Report from Fallingwater

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?

9 thoughts on “Report from Fallingwater

  1. My 1975-era apartment has unique window trim and is largely bereft of right angles, but when showing us the place the apartment manager just treated all this as some quirk of the era. If the apartment had hardwood floors instead of a vomit-colored carpet, they could probably charge twice as much and still fill all the units

    To be fair, though, at least in Seattle it’s impressive just how much nicer-looking the 1900s-1930s colonials, farmhouses, and Cape Cods are than the generic tract blight built in the last 30 years. I’m lucky to have found an apartment that wasn’t in a stucco box suspended over a carport.

  2. As an architect (see website) I can tell you that it is because the building industry drives the design of the homes. Cove lighting is hard to build. Anything other than a right angle is hard to build. Not more difficult to design, the design is primarily a question of information management, but it is difficult to convince the homeowner that the whining of the contractor is not going to break their budget.

  3. Fallingwater leaks. Was it this house that the owner complained about the water dripping from the ceiling onto his desk, and Wright said “So move your desk”?
    Wright houses don’t work. Paraphrasing the introduction to a copy I have of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”: “That architecture is the art of adapting space for use seems never to have occurred to [Wright].”

  4. Didn’t Monty Python say that architects should be “first to the wall’ when the revolution comes? I think we just don’t know any better – that our taste is all in the moutn. Our little developement south of Pittsburgh has non-identical interior units, but that’s kind of unique. I thought newer buildings in the UK were tragically bland and boxy, but our two condos (’50s and ’60s construction) in Italy were visually delightful, with interesting variations in angles and materials. Maybe it’s something in the water?

  5. I don’t think his point is to copy Fallingwater exactly, including the flaws, I think his question is about why 99% of these homes take their design cues from the 1890s. Sure the builders drive the industry, but if customers were clamoring for modern design, paying more, not buying 1890s homes, things would change.

    I think the reason why is most people haven’t seen much modern home design and when they have it’s not something they can imagine themselves in. It’s sometimes presented in American media as where the wicked elite live, like say the Sharon Stone character in Basic Instinct or various bad guys in glass homes in southern California).

    I wonder how this compares to car design, a few retro car designs come out each year (PT Cruiser, Beetle, Mustang), but for the most part people buy cars that are contemporary.

  6. I thought that you’d previously been to fallingwater (and as I recall, didn’t like it much). Maddeningly, I can’t find the article. It is an interesting question: why people are willing to spend lavishly on materials and construction, but rarely on any sort of interesting design. I think there are a few things going on: The building trades clearly don’t want do do anything difficult; most of the carpentry and finish work in a typical McMansion is something a skilled weekend amateur could do. It would be interesting to see an amateur gracefully put an elliptical skylight into a vaulted ceiling (the same goes for the typical contractor).
    I think there’s also financial pressure. These days, houses are bid up by loans, and loans are approved based on appraisals, and appraisers tend to come in and measure square footage. Under this regime, the design must merely be satisfactory; there’s simply no money to be made by spending more time and money on it. In fact, idiosyncratic houses generally aren’t easy to sell.
    It’s telling that really interesting designs are generally done for people with no need to seek financing.

  7. I just visited Falling Water this past X-Mas and liked the experience very much. I paid extra to be able to take pictures inside ($65) ticket and it was worth the cost. I still cannot believe how much of the house is accessible to the general public! They let us go everywhere except the bathrooms. ( I will remark how full of junk and small the basement was – just like everyone else’s – although the guide did say that Wright added it after prodding) My group was fairly teetering over furniture with no “museum ropes” to be found anywhere in the house. Alhough a small house I was impressed by its size fairly expecting a small cave-like enterior ( I shot mostly without flash) from the book and from other friends that have been there. A couple of the ceilings and doorways did make me feel a little like Shaq though.
    I had just finished “Falling Water Rising” by Franklin Toker for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the house. Phil, I knew about Frank Lloyd Wright’s feelings towards those of the Jewish faith before but would like to think that he and Kaufman came out friends throughout this ordeal of building the house and at least had respect for each other. (especially seeing how FLW liked to steamroll his clients and how smart Kaufman was in dealing with him.)
    I didn’t know about the Kentuck Knob house until after I came back so missed the experience.
    Phil I have just started with photography and regret that the morning i went – we were the first group in the house that day – there was an absolutely gorgeous sunrise view from the small road that leads into Ohiopyle – just below Falling Water. I didn’t get out of my car and snap a few shots or even a panorama because I would have had to encroach on someone’s property or driveway or pull off the road.
    I was just as shocked to see one house right near the entrance of Falling Water that was essentially a dump with the adornments of the usual junk piled in the front yard. That ain’t no upscale neighborhood that is for sure!
    I wish I could agree with you on the cafe, but the cold rice pilaf with bland croissant roast beef sandwich and high cost left me wanting.
    PS – I did get a kick out of the fact that our guide says that a lot of the folks coming to see Falling Water – that don’t know it well – are initially disappointed because they think the visitor’s center is actually the house!

  8. There is an interesting back story to Fallingwater. Apparently, Mrs. Kaufman hated the idea of putting the house right on top of the creek. She wanted it set back on the hillside. Of course, Wright wanted to make a more dramatic statement. Eventually, she warmed up to the place, but often preferred the guest house where she later died of an overdose. Though ruled accidental, her son and FL Wright maintained that she committed suicide. The marriage had been difficult and Mr. Kaufmann had many mistresses. For a place that evokes peace and balance, the human story was anything but that.

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