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To Hear Fallingwater Is to See It in Time

An excerpt from Fallingwater, edited by Lynda Waggoner, published by Rizzoli

By Neil Levine

The temporal dimension of Fallingwater as an expression of virtual, or durational, time was the direct consequence of its having been placed over the waterfall rather than in view of it. In conceiving the design in tune with the movement of the stream for “one who liked to listen to the waterfall,” Wright privileged the aural over the visual and thereby gave precedence to the continual over the momentary. Hearing takes time and gives to time a depth that vision lacks. Where looking focuses on that which is present to the eye, listening relies on expectation and is amplified through deferral. Hearing also blurs boundaries and distinctions and renders them fluid in contrast to vision, which specifies, clarifies, and reduces the flux of nature to discrete, controllable, knowable entities. It is thus not by chance, but rather by design, that the visitor to Fallingwater readily confuses the stone with trees, the concrete with water, and the living-room floor with the streambed beneath it.

The dimension of time and its dependence on the sense of hearing play a crucial role in one’s experience of the house through both the effects of expectation by deferral and the ambiguity by elision and slippage of sign and signification. The unprecedented use by Wright of large areas of plate glass to mark the boundaries between exterior and interior space creates an openness and transparency that allows for a radical degree of continuity between outside and inside, or nature and architecture. And that interweaving of the two realms was pushed even farther by permitting existing trees to grow through the concrete structure, forcing the beams of the entrance trellis to be curved around some and holes left in the floor of the western terrace to accommodate others. While some of the trees never survived and others were later replanted, their growth through the building provided, and still provides, a protracted timeline for the architecture. This functions as a measure of the natural cycle of birth, growth, death, and regeneration within which the building is perceived to exist.

If the blurring of boundaries normally separating building and landscape plays a significant role in the perception of Fallingwater, the sense of expectation aroused by deferral is more peculiar to this structure and is impressed upon the visitor from the moment one arrives at the site. The house is approached from the eastern bank of the stream—and, most importantly, from above. As one gets closer to the glen, the structure appears differently at different times of the year. In the early autumn, for instance, it glitters light and dark among the many-colored, turning leaves of the trees. When one nearly reaches the level of the stream, one begins to hear the falls and thus realizes that the house is in direct communication with the water. For the time being, however, it is only heard, not seen.

Excerpt courtesy of 2011 Neil Levine.


Photograph courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.


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