Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater

February 27th, 2009 by David Wilkins

David G. Wilkins, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, is Study Leader for our Frank Lloyd Wright and Fallingwater tour. Click here to read David’s full bio.

Fallingwater was built between 1936 and 1939, but made it's everlasting mark on the American conscience in 1938 when it debuted on the cover of Time magazine. Photo: Lissa Brand

Fallingwater was built between 1936 and 1939, but made its everlasting mark on the American conscience when it debuted on the cover of Time magazine in 1938. Photo: Lissa Brand

Visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is still a thrill for me, even though I have been there many times since my first visit in 1968. I first saw the home shortly after it was given to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy by Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., son of the original patrons, Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann. At the time, the house was little more than thirty years old and I was 29. It struck me as a starkly modern masterpiece that deserved greater attention.

When I returned for a second visit a few years later, I found that the house and its adjacent guest cottage, also designed by Wright, had been transformed by the addition of a number of original possessions owned by the Kaufmann family. At first glance, these works, designed by Tiffany as well as other artists and artisans, seemed inappropriate for Wright’s architecture. Subsequent visits convinced me that the furnishings humanized the house and made it more accessible. It now seems like a place where real people lived, a place where I could live.

Now, more than forty years after my first visit, the house has been accepted as one of the key landmarks of modern architecture. Many critics, in fact, consider Fallingwater to be among the ten most significant buildings erected in the world during the last two centuries. Intervening developments in architecture both highlight the modernity of Wright’s design and demonstrate how it is rooted in the 1930s.

What I still find remarkable is how beautifully the structure is integrated into the natural setting that the Kaufmanns provided. From the beginning, the house was a surprise; instead of taking advantage of the view of the waterfall that was the centerpiece of the property, Wright built their house directly over the waterfall so that the best view of the waterfall now includes the house. When I stand downstream to view the house, I am always struck by the complexity of the design. After all these visits, I still cannot close my eyes and bring to mind the exact configuration of the terraces.

At the same time, the utter simplicity of the relationship between the building and nature is impressive. The broad horizontality of Wright’s simple, rectangular terraces reflects the wide ledges over which the water flows or drips, depending on the season and weather conditions. In contrast, the massive vertical element that centers the structure is constructed from stone quarried nearby that repeats the color and texture of the ledges. At the center of this core is the in-situ boulder that Wright left in place and used as the hearth for the living room fireplace, thereby rooting his design in the nature that inspired him. To maximize the Kaufmanns’ and their guests’ appreciation of the sounds of the waterfall and the cool humidity it brought, Wright used several different modern window treatments that must be seen in context to be fully appreciated.

Nearby is another house by Wright, the “deluxe Usonian” home built in 1956 for I. N. and Bernardine Hagan that is known as “Kentuck Knob.” A visit to the two homes on the same day highlights their differences and reveals the change in Wright’s style from the 1930s to the 1950s. At Kentuck Knob the kitchen replaces the fireplace as the center of the home and domestic life, while the plan is based on the hexagon rather than the rectangle. The Hagans had presumed Wright would build their house on top of the small mountain they owned, but instead he placed it below the summit, believing, as at Fallingwater, that a beautiful view should never be taken for granted.

The stories of the commissions of Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob cannot be separated from the history of Pittsburgh’s vital business and industrial community. The contributions of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Paul Mellon to education, art, and culture are known worldwide. Edgar Kaufmann, owner of the city’s largest and most successful department store, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a number of additional projects that were not built. These include a massive structure for the Pittsburgh Point, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio, and an apartment house overlooking the Point. As a Pittsburgher, I can only lament that these visions were never fulfilled.

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7 Responses to “Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater”

  1. Elizabeth Gordon Says:

    I’m over here in Barcelona for the semester and I’m taking a course on Modernism in Architecture. My professor was discussing paper topics and mentioned that it would be interesting to compare Gaudí or Domenech i Montaner to Wright’s houses. It certainly sounded interesting, and after reading this post I’m even more compelled to take on the topic. They seem to be compatible in some ways, especially if Tiffany’s furnishings complement the house, but so starkly different in terms of Wrights use of angles and most Modernist architects aversion to them. I hope to visit the house once I get back to the states!!

