As part of an ongoing pilgrimage to the world's most influential works of architecture, including Le Corbusier's chapel in Ronchamp, France; Louis Kahn's National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland, I took a road trip earlier this month to the impoverished western flank of the Appalachian Mountains to visit Fallingwater by the legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright designed the country house at Bear Run, Pa., during the Depression for prominent businessman Edgar Kaufmann, owner of a successful department store in Pittsburgh; his wife, Liliane; and their son, Edgar Jr., whose fine-art studies in Europe and New York had inspired the selection of the architect.
Though Wright was 67 when he first visited the heavily forested site southeast of Pittsburgh, his design for Fallingwater was a piece of structural daring set directly, unbelievably, over a rushing river and waterfall. Nearly 75 years after its completion, it is still a house for the ages that startles the eye and compels visitors young and old to believe that a house should not merely serve as a shelter but a place of liberation and generous humanity.
Its massive seduction has attracted a huge public, including scholars and students. More recently, it triggered an international design competition for six cottages to accommodate residencies and workshops, and to be sited on a hill slightly north of Fallingwater. Three of the six short-listed firms in the competition are distinguished Canadian practices (Patkau Architects, Saucier + Perrotte architectes and MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects.) A winner be announced Monday.
Provoked by the isolation of the house and its ability to endure, and to communicate to 160,000 visitors who tour Fallingwater each year, I've imagined a modern-day conversation between Wright and an indweller (Wright's term for the people he designed for) who has come down from the mountain to spend the night in Fallingwater. Many of Wright's statements are direct historic quotes, and still resonate today.
Frank Lloyd Wright: "I see all the resources in power and material we have, working now to make our ideal of freedom come true in these United States."
Indweller: "Frank, is that you? You're talking in your deep sleep again."
FLW: "The modern gifts of glass; these modern gifts of steel-in-tension …"
Indweller: "D'ya mind taking off your big black hat? This bed is way too small."
FLW: "The ideal of human freedom and naturally seeking the spaciousness, the openness, lightness and strength."
Indweller: "You figured that out just fine at Bear Run. Standing in the living room, looking out to the forest, hearing the roar of the waterfall below, it's like meeting up with a hidden animal force - a calamity, and wanting it, too. Though, you've got to admit, the cast-iron wine cauldron next to the fireplace was a dumb move. Took 13 hours to heat up some mulled wine - the guests had left by the time it was served."
FLW: "The design was for a man who loved the place sincerely, one who liked to listen to the waterfall, where he might well live."
Indweller: "And, he did. He loved it. To be away from the black clouds of industry in Pittsburgh and the people, all the people in the department store. He loved bringing his employees here, in the good times, before the great house was built, when there was just the little house bought from the Aladdin Company catalogue for $500. But that was so long ago, way before I moved into my shack in the hills. Kaufmann, he hated to see his customers haggling over prices during those dirty Depression years. To drive here through the rolling Appalachians, poor, hardscrabble country, through the forest, through the deep unknowable green. It cured him every time. The Bentley would hug the logging roads exactly right, over the bridge, and then a sharp left …"
FLW: "Hated garages - another place for clutter, just like basements. The driver complained, of course - hard to keep the Bentley polished. I overheard him once threatening to cut down that tree I deliberately kept next to the front entrance. Just wrapped the wooden trellis beams around the trunk."
Indweller: "You know, Frank, it's good to see you, both of us squatters all over again at Fallingwater. But I think you've pushed me off the bed. It feels like I'm sleeping on a rock. And that cape of yours - it really needs a dry-clean."
FLW: "I love that. The feel of stone. Unshakeable. Nailed to the ground. Making the stone cliffs on the site become part of the natural walls for Kaufmann's house. And then going with the boys into the quarry a stone's throw away, picking the limestone, the large organic shapes, for more walls, and all of the floors."
Indweller: "Do you miss it, Frank? Creating Fallingwater?
FLW: "I hoped it might be the birth of American architecture. Architecture had become a parasite, content with an imitation of an imitation, like the spurious St. John the Divine in New York. To go along with the imported cathedral were such inversions as the Lincoln Memorial, such aberrations as our capitols, such morgues as our museums, and such grandomania as our city halls."
Indweller: "I think you would have liked the Sears Tower in Chicago. No Viagra needed."
FLW: "If it was as clunky as the Seagram Building, I doubt it highly. 1958. The year internationalism landed in New York! I died the next year - Seagram probably killed me. Mies van der Rohe. Ha! He was a ringleader. Though his open floor plans were a nice touch. But I tell you, those architects of the International Style: totalitarians! They weren't wholesome people."
Indweller: "The cantilevered concrete trays at Fallingwater … Didn't you want to coat them in gold leaf? Was that your idea of wholesome?"
FLW: "On his own, without my approval, Kaufmann approved extra rebar in the concrete structure - he could afford the extras, was what I was thinking. Anyway, the economy wouldn't allow it. Nor would Mrs. Kaufmann. She preferred rustic chairs and raccoon blankets."
Indweller: "She defended you - it took her a while - but she came around to your vision, and then immersed herself in it, just like her daily plunge in the four-foot-deep swimming pool at the bottom of the living-room stairs."
FLW: "The stairs floating just above the surface of the rushing river - the marriage between the house and nature. What is any building, as architecture, without an intimate relation to the ground? No more than a man trap or a landlord's ruse."
Indweller: "So your Guggenheim Museum was a joke on New Yorkers?"
FLW: "Sixteen years of my life on that project and they couldn't even agree to paint the interior off-white. If they didn't like my big seashell, I hope they planted seaweed, or vines. Anyway, I never lived to see it open."
Indweller: When I wander into the old man's study here and push open those windows with the mitered edges and the corner of the house becomes nothing but air … the corner, the box - it just disappears. How do you feel, looking back on it all?"
FLW: "The longer I lived, the more beautiful life became - despite my personal tragedies, the fire, despite my third wife and her dreadful taste. My dear Olgivanna, she insisted on replacing the lovely canvas and wooden trusses at Taliesin West with steel supports and pink frosted glass. Well, I was too old to care by then. What I decided early on was this: If you foolishly ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life."
Indweller: "Frank, I'm not going to see many more days if I get another sleep like this one. You want to catch some shut-eye?"
FLW: "The human figure appeared to me, about 1893 or earlier, as the true human scale of architecture."
Indweller: "Your human figure was ideally 5 feet 8 inches. People are taller now. And they're different - they don't write angry letters to their clients any more. They e-mail in short, clipped sentences. And if they're happy, they type in a happy face, and tweet about their every silly move."
FLW: "I found with my clients that deep overhangs provide the interior with the softened, diffused lighting for which the indweller is invariably grateful."
Indweller: "Frank, you know how you said before that you had a dream of giving birth to an American architecture?"
FLW: "And that my hat was too big?"
Indweller: "No, that was your head. But, listen Frank, I think you did - you invented it. There's something else, too, something sad and twisted. Maybe American architecture died with Fallingwater, too. There was no more daring left to do."
FLW: "The effects you see in this house are not superficial effects."
Indweller: "Do you remember the son Edgar, maybe he had a point. He said, 'Such a place cannot be possessed. It is a work of man for man; not by a man for a man.' Frank? Are you snoring? I know, he was sort of boring. Hold on, I think I hear the first tour group coming down the old log road. Better get out of here. Remind me not to sleep on the living-room rock next time?"
FLW: "How many so far?"
Indweller: "Since the Kaufmanns donated Fallingwater to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963? Nearly five million visitors, Frank."
FLW: "See you next time."
Indweller: "Hey Frank. It was good seeing you. Thanks for the keys."