The indirect route from Boston to Cincinnati goes right by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. We stopped for a visit today.
The house was commissioned in the mid-1930s by Edgar J. Kaufmann, owner of a big Pittsburgh department store and passionate about preserving and enjoying the mountains southeast of the big city. According to his biographers Wright hated Jews. Ironically, however, he did his most famous works for Kaufmann and Solomon Guggenheim (the museum in New York). Kaufmann approached Wright with a budget of $50,000; the house eventually cost over $150,000, making it roughly 15X more costly per square foot than conventional architecture of the day.
According to an exhibit in the cafe (excellent), Wright did not specify adequate structural strength for the famous cantilevers of Fallingwater, but fortunately Kaufmann independently engaged a structural engineer who slipped in a vastly increased quantity of steel reinforcement. If not for Kaufmann and the engineer, Fallingwater would have fallen into the water many decades ago. (When Wright found out about the extra steel, he was enraged, but eventually things were patched up.)
The house itself is fairly small by current standards, about 2500 square feet of interior space. The only room that seems spacious is the livingroom/diningroom. There are windows everywhere, but Wright forgot to put in screens, which must have made the place miserable during mosquito season. All of the other rooms and passageways are far too small for contemporary humans, whose tall stature would have them hitting the ceilings and whose obese bodies would barely fit through doors and halls.
According to the tour guide, Frank Lloyd Wright wanted the entire house covered in gold leaf. Kaufmann balked at the cost and, perhaps, the ostentation at a time when most of his countrymen were still suffering from the Great Depression. The house ended up being painted more or less the color that you see today. It was interesting that Wright, so far ahead of his time in many areas, was apparently able to predict the hip-hop aesthetic.
We also visited Kentuck Knob, a beautifully crafted 2200 square foot house on a nearby hilltop. This was built in the 1950s at a staggering-for-the-time cost. The house has a lot of interesting angles and great lighting.
Both houses are well worth visiting if only to see what it might look like if we put a lot of care into designing houses.
What struck me after touring these Wright monuments is the same thing that struck me after visiting the Gropius house in Lincoln, Massachusetts. How come none of these ideas are available in 99 percent of houses being built today? Wright did great things with corners and interesting polygonal shapes for rooms. Developers build houses where each room is a big rectangular box. Wright did interesting things with indirect lighting. Developers build houses where each room has a light in the center of the ceiling. If the ideas of the modern architects are so great, how come virtually no home builder has found it economic to implement any of them? It might add a few percent to the cost of construction to build things in a Wright-esque manner, but they could potentially sell at a 20 or 30 percent premium if buyers valued the design.
Is the conclusion that buyers don’t value this kind of design and that we all want to live in a standard colonial house?