Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
To Meet—To Know—To Battle—To Love—Frank Lloyd Wright
Famously cantankerous with even his best clients, Frank Lloyd Wright demanded total control and discretion over all aspects of his projects, whether they were drawings on a drafting table or concrete in a building site. Edgar Kaufmann Sr., one of Wright’s very best clients (and perhaps one of the most well-know architecture clients of the early 20th century) discovered this firsthand when commissioning Fallingwater. Caught between Wright’s vision to push the technical edges of architecture and engineering to the extreme and pragmatic engineers that weren’t so sure, Kaufmann had to declare an “armistice” under an oak tree to get his architect and Fallingwater back on track.
As revealed in an essay written by Kaufmann that appears in Fallingwater (excerpted here), Kaufmann had boundless respect for Wright, referring to him as “The Master.” But he was not content to only be Wright’s obedient pupil. A sniping telegram from Wright yielded this response from Kaufmann: “I am unaccustomed to such treatment where I have been building before and I do not intend to put up with it now.” In the end, Fallingwater got built after all the parties sat down to make amends, and Kaufman agreed to no longer inject his own “yes men” into the process—demonstrating again that the best architecture results not from a detail-obsessed committee of institutional hand-wringers, but from the interactions between a strong willed architect and a client to match.
Late February finally a letter from Chandler with a package, “We have sent you in this morning’s mail two complete sets of blueprints of Fallingwater. Three copies of specifications.”
In May the quarrying had been completed. A sample wall had been constructed at the quarry.
The Master arrived on his way to Philadelphia to inspect the sample wall for an hour. Not satisfied, he made correction. “I don’t have much confidence in any of the usual estimates you can get on this work. We will have to plan some way of taking it up more directly with some interested competent builder who is small enough to stay on the job and experienced enough to know what to do and how to do it with out help.” I query, “Where do you find such?” The Master answers, “I had one but he is too old. He has built many of my buildings. We will have to find a new one.”
This was very discouraging because I realized that the proper man was needed to interpret, and to understand how to build according to the Master’s interpretation.
The latter part of April, we turned over plans and specifications to our estimating, purchasing, and building department. They, in turn, wrote a four-page letter to the Master asking for further explanation. The Master returned the original letter to me with priceless marginal notes.
Early in May a letter came from Taliesin:
You seem to forget all I said about building an extraordinary house in extraordinary circumstances. Having been through it scores of times I know what we are up against and decline to start it unless I can see our way. The same to you. Now suppose I were a sculptor and you would say “Carve me an extraordinary statue.” I would accept. Then you hand me a pantograph and say—“Use this. I have found the use of the pantograph is a good way to carve statues. It saves time and money.” Then I would say—“But in this case it will waste time and money and ruin the statue.” You would come back with “But when I have statues made I have the pantograph used.”
Well E. J., you would have the sculptor where you have me now with your Thumm.3 I can’t build this extraordinary house with a Thumm. Read the enclosed correspondence and note the pantograph punctilio for only one thing. There is no sense whatever of the things he should know after studying the plans.
Now a pickaxe is more suited to my style of labor than a pantograph. But, for a fact, I can’t use either.
Your Thumm won’t do. I must have my own fingers. . . .
This ought to clear up point one and get me a modest builder with brains–not too anxious to show off–willing to learn new ways of doing old things: able but wise to the fact that his previous experience might fool him in this case. . . .
Finally first check sent on account for bridge detail and specifications. Taliesin wires two days later—“Check has been mislaid, please send duplicate.”
May 15: Ten strikes. The Master writes that his son from California has been motorcycling through Pennsylvania near Port Allegany, McKean County, when he stopped his car abruptly because he recognized the earmarks of the Master’s design on what was called a Tea House and Filling Station. He inquired of the two maiden ladies who built the building. It had been a local contractor by the name of Walker J. Hall & Son. The son immediately wired the Master, “Here is a possible builder for the Kaufmann project.” The Master corresponded with Hall and Hall said he was interested.
