Fallingwater; an architectural tour de force of Wright’s organic philosophy
Fallingwater or Kaufmann Residence is a house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935 in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, 43 miles (69 km) southeast of Pittsburgh. The home was built partly over a waterfall on Bear Run in the Mill Run section of Stewart Township, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, in the Laurel Highlands of the Allegheny Mountains.
Time cited it after its completion as Wright’s “most beautiful job”; it is listed among Smithsonian’s Life List of 28 places “to visit before you die.” It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. In 1991, members of the American Institute of Architects named the house the “best all-time work of American architecture” and in 2007, it was ranked twenty-ninth on the list of America’s Favorite Architecture according to the AIA.
At age 67, Frank Lloyd Wright was given the opportunity to design and have constructed three buildings. His three works of the late 1930s—Fallingwater, the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, and the Herbert Jacobs house in Madison, Wisconsin—brought him back into prominence in the architectural community.
Edgar Kaufmann Sr. was a Pittsburgh businessman and president of Kaufmann’s Department Store. His son, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., studied architecture briefly under Wright.
Edgar Sr. had been prevailed upon by his son and Wright to subsidize the cost of a 12 foot square model of Wright’s Broadacre City. The model was initially displayed at an Industrial Arts Exposition in the Forum at the Rockefeller Center starting on April 15, 1935. After the New York exposition, Kaufmann Sr. arranged to have the model displayed in Pittsburgh at an exposition titled “New Homes for Old”, sponsored by the Federal Housing Administration. The exposition opened on June 18 on the 11th floor of Kaufmann’s store.
The Kaufmanns lived in “La Tourelle”, a French Norman estate designed by Pittsburgh architect Benno Janssen (1874–1964) in the Fox Chapel suburb in 1923 for Edgar J. Kaufmann. Wright visited Bear Run on Tuesday, December 18. The Kaufmanns and Wright were enjoying refreshments at La Tourelle when Wright said to Edgar Jr., in tones that the elder Kaufmanns were intended to overhear, “Edgar, this house is not worthy of your parents…” The remark spurred the Kaufmanns’ interest in something worthier. Fallingwater would become the end result.
The Kaufmanns owned property outside Pittsburgh with a waterfall and cabins they used as a rural retreat. When these cabins deteriorated, Mr. Kaufmann contacted Wright.
On December 18, 1934, Wright visited Bear Run and asked for a survey of the area around the waterfall. One was prepared by Fayette Engineering Company of Uniontown, Pennsylvania including all the site’s boulders, trees and topography, and forwarded to Wright in March 1935.
As reported by Wright’s apprentices at Taliesin, Kaufmann Sr. was in Milwaukee on September 22, nine months after their initial meeting, and called Wright at home early Sunday morning to surprise him with the news that he would be visiting Wright that day before lunch. He could not wait to see Wright’s plans. Wright had told Kaufmann in earlier communication that he had been working on the plans, but had not actually drawn anything. After breakfast that morning, amid a group of very nervous apprentices, Wright calmly drew the plans in the two hours in which it took Kaufmann to drive to the Taliesin.
Wright intended to build the home above the falls, rather than below them to afford a view of the cascades as he had expected. It is said that Kaufmann was initially very upset that Wright had designed the house to sit atop the falls. He had wanted the house located on the southern bank of Bear Run, directly facing the falls. He had told Wright that was his favorite aspect of the Bear Run property.
Design and construction
One problem of building was that the location of the north bank of Bear Run was not large enough to provide a foundation for a typically built Wright house.
The Kaufmanns planned to entertain large groups of people, so the house would need to be larger than the plot allowed. Also, Mr. and Mrs. Kaufmann requested separate bedrooms as well as a bedroom for their adult son and an additional guest room.
A cantilevered structure was used to address this. The structural design for Fallingwater was undertaken by Wright in association with staff engineers Mendel Glickman and William Wesley Peters, who had been responsible for the columns featured in Wright’s revolutionary design for the Johnson Wax Headquarters.
