Fallingwater, a private residence constructed between 1937 and 1939 for the Kauffman Family, is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous – and arguably his most iconic – works/buildings/constructions. Known for it’s dramatic cantilevered forms and flawless integration with its natural surroundings, the 5,300 square foot home was designed as both a status symbol and a retreat away from the pollution of Pittsburgh for the wealthy Kauffmans. Unlike standard architectural commissions, Wright demanded and was given complete control over the bold design in keeping with his personality, but also in an attempt to create a revolutionary product that would restore his flagging popularity. The ongoing praise and high regard for Fallingwater is a testament to his success.
The house is absolutely stunning to see in person. I can only imagine how fantastical it would have been to visitors in the 1930s who were unaccustomed to aspects of modern design and ignorant of the subsequent engineering marvels that we all take for granted today. Many of the most incredible aspects of the house center around the huge cantilevered terraces and interior rooms, which more than double the foundation’s footprint on solid ground. In particular, the great room on the ground floor and the bedrooms directly above it seem to hover over Bear Run River and the 30 foot waterfall.
While the cantilevers serve a very needed function in providing the large interior and terrace spaces Wright sought, they also set up the strong horizontal elements that create integration of the home with the landscape by paralleling the ledges of the waterfalls. Such bold, broad forms were also necessary to offset the verticals and overall height of the home that were required in order to provide the desired number of bedrooms; without the horizontal emphasis that grounded the home, such a tall, large building would stand apart from the setting rather than appear incorporated in it.
Despite the structure being a composite of intersecting horizontal and vertical forms it’s assimilation with the organic forms of the property is complete, a fact that captured my imagination upon seeing photos of the home so long ago. What cannot be communicated in a picture of any architectural work however is the experience of it – the impressions, the feelings it evokes, the subtle emotions it brings forth. And it is this relation of Fallingwater to the human that makes it great. As fantastic as the exterior forms and the overall design are, the power of Fallingwater is its capability to invite, to welcome, to draw a person in to the space and then once inside, to simultaneously make them secure in a man-made space while allowing them to feel as through they are in the outdoors. Much has been made of how the natural elements that have been incorporated into the home serve to create the impression that you are in the outdoors and such emphasis is entirely deserved since Wright accomplished this flawlessly. If I may try to explain how this achievement is revolutionary however: It’s the difference between being inside a rustic cabin or lodge that evokes the natural world through use of elements such as stone fireplaces, roughly-hewn wooden rafters, and exposed log walls, and feeling like you are in many ways literally outside. In the former you are given a sense that you are in a place that connected and defined by its setting in nature, while in Fallingwater you feel like are in nature. It is completely different.
This feeling of complete integration is more impressive considering the modern interior design, for notwithstanding the liberal use of local stone and wood as material, there is nothing rustic about this house. It achieves fusion with its setting however through structural elements such as glass running the length of the walls, the incorporation of a transparent, retractable “hatch” that accesses a stairway down to the waterfall, and its interspersion of interior spaces with large exterior terraces. And what is does by creating the feeling of being outdoors it tempers perfectly in order to create a secure and comfortable space for its human inhabitants (here I’m referring to the psychological feelings of comfort as opposed to the insecurity of being exposed to the elements – not the actual comfort of the furnishings). Interior design elements such as the dark wooden horizontal banding across windows and along the tops of walls, warm palette and tactile nature of the textiles, and the low furnishings and shelving carefully balance the impression that the exterior has been extended into the interior and provide reassurance to the occupants.
But the feature that consistently achieves this human-scaling is the manipulation of ceiling height, down to 6’4” in some places. The cantilevered Great Room – featuring a large floorplan, windows that stretch its length, massive stone hearth, the aforementioned transparent access hatch to the waterfall below, and consistent discernible sounds of the river – is without doubt the room that most creates the impression of being outdoors, yet the huge room is a very decidedly human-scaled interior space due to the low ceilings. It’s even cozy in spite of the use of spare, minimalist furnishings. Wright uses lower ceiling height effectively again on the second floor where he creates a contrast between the constricted hallway (which is also narrow in addition to low) and the bedrooms which serve as a transition space to “release” the occupant into the larger space of the terraces.
While the interior space is masterfully controlled, I personally found aspects to be uncomfortable; for example, despite the intention to constrict space in the second floor hallway and then open it over about halfway across the guest bedroom, I never felt it opened enough and I felt cramped by the crowded furnishings and general lack of space and light until I stepped out to the terrace threshold. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I felt that the son’s bedroom on the third floor was too exposed and not grounded without the use of some of the wood banding elements around the windows and emphasis on the horizontal elements. Mostly however I found the creation of space to be just right, a perfect balance between open roominess and intimate alcoves, but my personal impressions aside the manipulation of the interior is thorough and entirely unique.
Overall it was pretty amazing to be able to tour the house and I’m so happy I finally got there to experience such an architectural masterpiece. Photos wouldn’t do much justice to the space discussions above nor the experience design of the architecture in general, but photography on the tour within the house was forbidden anyway so I don’t have an interior shots to share. I would urge anyone with an interest to make a visit to experience firsthand the impression of space and to see all the ingenious design quirks in the house which are difficult to describe without being able to reference photos.