In Mill Run, Pennsylvania in the Bear Run Nature Reserve where a stream flows at 400 meters above sea level and suddenly breaks to fall 9 meters, Frank Lloyd Wright designed an extraordinary house known as Fallingwater that redefined the relationship between man, architecture and nature.
Wright believed the cantilever to be the most romantic of all possibilities in structure, and he made the cantilever his main instrument for asserting a new freedom in architecture. At Fallingwater, the terraces echo the pattern of the rock ledges below.
The rock-ledges of a stone-quarry are a story and a longing to me. There is suggestion in the strata and character in the formations. I like to sit and feel it, as it is. Often I have thought, were great monumental buildings ever given me to build, I would go to the Grand Canyon of Arizona to ponder them… For in the stony bone-work of the Earth, the principles that shaped stone as it lies, or as it rises and remains to be sculptured by winds and tide – there sleep forms and styles enough for all the ages for all of Man. Frank Lloyd Wright
An aerial view clearly shows how far the cantilevered terraces reach out from the central core. At the bottom, hovering over the waterfall, are the living area and the main bedroom. Snaking behind, up the hill, is the walkway to the guest house.
Fallingwater’s structural concept is based on multiple steel-reinforced concrete, cantilevered terraces that extend from a central, 9 meters tall, layered sandstone core. The first floor slab dramatically reaches 5 meters over the water. Wright saw his design as branches of a tree trunk on a hillside.
Pushing technology to create poetry, he used three kinds of cantilever. Wright extended them from an anchor, counterbalanced, and loaded extensions to create a stack of projecting trays, some build around trees. Concrete decks served as floors, and ceilings inside and out were pierced to create trellises and stairways, paved with stone, and inset with lighting. They freed outer walls for generous amounts of glass and liberated interior spaces from interfering supports.
Sandstone for walls and piers was quarried on the site and cut along the natural strata in thin slabs of random lengths. Narrow, recessed mortar joints were nearly invisible. These powerful natural forms provided the vertical strength, visually and structurally, to sustain the horizontal rhythms of the concrete cantilevers.
First viewed from across the stream, Fallingwater is approached by a narrow bridge. The bridge over the stream was placed exactly where an old wooden bridge had been.
A turn to the left reveals the hidden entry, a dark recess slipped between two masses of stone, skilfully detailed to embrace and integrate water into the experience. To the left of the entrance are steps that lead down to a rectangular plunge pool.
The living area eventually opens beyond, 14 meters long and nearly 176 square meters extending to terraces about half as large. The entry to the living area is from the corner providing a diagonal view of the room making the living area appear much larger than it actually is and giving a dynamic quality to the space. Low ceilings direct attention outside.
Despite its size, it is inviting and comfortable because the space is divided into rooms, each with a specific function. Wright opened up the living space in his houses to provide a sense of freedom and movement that became an important feature of modernism. He called it breaking the box.
This structure might serve to indicate that the sense of shelter… has no limitations as to form except the materials used and the methods by which they are employed for what purpose. Frank Lloyd Wright
The distinct areas for listening to music, reading and writing, conversation and dining are suggested by the ceiling levels, light decks, furnishings and walls. Wright designed all the built-in seating, some stools, the tables, and the cabinetry, but the Kaufmanns controlled most of the other freestanding elements. Their personal collection of handwoven textiles, carpets and museum-quality sculpture enhanced the virtuosity of each space’s composition. The natural world, the changing seasons and light contribute the principal ornamentation.
The music area is next to the entrance.
The study area has a built-in desk and bookshelves.
The living room has two separate conversation areas, one along the south wall, and one to the left of the fireplace.
Built in seating and polished stone floors tie together the living areas. Their focus is the asymmetrical massive stone fireplace, whose hearth is the boulder on which the entire house is centred. Raising above the floor, its boulder is a reminder of Fallingwater’s rustic setting. The red iron kettle swings out from its nest to heat wine.
To the right of the fireplace are the kitchen and staff room, tucked behind, into the hill. The kitchen shares the serene views of all the rooms at Fallingwater. More boulders creep inside, providing a fine ledge for accoutrements.
Back in the living room, to the right of the fireplace – to capture its cosy warmth – is the dining area. Wright designed the simple table of walnut veneer, with barrel chairs, but the Kaufmanns selected the imported Italian three-legged chairs for better stability on the slick flagstone floors. The front sections of the built-in walnut buffet include two drop lift tables that extend the built-in dining table into the middle of the room to accommodate 20 people.
Red steel windows offer a linear counterpoint to the natural-toned, irregular stone walls and the vegetation they frame. Polished flagstone floors continue seamlessly beyond glass walls to large outside terraces. In one corner, a hatch opens to a staircase that descends nearly into the run.
The variety of design experiences inside Fallingwater is similar to that in the surrounding forest: mysterious paths, sunny glens, winding climbs, precipitous ledges, high overlooks, sheltered coves, filtered light and earth tones with touches of bright colour. Spaciousness flows inside and then out the glass walls, just as the water of the run flows beneath – twisting, cascading, narrowing, broadening and ever moving.
On the second floor there are two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a study, as well as three terraces and stairs that lead to the lookout on the third floor. The main bedroom is just above the living room and has the largest terrace in the house. Another asymmetrical fireplace practically becomes the room’s far wall. To Wright, a fireplace was the heart of every home. The main bedroom belonged to Kaufmann’s wife, Liliane. Her desk, like so much of the furniture, is built-in. All the Wright-designed furniture in the house is made of marine-quality plywood (to avoid warping) veneered with North Carolina black walnut. The lamp on the desk is Tiffany. Sturdy ledges provide niches for books and artworks.
A half-moon was cut into the desk of the study so the long window could be opened. The corner windows open outward and startlingly erase the frames that create visual barriers to the outdoors. Only a thin glass membrane separates inside and outside, with no frame where glass meets the stone walls; rather, the glass and its horizontal dividers were run into a caulked recess in the stonework so that the stone walls appear uninterrupted by glazing.
On the third level, up in the treetops, are another sleeping area and a study. As in the rest of the house, floor to ceiling windows open in and out dissolving the corners. In the study and the stairway leading up to it, books on built-in shelves create their own form of integral ornament. The book-lined staircase was a special design request from the Kaufmanns to their architect.
The second level is connected to the hillside by an enclosed bridge, over the driveway below.
The ceiling has five skylights that include light bulbs for illumination at night. The sculpture is an Indian bust of the Parvati, the Hindu goddess of love, from 750 CE. The circular stone moss garden growing half inside, half outside beckons you to come outdoors.
The bridge opens to a great curved walk leading up the hillside to the guest house.
The concrete canopy shelters from the weather and frames the landscape.
The guest house is a comfortable, relaxed retreat. For extra sleeping space, the built-in sofa in the living room is a meter wide. The living room as a corner fireplace.
Albert Einstein, Isaac Stern and artist Frida Khalo have stayed in the guest house. Lots of celebrities have visited Fallingwater, none more adorable than Puffles and Honey 🙂
The guest house has a spring-fed swimming pool which overflows and drains to the river below.
Looking back years later at what he had created there, in this enchanted glen, Frank Lloyd Wright said, ‘Fallingwater is a great blessing – one of the great blessings to be experienced here on earth. I think that nothing yet ever equaled the coordination, sympathetic expression of the great principle of repose, where forest and stream and rock and all the elements of structure are combined so quietly that really you listen not to any noise whatsoever, although the music of the stream is there. But you listen to Fallingwater the way you listen to the quiet of the country.’