Preliminary plans were issued to Kaufmann for approval on October 15, 1935, after which Wright made a further visit to the site and provided a cost estimate for the job. In December 1935, an old rock quarry was reopened to the west of the site to provide the stones needed for the house’s walls. Wright only made periodic visits during construction, instead assigning his apprentice Robert Mosher as his permanent on-site representative. The final working drawings were issued by Wright in March 1936 with work beginning on the bridge and main house in April 1936.
The strong horizontal and vertical lines are a distinctive feature of Fallingwater
The construction was plagued by conflicts between Wright, Kaufmann, and the construction contractor. Uncomfortable with what he saw as Wright’s insufficient experience using reinforced concrete, Kaufmann had the architect’s daring cantilever design reviewed by a firm of consulting engineers. Upon receiving their report, Wright took offense and immediately requested Kaufmann to return his drawings and indicated he was withdrawing from the project. Kaufmann relented to Wright’s gambit and the engineer’s report was subsequently buried within a stone wall of the house.
After a visit to the site in June 1936, Wright rejected the stonemasonry of the bridge, which had to be rebuilt.
For the cantilevered floors, Wright and his team used upside down T-shaped beams integrated into a monolithic concrete slab which both formed the ceiling of the space below and provided resistance against compression. The contractor, Walter Hall, also an engineer, produced independent computations and argued for increasing the reinforcing steel in the first floor’s slab. Wright refused the suggestion. While some sources state that it was the contractor who quietly doubled the amount of reinforcement, according to others, it was at Kaufmann’s request that his consulting engineers redrew Wright’s reinforcing drawings and doubled the amount of steel specified by Wright.
In addition, the contractor did not build in a slight upward incline in the formwork for the cantilever to compensate for the settling and deflection of the cantilever. Once the concrete formwork was removed, the cantilever developed a noticeable sag. Upon learning of the steel addition without his approval, Wright recalled Mosher.
With Kaufmann’s approval, the consulting engineers arranged for the contractor to install a supporting wall under the main supporting beam for the west terrace. When Wright discovered it on a site visit, he had Mosher discreetly remove the top course of stones. When Kaufmann later confessed to what had been done, Wright showed him what Mosher had done and pointed out that the cantilever had held up for the past month under test loads without the wall’s support.
In October 1937, the main house was completed.
The original estimated cost for building Fallingwater was US$35,000. The final cost for the home and guest house was US$155,000, broken down as follows: house $75,000; finishing and furnishing $22,000; guest house, garage and servants’ quarters $50,000; architect’s fee $8,000. From 1938 through 1941 more than $22,000 would be spent on additional details and for changes in the hardware and lighting.
The total project price of $155,000, adjusted for inflation, is the equivalent of approximately $2.6 million in 2014. The cost of restoration was estimated to be $11.5 million in 2001.
Use of the house
Fallingwater was the family’s weekend home from 1937 to 1963. In 1963, Kaufmann, Jr. donated the property to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. In 1964, it was opened to the public as a museum. Nearly five million people have visited the house as of March 2013. Despite its location in a remote corner of Pennsylvania, the house (according to the informational pamphlet distributed on the grounds) hosts more than 150,000 visitors each year.
Kaufmann, Jr. years later said, “He [Wright] understood that people were creatures of nature, hence an architecture which conformed to nature would conform to what was basic in people. For example, although all of Falling Water [sic] is opened by broad bands of windows, people inside are sheltered as in a deep cave, secure in the sense of the hill behind them.”
The interior of Fallingwater depicting a sitting area with furnishings designed by Wright.
Fallingwater stands as one of Wright’s greatest masterpieces both for its dynamism and for its integration with the striking natural surroundings. Fallingwater has been described as an architectural tour de force of Wright’s organic philosophy. Wright’s passion for Japanese architecture was strongly reflected in the design of Fallingwater, particularly in the importance of interpenetrating exterior and interior spaces and the strong emphasis placed on harmony between man and nature. Contemporary Japanese architect Tadao Ando has stated: “I think Wright learned the most important aspect of architecture, the treatment of space, from Japanese architecture. When I visited Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, I found that same sensibility of space. But there was the additional sounds of nature that appealed to me.
This organically designed private residence was intended to be a nature retreat for its owners. The house is well known for its connection to the site; it is built on top of an active waterfall which flows beneath the house.
