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  • Des & Sandie Nichols

FALLINGWATER - FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S MAGNUM OPUS


We have driven 850 miles since leaving Maine. With the precision of a demented fly, we looked briefly at a map and headed off sort of down a bit and left a lot, passing through New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. It was not, however, totally uneventful. Having fought and won many battles throughout the four days with the mammoth, 75 mile-an-hour trucks who seemed determine to bundle us off the road, a failure to negotiate our way at 5 mph through a narrow toll booth brought our travel to a standstill. Our retractable step caught a huge curb as we went through the checkpoint resulting in a mangled mesh of twisted metal which rendered the bus undrivable. Numerous phone calls to Road Assistance and breakdown services brought nothing. Bloody useless. We were stuck on the side of the highway for 2 hours with four cats until we flagged down a small truck packed with ladders and building paraphernalia. It looked just like something out of the Beverly Hillbillies and the 60-something year old driver, Randy, was perfect casting. But Randy was a saint, a savior, our Good Samaritan. He produced a hacksaw and, in true impatient Nichols' fashion, the blade macheted its way, unsurgically, through the struts. After 10 minutes of frantic prostrate hacking, with Randy kindly joining in, it all fell off and was immediately jettisoned unceremoniously. Thank you Randy. Faith in human nature has been restored once more.

While on the road, we had chosen at random a place to stay that night. It was just outside a forgotten town called Connellsville. As we drove up to our overnight camp on Thursday, we saw a directional road sign - 'Fallingwater 15'. We thought nothing of it. But later that evening the name started spinning. Our good friend Peter Anslow had just told us he was coming over from the UK for a few weeks with his fabulous wife Tania... and he had said he was going to visit all sorts of exciting places from Niagara Falls to Washington, including Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous work of 'art-itecture'. Yes, that was it. Fallingwater. Of course we had heard of it, seen pictures and even watched a TV documentary about it. But, like everyone else, we had absolutely no idea where it was. Well, it's here, hidden away in the picturesque hills of rural Pennsylvania, miles from anywhere. In our map reading terms, it can be found at the bottom left corner of the state.

Fallingwater is arguably the most famous home in the world, apart from the ones in which the Royals and Presidents live, or lived. It is held up as a pinnacle for its avant-guard engineering and inspirational design and its quite incredible assimilation with nature. And it was never really intended to be a proper home at all, but a mere holiday cottage for the wealthy Pittsburgh department store owner Edward J. Kaufman, his wife and namesake son.

Edward Snr bought a parcel of land deep in south west Pennsylvania (for interest, Penn is one William Penn, a Quaker who was granted the land in 1681 by Charles II to settle a debt owed by the King to Penn's dad and 'sylvania', as those who endured umpteen years of Latin at school will know, means woodland). Some time earlier, Kaufman had already built a basic vacation cabin on the remote woodland property before he decided to ask the then 67 year old Frank Lloyd Wright, generally believed to be way past his prime (and having become less relevant during the years of the Great Depression), to design something special, something unique with total empathy for its idyllic location, overlooking a waterfall on the Bear Run rivulet of rushing water. He, like the sensible, immensely rich fellow he was, gave Wright a brief and budget for a 'statement' weekend cottage facing the 30' falls where he could show off a bit, get the wine out and entertain his friends in style, all set against this spectacular backdrop. Isn't that what any of us would suggest? But Wright totally ignored his master's bidding and had a far more wacky idea, coupled with an uncontrollable passion and a unshakable indulgence (and ego?) for spending his clients' money. It was therefore a massive shock to Kaufmann to learn that Wright had knocked out a design (allegedly in just two hours) for a house not facing the falls but actually straddling them. But, said Kaufmann, the site was just not large enough for the requested 'party house' to entertain sizable groups of guests. No problem, said the enigmatic Wright. He scratched out the brilliant cantilevered structure we see today, creating extended living space suspended in free air. Kaufmann was extremely sceptical about Wright's ability to pull off this construction masterpiece and, after asking experts to review the plans, took his concerns straight to the great man. The renowned architect simply took umbrage, threatened to quit - and his paymaster humbly capitulated. Legend has it that an engineer's report stating that the design was unstable and questioning the ability of the building team to make it work was buried by Kaufman within the stone walls of the magnificent edifice. Kaufman 0-Wright 1.

