Highlands, about 40 miles south of the city.
At that time a house would cost between $ 4 – 5,000 to build and would have traditionally been built on the level ground at the bottom of the double waterfall with a view of the creek, or so Kaufmann Senior thought. He was convinced by his son, a student of Wright’s, that it was worth ten times that to go with the cantilevered (basically a concrete diving board balanced on the natural bedrock) design that nestles the main house in the north/dark side of the mountain and opens up to an almost purely southern exposure that literally places the house over the waterfall and blends perfectly with the surroundings - while also maximizing the landscape's cooling and heating effects.
As you stand in the main room, on natural rock floors, you are literally drawn to the light and to the beauty of the forest around you. You hear the waterfall and can descend to the creek's level on a concrete stairway that starts in the main room and allows you to walk to the water. There are planters and window features that blend the in and outside so perfectly you don’t know where the house stops and nature begins.
This is one organic house.
Even the furniture and fixtures are mostly compromised of natural materials. In one of his famous quotes Wright said:
“Architecture is the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods, and men,
to put man into possession of his own earth.”
Of course none of this would have been possible if the Kaufmanns had not allowed Wright to reopen an old rock quarry to the west of the site to provide the stones needed for the house’s walls and go into many cost overruns as the house would also include guest quarters, a 4 car carport and staff quarters built with the same style. When it was finished the original estimated cost of $35,000 came to $155,000 broken down as: house $75,000, finishing and furnishing $22,000, guest house, garage and servants' quarters $50,000, and architect's fee $8,000. From 1938 through 1941, more than $22,000 was spent on additional details and for changes in the hardware and lighting.
The total project price of $155,000, adjusted for inflation, is the equivalent of about $2.7 million in 2016. Still. The house is considered Wright's "most beautiful job"; it is listed among Smithsonian's Life List of 28 places "to visit before you die.” And it is a wonder to behold.
To think that this house designer incorporated so many innovative ways to make good use of the sun orientation, the natural surroundings and minimalist furnishings – many built-in shelves, planters and water features - makes me wonder why these aspects have not make it to the common builder and the common home.
I guess in many ways we lack imagination. I know my husband Stan is always suggesting ways to improve our property but I hold it up to some “normal” standard and poo poo many of his ideas. After standing at the precipice of Fallingwater, I’m going to reconsider my need for normal.
More FLW 150 Celebrations Info:
America's best-known architect, Frank Lloyd Wright’s innovative designs continue to fascinate the public, from New York's Guggenheim museum, where the circular building itself is a sculptural work of art, to the Fallingwater house, to his modernist home on the Wisconsin prairie, Taliesin, which served as a laboratory for his ideas. Some of Wright's buildings, now historic sites, marked his birthday milestone in June with parties and $1.50 tours. Other exhibits and events are being offered into the summer and fall, including a major show at New York's Museum of Modern Art called "Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive." The exhibition, which runs through October 1, showcases Wright's drawings, 3-D models, furniture and other material from an archive the museum jointly owns with Columbia University.