Sunday, June 17, 2012

Falling Water

A work of art to live in.

I am not sure I can really do justice with words to the Frank Lloyd Wright house that is called Falling Water. I may have to let the pictures speak for themselves.

What a beautiful thing it is. When the owners (a Pittsburgh department-store family named Kaufmann), commissioned Mr Wright to build them a country house near their favourite waterfall, they assumed they would have a view of the falls. Wright built the house on top of the falls. Original. This was in 193....  The engineering alone must have been a struggle, and the house is of course forever damp. But Wright didn’t just design houses, he designed works of art to live in.

Low and beautiful.

Integrated into nature.


Steps to the stream above the falls.

The iconic view of Falling Water is from along the stream a bit, where you can appreciate the cantilevers jutting over the falls. Inside the house, much much more is revealed. It seems that Mrs. Kaufmann loved swimming. There is a plunge pool at the edge of the stream. A set of stairs leads directly from the sitting room down to the stream - this is accessed by opening up a glass enclosure over the stairs, the raison d’ĂȘtre simply being to connect the sitting room and the water. Up on the hillside there is a swimming pool. Like most of Wright’s houses, the central room - he called it “the Great Room” - is the heart of the house. Sitting, dining, relaxing, living takes place here, and a big central fireplace is compulsory.  The bedrooms are typically quite small - in Falling Water they are upstairs, via narrow staircases lined with bookshelves. Outside there is a walkway leading to a guest house on the hillside.

Walkway to the guest house.
Kitchen corner.

Great Room and fireplace.

Curious windows that make corners disappear.

Touring the house, you can explore the small details that make a Wright house special: the built-in furniture, the effort to eliminate corners even in windows, the framed views, the bringing-the-outside-inside that was so ahead of its time. Walking through the house, you appreciate the feeling of being compressed into small halls then opened refreshingly into large spaces. The sizes of the rooms reflect Wright’s views on how you should live. If you commissioned a Wright house, you got what he wanted to give you.

Bringing the outside inside.
Built-in seating

Bookshelves up the stairs.

The Great Room

Falling Water is not easy to get to. It’s about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh (or four hours from Washington DC), down remote country roads in rural Pennsylvania. Our route there passed right by the site near the town of Somerset where one of the 9/11 aircraft came down.  Since it’s such a big deal to make your way there, I recommend also taking in another nearby Wright house, Kentuck Knob. This one was built much later, in 1956, and is frankly probably more livable. It sits perched on a hilltop - the Knob of its name - which was bare when the house was built (for a Pittsburgh dairy man named Hagan) but is now covered in a gorgeous thick profusion of trees.

Kentuck Knob is also very beautiful. It is one of Wright’s so-called Unison designs - houses he believed could bring good design to ordinary Americans, a kind of early high-quality “project house”. If you were interested in a Unison [CHECK] house, you contacted Mr Wright and he interviewed you about your lifestyle, interests and preferences. You could then purchase the plans for one of several variations of Unison house. For extra money Mr Wright might make some alterations for you. Then you had to find a builder willing and able to build a Wright house.

Kentuck Knob

Kentuck Knob is low, long, built into the hillside, uses masses of natural materials. The Great Room is very inviting, and has a long verandah facing the wooded view. One of Wright’s innovations in domestic architecture was to move the ubiquitous “porch” from the front of the house to the back, once the streets were no longer for people but for automobiles. Kentuck Knob is an Octagon Unison house, centered around an octagonal kitchen built of stone and lit by a skylight. The rest of the rooms radiate out from it. It is a very beautifully fitted-out kitchen, still with most of its original 1950s fittings. Being dairy people, the owners insisted on stainless steel everywhere. It’s a delight. In keeping with Wright’s “compress and expand” approach, and his view that bedrooms were merely for sleeping in, the corridors leading to the bedrooms are extremely narrow - most people have to turn sideways to get down them, and through the correspondingly narrow doorways. Ah, the absence of building codes!

The back porch at Kentuck Knob
These beautiful buildings are a delight to look at from exterior, sitting quietly in their landscapes. Their interiors are welcoming, domestic and human-proportioned. You feel at home in these works of art.

A bathrom at Falling water: surprising modern

Fireplaces in all the Falling Water bedrooms.

Steps at Falling Water lead from the Great Room to the stream.

Falling Water windows.

Falling Water patio, one of several.

Falling Water dining area of the Great Room, with built-in furniture.

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