On May 27th I telephoned Hall asking him to come to Pittsburgh and he was most eager to build a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
I tried to get him to give us a bid at once. By June 14 his estimates were received. In the meantime I looked up his references and personal credit rating. He had always been known as
the efficient carpenter and builder, and had done some contracting on his own account, but during the last eight years had little to do. His reputation was good; he was well liked by the workmen.
I communicated with the Master. He was happy with the results. This was exactly the kind of man he wanted. Mr. Hall became superintendent in charge of construction.
He accepted and by July 13 he started work and the building was begun. He organized local farmers and their boys to do carpentry, smithing, masonry, and concrete work. (Plumbing, electrical work, and heating were of course installed by trained workmen.)
There was some question about the safety of the site for the type of building the Master submitted, so I commissioned an engineer’s report. It arrived on July 18 and did not recommend the site for an important structure, for the rate of recession of the falls, although slow, could not be predicted with any degree of safety. There was evidence of minor spalling off of the rock at the face of the falls and a possibility of further disturbance of the rock strata if channels were cut in the surface to provide necessary keyways for the foundation walls.
The questions of utilizing the boulder as a base of the fireplace is perhaps a detail, but we do not consider the boulder suitable for incorporation into the foundation of the building.
Of course there is a possibility, or even a probability, that future deterioration of the rock ledge will not be sufficient to endanger the foundations; but in our opinion there could be no feeling of complete safety and consequently we recommend that the proposed site be not used for any important structure.
I was in a quandary. I did not communicate with the Master. I figured periodic inspections could be made regarding recession and if any alarming condition did arise it could be caught and rectified. I knew it was difficult to say just what nature might do, but in most cases there was always evidence showing before any real danger. No record as to when the minor spalling referred to by the engineer had occurred—but they were due to frost action in the upper stratifications as verified by the profile of the falls. The engineer misinterpreted Wright’s plan, for it had not been intended to use keyways in the foundation work. Moreover, I was not prepared to sacrifice using the boulder for the fireplace under any circumstances.
We did not stop work. We filed the engineer’s report.
On July 27, Bob Mosher, one of the fellows at Taliesin, arrived to interpret the plans and assist Mr. Hall. From now on the work became exciting. I spent most of my days helping in the interpretation of the plans and in the construction.
On August 2, the steel diagrams arrived. They were sent out for estimates.
Steel engineers questioned the specifications of reinforcing as well as the general steel and concrete construction. Hall, Mosher, and myself got into a huddle one afternoon and decided to proceed with the Master’s specifications. To cap the climax the engineers who had condemned the site appeared, were surprised that we had started work, and began to tell their story to Hall and Mosher.
Word reached Taliesin. Out of the blue on Sunday morning came the following telegram to Mosher: “The battle of Bear Run is on. Drop work and come back immediately. We are through until Kaufmann and I arrive at some basis of mutual respect. You are needed here. Do not delay one hour and bring in all the plans you can get . . . Frank Lloyd Wright.”
We were crestfallen. The day became bluer. We suggested that Bob telephone. The result—another telegram: “You are at least able to get off job as expected. Neither explanation nor argument should be necessary. Affairs there are more serious than you comprehend. If you are unable or unwilling to carry out my instructions your connection with me ends. I am not coming to Pittsburgh. More sleepless nights.
August 27: The following letter from Taliesin:
If you are praying to have the concrete engineering done there, there is no use whatever in our doing it here. I am willing you should take it over but I am not willing to be insulted.
So we will send no more steel diagrams. I am unaccustomed to such treatment where I have built buildings before and do not intend to put up with it now so I am calling Bob back until we can work out something or nothing . . .
August 28: How should I answer? I did the best I could:
If you have been paid to do the concrete engineering up there, there is no use whatever of our doing it down here. I am not willing to take it over as you suggest nor am I willing to be insulted.
So if you will not send any more steel diagrams, what shall I do? I am unaccustomed to such treatment where I have been building before and I do not intend to put up with it now so I am calling you to come down here, which I hoped you could have done during the past few weeks, to inspect the work under Mr. Hall’s direction who is an unknown foreman to you, instead of allowing the entire responsibility of his craftsmanship to rest upon us here. So if you will come here perhaps we can work out something or nothing . . .