Ironically, you cannot actually see the waterfall from the house at all, but the sound of the rushing water is an omnipresent reminder of its proximity and does provide the most soothing soundtrack, the sort you hear in spas while having a massage. In reality, the house is much more of an architectural flight of fancy than a perfect living environment. Wright somehow arranged a harmonious wedding between a contemporary, angular bridegroom of complex modernity and a soft country bride born out of Mother Earth. His idea was to meld concrete, metal and glass with seasonal foliage and the sounds of falling water. The result? Possibly the most iconic house on the planet. He carefully chose empathetic earth colors. Ochre for the concrete and Cherokee red for the steel frames, which blend perfectly with the habitat. Its location attracts full light throughout the day as the sun's rays light up the flume and the falls, targeting a spotlight on Wright's masterly work with the elegant cascade spewing out from under the house. This is the view (top picture), surely, that Wright wanted you to have of his masterwork.

The outside is dominated by the large terraces, stretching out like giant concrete arms into the forest air to embrace the total scene. Inside, it is a labyrinth of wonder. He has captured the sense of nature itself; the main room has the feel of a 30's, minimalist tree-house, then there's a windowless cavelike corridor which makes you feel positively subterranean, like a five-star troglodyte. It is a maze of unexpected twists and turns.

The living areas are totally dominated by the walls of imperfect slate, quarried locally, which pick up the natural stone setting of the stream itself. The weird thing is that you are totally comfortable on all three levels; there is no feeling of height. This is largely because the windows on all floors act like framed pictures of branches and leaves at the center of the trees, changing the mood from season to season. You see no trunks and no top branches to give you perspective, just a snapshot of where the flora is in its annual cycle. There are interestingly also many subtle Japanese influences, reflecting the architect's fascination with Far Eastern style. Indeed, even the famous windows have a Kyoto resonance. In the living room, low seats, the sort you find in expensive Japanese restaurants (which, by the way, are absolutely impossible to sit on without cramping up and rolling off backwards like a capsized cockroach) face low window seats. Style can often be impractical and bloody uncomfortable.

But everywhere the strength of nature abounds. In front of the fireplace, the rocky outcrop on which the house stands bursts through the floor to remind you of just where you are, even on the darkest night in front of a flickering fire.

In a stroke of sheer vanity, almost inexplicably, Wright put in a glass hatch in the middle of the lounge, such as you would see on an old schooner deck, opening up a staircase down to a small platform hovering over the fast-flowing water. It is said that Mrs Kaufmann liked to swim naked, perish the thought, so perhaps this was place of personal indulgence.

Wright's obsession for detail went right down to the furniture and fittings so his imprint and moniker are everywhere. This is what Mr Wright wanted.

We were, however, surprised that all three bedrooms were small, pathetically small. We could not understand why they were not sumptuous with large picture windows to soak up the woodland views but apparently Mr Wright did not want you to wallow in the bedroom but Mr Wright wanted you to get out onto the balconies. That's OK in summer, Mr Wright, but you can't take your gin and tonic onto the adjoining terraces in mid-winter. We noticed, significantly, that Mr and Mrs Kaufman had tiny separate rooms while their permanent bachelor son had the top floor level, with a single bed in a cupboardless alcove. All a bit stoic for us. And it is surprising, with Mr Kaufman's penchant for entertaining, that there is no dining room, just a four chair 'breakfast' table (notably not with FLW designed chairs but some incongruous mid-European three-legged bier-keller efforts that sit better on the uneven stone floor).

But only the churlish would find fault. No, it is not the most 'livable' place to relax in, far away from the poisonous air of industrial Pittsburgh. And, yes, even the greatest architect of his time did not reach perfection; his ultimate aesthetic vision certainly did not cater well for the dampness and consequential deterioration. The flat roofs demanded costly maintenance (and still do). The lack of movement of air caused interior wall and ceiling damage, but we can forgive all this in the light of the magnificence of his creation.

And the next question is: how much did all this cost? Built in the late thirties, Wright was given a budget of between $20,000 and $30,000. Any of you who have worked with architects know that this figure is only ever going to go skywards. Final cost? $155,000 (around $3.5m today). But, hell, it's only money. And to his credit Wright's fee was just $8,000.

But the house is a true masterpiece, the product of many strokes of genius. As with the simple and fabulous inversion of its name by Wright himself from Water Fall to the mystical 'Fallingwater', a visual onomatopoeia (if such a thing exists) which is metaphorically audible - sheer poetry.

We stumbled on it by pure chance. If you get the opportunity, we urge you to seek it out here in the darkest corner of Mr Penn's woodland state. But watch out for those toll booths on the way - they jump up and attack you.

And finally....good morning from Sooty & Sandie from our RV park (video)

Next stop: Kentucky


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