Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
What Fallingwater Means to You
Architects and others from across the nation talk about something they all have in common: a strong connection to Fallingwater
By Angie Schmitt
Experiencing Fallingwater, in person or through other media, has become a rite of passage for architects for decades, and a trip to western Pennsylvania has become an almost mandatory pilgrimage for students of 20th century American architecture.
Looking back 75 years after its construction, AIArchitect asked the question, “What does Fallingwater mean to you?” to a variety of architects and others, through formal interviews and via LinkedIn. Enjoy their responses, and add your own comments to the AIA’s discussion group on LinkedIn.
Tom Kundig, FAIA
“It is rare when architecture is so clear and elegantly complete in how it addresses the ensemble of issues architects face [like Fallingwater does]--landscape, client, function, personal vision, etc. It looks and feels effortless, which, of course, it is not. For me, that influence has meant to look to the idiosyncratic and personal heart of the matter and not to a stylistic reference, and from that, truly resonant architecture will emerge.”
Peter Newton, Assoc. AIA
“I visited Fallingwater once, 20 years ago this August. It was towards the end of a pre-college summer program in architecture at Carnegie Mellon. I was questioning whether or not to go into architecture when I arrived at the overlook across from the house. As I sketched with another wavering student, it was hard NOT to be moved and inspired to go into architecture. We both committed to continue our studies in architecture school after high school graduation. I went on to study at Washington University, and although my career has not always been easy or fulfilling, it is the drive to create places of beauty that keeps me trying. I think back to that moment of epiphany at Fallingwater for inspiration to keep me going.”
“The word people always use about Fallingwater is ‘timeless.’ It has none of the little gestures of the 1930s. Le Corbusier--he’s all about the 20s and 30s. None of that is to be found in Fallingwater. It’s not the crazy European radicalism, but it has that appeal. It’s the complete sort of utopian world of Bauhaus architecture, but it’s united with nature in a way that nobody has ever seen before. Frank Lloyd [Wright] specifically said he’s not trying to be a Modern architect; he’s an architect reaching through millennia of history.
It’s absolutely crucial to see [Fallingwater] as a child of the depression--the kind of voyeurism of how the rich live, but a kind of escapist, ‘Gee, I wouldn’t mind living there too.’ It’s really Frank Lloyd Wright’s most austere house. [America was] a country that [was] desperately poor and out of work and looking for itself. And Fallingwater comes out in 1936 as a great affirmation of American values and status.”
Lawrence Schwirian, AIA
“I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania about an hour’s drive from Fallingwater. I barely had my driver’s license before visiting FW the first time, and have visited it dozens of times since. It is a truly unique house because it is a truly unique site; it could not be duplicated elsewhere. It is perhaps the only building I have ever experienced where the architecture and the landscape architecture are one. I never could make heads or tails of FLW's writing but Fallingwater says it all.”
Louis Astorino, FAIA
“The house is so uniquely perched overlooking the waterfall. You look at it and think, ‘How did he come up with that idea?’ Most people would put the house looking at the waterfall. Wright had a principle that he used throughout his career about how to site a house, and it had to do with the sun. He wanted the sun in every room at some time during the day. He said, ‘Alright, how do I get sun into every room?’ He said, ‘I’ve got to put the house on the other side of the waterfall, on top of the waterfall.’
We were checking the house [years later] to see if, in fact, the house was oriented toward his principle. It was off by 6 or 8 degrees. We said, ‘That doesn’t make sense. Why would it be so close but just a little off?’ I called the University of Pittsburgh geography division, and they confirmed where the magnetic north would have been in 1936. It was exactly 6 degrees over.”
Bonnie Staiger, Hon. AIA
“In my travels for both AIA and NCARB [National Council of Architectural Registration Boards,] I’ve had the privilege to visit many homes and buildings designed by FLW. I’m fascinated with both the aesthetics and the ethos of his work. I think a certain magic happens in both the private and public spaces he created—a comfort, a simplicity, an earthiness that helps me feel grounded and safe. Equally important in my view, his buildings are respectful of and integrated into the natural surroundings of the area.
In a profession that currently seems to value vertical towers of concrete, glass, and steel built on postage-stamp parcels of urbanity, FLW reminds us of ideals seemingly forgotten and only wistfully recalled.”
Randy Brown, FAIA
“Fallingwater is the most iconic home built in the USA. No other architect has built a home of that greatness . . . yet. Fallingwater inspires. It motivates me to push my clients to build artistic homes that connect to nature, connect to the site, frame the views, create amazing spaces inside and out, and to craft all of the details creating an amazing experience.”