The fireplace hearth in the living room integrates boulders found on the site and upon which the house was built — ledge rock which protrudes up to a foot through the living room floor was left in place to demonstrably link the outside with the inside. Wright had initially intended that the ledge be cut flush with the floor, but this had been one of the Kaufmann family’s favorite sunning spots, so Mr. Kaufmann suggested that it be left as it was. The stone floors are waxed, while the hearth is left plain, giving the impression of dry rocks protruding from a stream.
Integration with the setting extends even to small details. For example, where glass meets stone walls there is no metal frame; 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. From the cantilevered living room, a stairway leads directly down to the stream below, and in a connecting space which connects the main house with the guest and servant level, a natural spring drips water inside, which is then channeled back out. Bedrooms are small, some with low ceilings to encourage people outward toward the open social areas, decks, and outdoors.
Driveway leading to the entrance of Fallingwater.
Bear Run and the sound of its water permeate the house, especially during the spring when the snow is melting, and locally quarried stone walls and cantilevered terraces resembling the nearby rock formations are meant to be in harmony. The design incorporates broad expanses of windows and balconies which reach out into their surroundings. The staircase leading down from the living room to the stream (mentioned above) is accessed via movable horizontal glass panes. In conformance with Wright’s views, the main entry door is away from the falls.
On the hillside above the main house stands a four-bay carport, servants’ quarters, and a guest house. These attached outbuildings were built two years later using the same quality of materials and attention to detail as the main house. The guest quarters feature a spring-fed swimming pool which overflows and drains to the river below.
Wright had planned in the beginning to have the house blend in to its natural settings in rural Pennsylvania. In doing this he limited his color choices to two colors. The colors he chose were light ochre for the concrete and his signature Cherokee red for the steel.
After Fallingwater was deeded to the public, three carport bays were enclosed at the direction of Kaufmann, Jr., to be used by museum visitors to view a presentation at the end of their guided tours on the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (to which the home was entrusted). Kaufmann, Jr. designed its interior himself, to specifications found in other Fallingwater interiors by Wright.
The cantilevers at Fallingwater.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy conducted an intensive program to preserve and restore Fallingwater. From 1988, a New York City-based architecture and engineering firm was responsible for the materials conservation of Fallingwater. During this time the firm reviewed original construction documents and subsequent repair reports, evaluated conditions and problems, analyzed select materials, designed the re-roofing and re-waterproofing of roofs and terraces, specified the restoration for original steel casement windows and doors, reconstructed failed concrete reconstructions, restored the masonry, analyzed interior paint finishes, specified interior paint removal methods and re-painting, designed repair methods for concrete and stucco, and developed a new coating system for the concrete.
Given the humid environment directly over running water, mold had proven to be a problem. The elder Kaufmann called Fallingwater “a seven-bucket building” for its leaks, and nicknamed it “Rising Mildew”. Condensation under roofing membranes was also an issue, due to the lack of damp proofing or thermal breaks.
Fallingwater’s structural system includes a series of very bold reinforced concrete cantilevered balconies which had problems from the beginning. Pronounced deflection of the concrete cantilevers was noticed as soon as formwork was removed at the construction stage. This deflection continued to increase over time, and eventually reached 7 inches (over a 15-foot span).
Miniature replica of the Fallingwater building at MRRV, Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh
In 1995, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy commissioned a study of Fallingwater’s structural integrity. Structural engineers analyzed the movement of the cantilevers over time and conducted radar studies of the cantilevers to locate and quantify the reinforcement. These showed that the contractor had indeed added reinforcement over Wright’s plan; nevertheless, the cantilevers were still insufficiently reinforced. An architecture firm was hired to fix the problem. Both the concrete and its steel reinforcement were close to their failure limits. As a result, in 1997, temporary girders were installed beneath the cantilevers to carry their weight.
In 2002, the structure was repaired permanently using post-tensioning. The living room’s flagstone floor’s blocks were individually tagged and removed. Blocks were joined to the concrete cantilever beams and floor joists, high-strength steel cables were fed through the blocks and exterior concrete walls, and then the cables were tightened using jacks. The floors and walls were then restored, leaving Fallingwater’s interior and exterior appearance unchanged. The cantilevers now had sufficient support, and the deflection stopped.