Lowcountry Modern

Iconic House of the Month | February 2018 | Fallingwater

“Can you say when your building is complete, that the landscape is more beautiful than it was before?”

– Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater (Edgar J. Kaufmann House), 1935-38, Bear Run, Pennsylvania (photo: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress #LC-DIG-highsm-04261)

Floating above a mountain waterfall on a forested hillside in Southwestern Pennsylvania, about a 90-minute drive from Pittsburgh, is perhaps America’s most famous private residence designed by the most famous American architect.

The Kaufmann residence was completed in 1934. Its unique design makes it look like the house stretches out over a 30ft waterfall, with no solid ground beneath it. Of course, this isn’t the case, but the innovative design demands one’s attention upon arrival. Now a national historic landmark, it was instantly iconic.

The home’s commission was a late-career milestone for the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, then sixty-seven-year-old. A notable tale to come out of the project is that the initial design was conceived in the time it took the Kaufman’s to drive the 140 miles – about two hours – from Milwaukee to Wright’s studio, after the architect procrastinated for nearly nine months.

An apprentice to Wright recalled that upon talking with the client over the phone, the architect sat down and started to draw saying, “Liliane and E.J. will have tea on the balcony…they’ll cross the bridge to walk in the woods.” The feverish tempo culminated with a bold title below a rendering of the future home. It read Fallingwater.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater (Edgar J. Kaufmann House), Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 1935, Color pencil on tracing paper, 15-3/8 x 27-1/4 inches, © The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

Believing that human life was part of nature, Wright endeavored to build in ways that reflected this belief. He expressed this in the Kaufmann house in several ways.

One approach was to incorporate an existing rock outcropping projecting above the height of the living room floor into a great central hearth instead of destroying it, bringing the earth into the home.

Another approach emphasizing connection with nature was the abundant use of glass. Wright avoided using solid walls facing onto the stream and falls, offering panoramic views beyond to the forest. His creative use of “corner turning windows” without mullions dematerializes corners of the house where they’re used.

Another example of Wright’s respect for nature can be seen in the bending a trellis beam to accommodate a pre-existing tree.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater, detail with tree (Edgar J. Kaufmann House), 1937 (photo: Daderot, CC0 1.0)

Architecture historian Vincent Scully wrote that Wright’s Fallingwater reflects “an image of Modern man caught up in constant change and flow, holding on…to whatever seems solid but no longer regarding himself as the center of the world.”

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