Two Hours of Design Inspiration for Architectural Immortality
was almost 80 years ago that it was the subject of a Time Magazine cover article.
is listed on Smithsonian‘s Life List of 28 places “to visit before you die”
was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
was named by the American Institute of Architects in 1991 as the “best all-time work of American architecture.”
is Fallingwater—and it was designed in about two hours.
Fallingwater is perhaps the most famous house anywhere. It doesn’t appear to stand on solid ground, but instead stretches over the waterfall on Bear Run , the lively mountain stream running through the wooded Mill Run section of Stewart Township, Fayette County, Pennsylvania.
Most people know that Fallingwater was designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Some people even know that it was designed as a weekend home for the Edgar J. Kaufmann family– owners of Pittsburgh’s Kaufmann’s department store (now part of Macy’s). But most people do not know the story of how Wright drew up the plans for the home in the time it took his client—Edgar Kaufmann—to make the two-hour drive to see them.
The Kaufmann family had owned property outside Pittsburgh that they used as a weekend retreat, with a waterfall and cabins. Mr. Kaufmann Sr.’s son had worked briefly with Frank Lloyd Wright and so, as the cabins continued to deteriorate, Edgar called upon Wright to visit the property and prepare plans.
Wright ordered a survey of Bear Run and the surrounding area, noting the topography, boulders, trees, and the patter of the water. The survey was forwarded to Wright at his Taliesin studio in Wisconsin.
Later, Wright communicated to Kaufmann that he had been ‘working on the plans,’ and this apparently got Kaufmann excited. Wright’s apprentices reported that Kaufmann called Wright at home early one Sunday morning to surprise him with the news that he was in Milwaukee and was anxious to see the plans. So anxious, in fact, that he was making the 140 mile drive up from Milwaukee— and was leaving right away.
The problem was Wright had not actually drawn anything yet.
So, after breakfast, in front of those same nervous apprentices, Wright calmly drew the plans for what would become America’s most famous house before his client arrived.
This story is validated by several witnesses, including apprentice Edgar Taffel:
“The design just poured out of him… Pencils being used up as fast as we could sharpen them….Erasures, overdrawing, modifying. Flipping sheets back and forth. Then, the bold title across the bottom ‘Fallingwater.’ A house has to have a name.”
Few things worthwhile are birthed with such ease, and indeed there was lots of conflict to come after the initial design. Kaufmann was reportedly upset that the home was to be built above the falls, rather than below to lend a view of them. The foundation on the north bank of the stream was not large enough for the foundation, so a cantilevered structure was employed.
A consulting engineering firm reviewed the plans and issued a negative report; Wright threatened to quit the project and the reported ended up buried within a stone wall of the home. The construction itself saw conflict after conflict between Wright, Kaufmann, and the construction contractor. Wright himself demanded the rebuild of the bridge after viewing the stonemasonry.
The total project cost was roughly $155,000, or about 2.7 million in 2016 dollars. But that is part of the price for immortality. Years later Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. expressed his satisfaction with the home by saying:
“[Wright] understood that people were creatures of nature, hence an architecture which conformed to nature would conform to what was basic in people.”
Or, as Frank Lloyd Wright himself said:
I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.
Immortality in architectural design can be drawn in minutes, providing the right inspiration is there. Fallingwater was designed to become as one with its environment, with windows facing the world and the security of the cliff behind the house.
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