Miguel A. Rodriguez, FAIA
“I've now visited several times, but my favorite story definitely is from 2003. The AIA's Large State Roundtable meeting in the fall was hosted by AIA Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh. We met all day at the barn across the road which was being restored by Bohlin, Cywinski. We had private access to the residence after closing at 5:00 p.m. and had a reception followed by dinner. But wait, there's more..... Dinner had been scheduled to be on the lawn by the pool, but it was a very cold day. Imagine our surprise when our hosts asked us if we'd mind dining inside the house in the living and dining rooms! I have a ton of pictures of the 55 or so architects and execs in attendance all looking like children in a candy store! WHAT A TREAT! Not sure if we're the only group to ever do that, but certainly we must be one of a very few.”
Wendy Evans Joseph, FAIA
“People always think that architects are going to go to the hilltop and put their work on top. The whole idea of inverting the expected to engage the waterfall was the brilliance of [Fallingwater] that I try to take with me. The whole act, building the way he did, was kind of an outrageous [action] that showed that the unexpected idea is actually stronger than any other concept.”
Anthony Walker, M Arch, Assoc. AIA
“During a spring semester some 15-odd years ago, when landscape architect and professor Will Allen offered what was then to be his seventh visit to Fallingwater, I jumped at the opportunity to visit it for my first time via caravan in a one-day road trip—be up at 4:00 a.m., at school by 6:00 a.m., drive for six hours, tour it for a few hours, then return home. Upon arrival and further approach by foot, I was captivated immediately—it was awe-inspiring! I had never seen any house, let alone any other building, play with space and form as much as is found in this building. The grounding to its surroundings, the flow of spaces, the connections from inside to out and back again—they all exemplify Wright’s take on organic architecture. It was, and still is, an amazing feat on so many levels! Now, living so far away, I hope to make pilgrimage to it again one day.
Clark Manus, FAIA
“For me, Wright is really one of those giants that demonstrated why architecture is important. A lot of the things societies go through require long-scale thinking instead of a myopic view. Being an innovator is really what being an architect is about. Wright understood that.
Arriving [at Fallingwater] was magical. It was as good as I could have imagined it from every vantage point: the height of the space, the sequence of the space, the connection to the outdoors, the pretty radical decision to have the building straddle a rock. For me, if the public begins to see things like this, they may begin to see why architecture is important.”
Danny Martin, AIA
“Fallingwater was undoubtedly the number one reason I decided to become an architect, after doing a term paper on FLW in 11th grade, and figuring out I was not really very good at drawing cartoons. The house stuck with me throughout college and grad school. My thesis was about the lessons learned from Fallingwater, and [it] allowed me the opportunity to visit it for the first time. I took pictures every 5 feet through a prescribed sequence through the house and guest house. Then [I ] did an analysis breaking the pictures down into space, form, texture, and color. This led to some interesting conclusions about what I think makes it so successful. In doing my research, I found very little written about Wright's design methodology compared to his personal life. And by the way, if you haven't been there, you might be surprised [at] how difficult it is to get that famous three-quarter view looking up at the waterfall.”
Peter Bohlin, FAIA
“Fallingwater is a great American house and a great American building. I first saw it when I was at Cranbrook about 1960 or so, and I saw it on a misty, drizzly day. It was perfect. The gravel crunched under my feet as I walked down the path. The building in the mist was quite ethereal. The forest was damp and extraordinarily green. The sound of the stream is so clear in my memory. I had seen many buildings, but I was so interested in Fallingwater and its scale.
I believe that quite often with buildings, photographs become our culture’s primary trigger for our thoughts about a particular place. Yet Fallingwater for me is a reminder that the emotional aspects are by far more subtle and touching. One really must work to get down below the house and look up at the great image of the cantilevers.”
John Knight, AIA
“I first learned about FLW and Fallingwater while in grade school in the '50s through an architect in our church. That was probably the defining moment for me in my desire to become an architect. Over the years, I have followed his work and collected books about him. Well, it wasn't until just a few weeks ago that I drove to Pittsburgh for a car event for the sole purpose of taking a day trip with fellow car enthusiasts to Bear Run in my classic car. To say that I was overwhelmed cannot nearly describe the feeling I had upon seeing the house in person for the first time. To witness the innovation and technology as well as experience the spaces within was something I will never forget. I just wish I had done it years ago.”
Two Restorations Find Another Place for Wright’s Vision in Today
Visit the Committee on Design Knowledge Community Web Site on AIA KnowledgeNet.