  2. Smithsonian Journeys Says:

    @ Elizabeth Gordon: Thanks so much for your comment. We’re so glad that we’ve helped you with your schoolwork and inspired you to visit Fallingwater when you return from Spain. You are really going to enjoy the tour – it’s just an amazing place.

  3. Edward Snow Says:

    In 1983 I was Architectural project manager for some dorms in W. Virginia, flying in to Pittsburgh frequently to drive to WV. My then boss and I decided to visit Falling Water on the way back to the City. We did and it has ever since been an design insperation for me. Because we were architects we were allowed to poke around a bit more than tourists and had a great time. I was lucky enough to begin teaching Design shortly thereafter and continued for 14 years. I always emphasized that the students must see Falling Water to understand how to integrate site and building.

  4. Charles Stroh Says:

    Falling Water and Kentuck Knob are definitely pretty special but so very different. The sculpture garden around Kentuck Knob and the land around it are almost as interesting as the house itself. Buy comparison, Falling Water seems locked in the trees and part of them. I frequently kayak on the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle and so have had the opportunity to see them both on numerous occasions. I have to say, honestly, that I am not much of a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright overall. He has made any number of bad buildings and often seems a parody of himself. But, Falling Water is definitely special.
    To Elizabeth Gordon …. I can’t see any way to compare Gaudi or Montaner to Wright. I would be interested to see what you come up with. One thing that did strike me about Gaudi when I actually got to see his work in person, was how craftsman-like it all is. I hadn’t anticipated that aspect of his work. CS

  5. Tracy Reagan Says:

    I live in northern West Virginia about a half hour from Falling Water. I am not an artist nor do I have any architectural training. My only perspective comes from the eyes of a tourist.

    Living nearby has allowed me the luxury of sprinkling my visits throughout the seasons at different times of the year. Covered in a snowy white blanket, rustling with the greenery of summer or the brilliant red, orange, and yellow hues of fall, or the somber grey of winter or the bursting potential of a new spring covered with buds of promise… Your views of this house, like that largely unseen but massive anchoring foundation boulder, leaves you with a feeling just at the edge of your consciousness – a dimly felt certainty you have witnessed something that is possessed of nature’s own timeless serenity. A man made building that leaves you with the rock solid certainty that, like the surrounding stones or trees, it has always been here and that, if gone, would leave a scar on the perfect beauty of it’s location. This simple little house just blends perfectly with it’s surroundings, and what’s more, makes beautiful it’s surroundings.

    It is only later the realization sets in this was not God’s landscape but something designed by a person – a genius yes, but still a mere mortal and the feeling of wonder begins anew and like a new day’s dawn the immensity of the accomplishment begins to bloom – the location – the colors of the paint – the organized but still random placement of those mysterious gravity-defying cantelevered decks. Even the shape – stacked squares and rectangles that don’t look like squares and rectangles until dissected and considered individually. How does a square or a rectangle blend into nature so seemlessly when nature has no matching boxes?

    You are left with the feeling this ‘place’ may be art in it’s purest form – beauty in a totally unexpected location.

  6. Charles Stroh Says:

    For many years, I have kayaked the Youghiogheny River from Ohiopyle, PA which is only a stone’s throw from both Kentuck Knob and Falling Water. The first time I saw Falling Water, like the writers above, I was in awe. I still am. But, Kentuck Knob seems to me to be much less successful in just about every way. In fact, one of the things that I feel about Wright’s work around the country, is how varied it is in quality. What comes to mind right now is that Community Christian Church in Kansas City which is not only unattractive, but crumbling and in need of attention. I wonder if someone might say something about upkeep and longevity in Wright’s work. I would like to know more.

  7. STEVE VERES Says:

    Wright did have some flaws in his architecture, however He was truely ahead of his time. Falling Water and the Robie house are some true examples of how far ahead he was. Falling Water architecture looks like 1960′s at best and built in the 30′s
    I have visited many of his works and He is the best American Architect hand down. We should all appreciate his work.

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