PS: Now don’t you think that we should stop writing letters and that you owe it to the situation to come to Pittsburgh and clear it up by getting the facts? Certainly there are reasons which must have prompted you to write as you have.
I am sorry that you are calling Bob back. He seems entirely wrapped up in his work and in its progress but this is beyond my control and you must use your own judgment . . .
August 29: Bob, finally, with the help of the family, packed his two shirts, his one pair of work pants, two sweaters—we could not find his socks and his work shoes—and reluctantly put on his first Pittsburgh outfit for traveling back home. We all stood at the gate and waved him goodbye. It was not an easy moment.
August 31: Another letter from Taliesin only partly quoted:
Apologies are nothing to a man like yourself. But explanation seems to be in order. The atmosphere should be cleared. Lightning and inevitable thunder may help to clear it. Anyhow that’s what it is as I see the way it is. The thing that hurts me in this instance I assure you. I am sure it hurts you.
Meantime your letter shows me that I do owe it to you and to myself to get on that job. I’ll come soon. Sincerely, Frank Lloyd Wright.
The armistice is on. The Master leaves for Pittsburgh in early September. The parties to the armistice: Mr. Wright; Edgar Tafel, a fellow of Taliesin; Mr. Hall; and myself. It is not held in a railroad coach but under a majestic oak tree. The conditions are discussed and agreed to. Mr. Hall remains superintendent, Edgar Tafel is to take Bob Mosher’s place on the first of October. Mr. Hall is to be sent to Taliesin in the early winter to absorb the spirit in which the drawings are turned out. I agreed not to inject myself or any of my “yes” men, as the Master called them, except through Edgar Tafel.
Much progress was made during Edgar’s direction. Unfortunately he was called back to Taliesin November 22. The master was confined with a slight cold. In December word reached us that he was bedridden with pneumonia.
In a letter of November 2, the Master wrote:
I think you fail to realize how well off you have been in the execution of this building so far. Hall is rough but pretty good and all the mistakes made including the crooked bridge rails don’t add up enough to form a fair basis for complaint.
Perhaps you don’t quite realize the nature of what is being done for you and still imagine it could have been done without error or waste by way of the present system. No more possible than for Franklin D. Roosevelt to give us a better government by way of “politics.” Hall is doing remarkably well with awkward material.
During the last week of Edgar’s stay checks in the concrete work appeared on the terrace of the master bedroom. Edgar was concerned.
Before leaving we discussed with Edgar an arrangement to have engineers make computations of the structure every three months to see what was happening. In spite of the Master’s illness the following telegram December 29:
KINDLY REFRAIN ALL INTERFERENCE WITH ME IN MY WORK AT THIS TIME, SEND ME WHAT I ASK FOR. HAVE NO RESPONSIBLE RERPESENTATIVE. IN THESE CIRCUMSTANCES EASY TO SPOIL THE ENTIRE WORK BY LACK OF CONFIDENCE IN MY ABILITY TO HANDLE MY OWN WORK. KINDLY STAND BY. CUT AND SEND ME THE CONCRETE SAMPLES AS DIRECTED. THEY WILL NOT HARM THE STRUCTURE. I WILL PAY FOR THEM IF IN THE OUTCOME IT SEEMS NECESSARY. I WANT AN UNCRACKED STRUCTURE. KNOW HOW TO GET IT. INTEND TO HAVE IT. READ MY LETTER MAILED YESTERDAY. IN CIRCUMSTANCES LIKE THESE THERE IS ONLY ONE DOCTOR. BE THANKFUL YOU DIDN’T LOSE HIM. NOW BE GOOD ENOUGH TO REALIZE THE TRUTH OF WHAT I SAY.
*The complete essay by Edgar Kaufmann Sr., of which the following is an excerpt, was first published, in slightly different form, in the Museum of Modern Art publication The Show to End All Shows: Frank Lloyd Wright and The Museum of Modern Art, 1940 (Reed, Peter and William Kaizen, eds. Studies in Modern Art, no. 8. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004), and are reprinted courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Text of Kaufmann essays appearing on these pages are reproduced from Registrar Exhibition Files, Exh. #114. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
Edgar Kaufmann Sr. Fallingwater Archives, courtesy the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
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