In dialogue with nature

Architecture

In dialogue with nature

The silver streaked roads were barely discernable in the almost ethereal winter landscape of Allegany Forest as I drove towards Fallingwater this January.

The iconic house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most prolific and influential architects of the 20th century.

Like most architects and students of design I am familiar with and greatly admire Wright’s Architecture.



I have visited several of Wright’s houses at Oak Park in suburban Chicago and his Guggenheim Museum in New York. Yet no amount of familiarity with Wright’s extensive architectural repertoire though books and lecture prepares one for the masterpiece that Fallingwater truly is.

The house is located in Allegheny Mountains within the Bear Run Nature Reserve. It is owned and protected by Western Pennsylvania conservancy (a not-for-profit regional nature conservation agency). Bear Run and Laurel Run creeks flow through this area.

The reserve comprises over 5000 acres of land that constitutes 70 percent of Bear Run watershed (the water at the head source of Bear Run is being conserved to prevent pollution of the creek).

Mill Run, the town nearest to Fallingwater is about two hours driving distance from Pittsburgh. It is a sleepy, middle of nowhere place, with a few hundred residents; many of these residents have been employed by the Fallingwaters trust.

A weekend home

Fallingwater was constructed between 1936 and 1939. It was designed by Wright as a weekend home for the wealthy Pittsburgh based Kaufmann family. The son of the Kaufmann couple, Edgar Kaufmann Jr. (who later became a leading scholar of architecture/design) was inspired to study architecture and apprenticed with Wright at Taliesin.

In 1934 he introduced Wright and his work to his father Kaufmann Sr. who subsequently commissioned Wright to design the residence. Wright was in his late sixties when he designed the house.

He was already an established architect who had garnered international acclaim, had designed several hundred buildings and had worked internationally on prestigious projects. Yet the period of the 20s (prior to Fallingwater’s commission) had seen a decline in his career due to personal turmoil. Fallingwater came at this critical juncture and advanced his career. Wright went on design some of his best known work including the Guggenheim Museum (1959).

The Fallingwater journey begins from the pavilion like visitor centre that is situated at a higher topographic level than the house creating for the visitors the magic of a slow unfolding panorama before they encounter the architectural masterpiece. The view of the house nestled into the terrain, amidst stone outcroppings, a cascading waterfall, a creek below and forests, leaves the visitors breathless with awe.

Wright has described his premise for picking a site as being dictated by the features of the site. His innate fondness to pick flawed or difficult of sites to build on and his skillful manipulation of these site is visible in Fallingwater, which has been built over a fractured rock shelf and waterfall.

A profound awareness of the site comprise all of Wrights architectural works perhaps none as profound as in Fallingwater. In a dramatic gesture Wright has hoisted the house above cascading Bear run waterfall. Hence the name Fallingwater which pays tribute to the concept that generated the design of this residence.

The Pulitzer winning New York Times critic Paul Goldberg has written that ‘Fallingwaters is Wright’s greatest essay in horizontal space; it is his most powerful piece of structural drama; it is his most sublime integration of man and nature’.  A visit to the masterpiece validates this claim.

All about the house

The house itself has a series of cantilevered horizontal planes of reinforced concrete. Reinforced concrete and sandstone (quarried on site) are the most predominant materials used in the construction of the house along with steel and glass. The massive stone walls are constructed in a rough hewn, layered fashion recalling the native sandstone formation of the region.  

Terraces aplenty

Much of the living spaces in the house have terraces. These terraces became austere platforms to observe the spectacle of the water and forests.  A remarkable finesse can be observed in Wright’s obliteration of boundaries between the interior and exterior of the house. Wright’s eye for detail is legendary.

The outside is deliberately made a part of the indoor experience of the house, with stone outcroppings that are a part of the living spaces and in his famous corner window detailing, where the walls vanish to provide unhindered views and the haptic experience of the outdoors. In the living area a flight of stairs leads to the stream.

The experience of water is integral to design of the house and the gurgle and gush of Bear Run’s cascading waters remain a constant presence throughout the house. The four rooms in the house are almost monastic in their appeal. The terraces attached to these rooms forms platforms that hover over the water and embrace the scenic vista.

Fallingwater symbolises environmental sensitivity and design excellence. Visitors to
Wright’s masterwork are not passive observers but get drawn into the drama of the landscape.

The Kaufmanns gifted Fallingwater to Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1964. The great philanthropic gesture of the Kaufmanns rendered this remarkable architectural legacy accessible to thousands of visitors who visit Fallingwater every year.  Fallingwater, the most iconic of modern residences is a place where architecture pauses and nature enters in.

The compelling beauty in Wrights masterwork reaches and impacts not only design connoisseurs but also ordinary people who after the visit become design aficionados. A spark of imagination, a flight of ideas, and the possibilities that unfold when what is built is in harmonious dialogue with nature is made visible by this work of Wright. Fallingwater continues to be relevant and Wright’s legacy continues to touch and inspire many creative visions.

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