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Q&A with Lynda Waggoner, Director of Fallingwater

Waggoner shares her unique perspective after decades of working at the humble, humane mountain house at Bear Run

By Angie Schmitt

A western Pennsylvania native, Lynda Waggoner began her career at Fallingwater in 1965 as a high school tour guide. She remembers being excited and invigorated by the diverse range of creative professionals (art historians, painters, industrial designers, drama professors) who worked at the house with her, but she also remembers passing slow afternoons curled up with a book on the house’s classic 1930s Modernist furniture. (One guide even took advantage of a slow day for a midday nap, forcing their tour group to begin their excursion by waking up their guide.) But as Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic house grew in age and stature, the house became much busier.

After studying architecture at the University of Kentucky and earning dual degrees in art history and anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, Waggoner came back to Fallingwater in 1985 as a curator, on her way to being named director in 1996. One of her first duties was to formally discontinue tour guide leisure time. “But,” she says, “it was great while it lasted.”

Under her stewardship, the flood of visitors to Fallingwater--about 160,000 a year--has meant little downtime for tour guides or anyone else, especially Waggoner. On the 75th anniversary of the iconic home’s completion, she has found time to complete a multi-faceted exploration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s beloved masterwork, titled simply Fallingwater (Rizzoli). The book (and her words here) reveal Waggoner to be one of Fallingwater’s most intimate attendants, shepherding the building’s fundamental humanity and quintessential Americanism through the evolving cultural legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright, expansive structural repairs, and leaky ceilings alike.

AIArchitect: How has the reputation of Fallingwater and Frank Lloyd Wright evolved over the years?

Waggoner: Wright himself is almost a phenomenon in America. The house itself, everyone responds to. It speaks to people from all walks of life. I think it’s almost a primordial desire to be at one with nature. For others, it’s the architectural and engineering experience. For everyone, there’s just a profound visceral response. It’s kind of difficult to articulate.

I think that as we continually become more detached from the natural world, [the house] speaks to that longing that we all have, to be in a treehouse, almost. It also speaks to a faith in the future. It’s an optimistic building. We just respond to it, especially during troubled times–the genius of man.

It was built during the Depression, and now the nation is facing a stumbling economy again. Do you see any parallels in today’s architectural community?

There are still a lot of really big buildings being built by people that have the money to do it. There’s also a wonderful movement towards sustainable design and smaller buildings. We don’t need to live in 10,000-square-foot houses. Smaller, sparer, and more elegant buildings are being produced.

I think people are often surprised [by Fallingwater]. It’s not a big house. It’s a little over 5,000 square feet, but half of that is terraced, [and] the interior is less than 3,000 square feet. The materials are simple materials. It’s concrete and stone from this site. It’s not glitzy. It doesn’t brag. That’s one of the things about it that is appealing to people too.

What made you fall in love with Fallingwater at such a young age and want to spend so much of your career there?

It’s a hard house not to fall in love with. I was fortunate that I grew up in the area. I love this part of the world. I love Pittsburgh and the mountainside. Just like many visitors who come, there’s that moment when you come around the bend, and it’s there. And it’s just so exuberant, it bowls you over. It still does that for me.

It really affected what I ended up studying and my interest in the arts. I never expected to come back to the house. Not knowing it, I sort of prepared myself to be [its] curator.

What are the day-to-day duties of overseeing such a unique home?

At Fallingwater, there are specific things we need to pay attention to. Rainfall is one of them. My office has been flooded several times. Right now, outside of my terrace door we have sandbags. We have leaks. That’s sort of a typical thing in a flat-roofed house in a northern climate. Those are challenges.

Keeping the building fresh looking is also a challenge. It’s a Modernist building. I think [it’s] important for any Modernist building to have surfaces that are clean and look fresh, because that was the aesthetic. That is a challenge when you are in a forest and over a waterfall.

Is Fallingwater the most architecturally influential house in America? In the world?

I don’t think it was very influential at all, frankly. I think that’s one of the surprising things about Fallingwater. This has been said by others: Fallingwater has no progeny. You could imitate Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier–those buildings could be placed everywhere. But Frank Lloyd Wright was different.

It’s a unique building. It might be one of the reasons people love it so much. It’s almost like a sculpture in the landscape. I’ve talked to lots of architects about Wright. They were all fascinated by him, particularly the Modernist architects. They just couldn’t take much from him.

What are the lessons Fallingwater can teach today’s architects and designers?

Buildings should be human, [responding] to human needs. Some buildings are just becoming billboards for displays of wealth. There’s always been that, from the Newport mansions to the McMansions of today. But I think that [Wright] realized that everyone deserves to live in a great house.

What is Fallingwater and Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important legacy?

I think [it’s] to realize that we could have an American kind of architecture. Wright was trying to shed the bonds of European architecture. He wanted to do something that really responded to the American spirit and the American landscape. It is an architecture that is uniquely American. It required a person growing up in this country with the kind of views and beliefs we all hold to create it.

Also, it’s so humane. It’s a strange word to use. That’s the only word I can use. It responds to the needs of people, and that’s why people love it. Wright had this kind of comprehensive insight into the quality of human existence. He understood what humans respond to.

   
   


Lynda Waggoner. Photo by Christopher Little, courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

     

Recent Related:

Two Restorations Find Another Place for Wright’s Vision in Today
When Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Was New: Photos from 1912

Fallingwater: The Story of a Country House, a Six-Part Series by Jim Atkins, FAIA

For the People: Preserving Wright’s Usonian Houses

Reference:

Buy Fallingwater at the AIA Store.

Check out these other Frank Lloyd Wright selections from the AIA Store.

Visit the Committee on Design Knowledge Community Web Site on AIA KnowledgeNet.

 

Back to AIArchitect September 23, 2011

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