It’s not uncommon for architects to seem careless regarding their clients’ desires, patience, or wallets. Construction can extend months or years beyond the initial due date; budgets can multiply, and artistic ideals can hinder comfort. That’s the way some architects work; their artistic vision overpowers their clients’ homely needs, and society has come to expect some extravagance when dealing with them… Then there’s Frank Lloyd Wright.
Arguably the most famous architect in history, this American artist was known worldwide for his breathtakingly original designs (like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and his Taliesin home in Wisconsin), many of which pushed the boundaries of what was practical or reasonable in favor of esthetic qualities. And perhaps there’s no work by Frank Lloyd Wright that generates more discussion and controversy –even 79 years after its completion– than one of his masterpieces, the house he named Fallingwater.
Amid the success of his Guggenheim Museum design in 1956, Wright announced his next project: the tallest building in the world, the Illinois Mile, a skyscraper that would be four times the height of the Empire State Building. Sadly, it would never be built; nonetheless, the architect chose an alternative path that would increase his fame and immortality. This was a smaller, yet in many ways a more complex project.
Since he disliked cities, always preferring nature, he visualized a house built on top of a waterfall. He found patrons in a wealthy married couple from Pittsburgh, Edgar J. and Liliane Kauffman. They had dreamt of having a weekend house overlooking a waterfall at the Bear Run river, a place where they often went on picnics, so Edgar commissioned Wright to design it. The architect answered: “I want you to live with the waterfall, not just look at it.”
Despite the initial shock caused by the unreasonable location Wright had planed for the Kauffman home, the couple agreed to his proposal. However, the architect was famously difficult to work with—when a former customer called him to complain about water leaking into her dining table, Wright simply answered: “Move the chair.” His stubbornness and commitment with carrying out his artistic vision would often be a source of conflict with his clients. After months of discussions between Kauffman and Wright, in which the architect offered his client a variety of drawings made in record time, most of which were not to Edgar’s liking, they agreed on one that was finally built and continues to stand to this day.
The three leveled house, deep in the Pennsylvanian forest, seems perfectly adapted to its natural surroundings and integrates the landscape into its structure —the bedrock it was built upon adorns the living room, for example. However, aside from the poetic value there might be in living in an architectural gem situated over a river, mother Nature is no peaceful neighbor.
Despite all its beauty and brilliance, Fallingwater is a building that has been close to collapse many times. Despite Kauffman's reinforcement of the structure, the balcony that stretches over the river sagged when the concrete formwork was removed, which made Wright threaten to resign. The dampness brought mold along with it, and water would leak from the roof-lights. Furthermore, Wright built the furniture in the house, so it was "client-proof," as he put it; in other words, the Kauffmans would be unable to move it.
The prize blew up as well, given the technical difficulties and the architect's stubbornness. In the end, Edgar paid US$155,000 (approximately US$2.7 million nowadays) for Fallingwater, five times the prize he had settled with Wright in the beginning (US$30,000), of which the architect received US$8,000.
Even with all the inconveniences brought upon the couple by the genius architect, the Kauffmans would eventually fall in love with their house. Lilianne even said that their view of interlacing tree branches was much better than curtains or drapes. They weren't the only ones; since 1964, the house has drawn 4.5 million tourists and art enthusiasts to its doorstep.
The house was opened to the public by the Kaufmanns' son, Edgar Jr.—apprentice to Wright—, who inherited Fallingwater after Lilianne's suicide in 1952 and Edgar's death three years later. Edgar Jr. eventually donated it to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. It was restored in 2001 and continues to stand as one of the greatest architectural masterpieces in history. None too shabby for a house that started out as a picnic destination for a married couple from Pittsburgh.
Check out some tips by an artist who would not betray their vision and by a writer who wanted you to succeed.