June 19, 2013

Fallingwater: Story of an Iconic House

Fallingwater exterior

Honestly speaking, whenever I think about what kind of architecture fascinates and appeals to me, I always identify it as to whether it looks pretty/fantastical/unusual. I have never given much thought to as to how it feels, as in when you walk inside a building/space and sense how the varied design, interior, and other visual elements have converged together to create an ambiance peculiar to that specific location. At the most, religious and spiritual structures have had that kind of impact upon me, especially Jain temples, which I consider to be amongst the most peace-inducing spaces I have ever been in. However, I can't recollect any other buildings which have exerted such a hold on me. 

Before we got married and I was curious to know more about Pittsburgh and its adjoining areas, my husband mentioned that the renowned American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright's arguably most famous house, Fallingwater happened to be located near Pittsburgh. And so few weeks ago, we paid a visit to see it in person. I remember encountering a reference to Lloyd Wright while researching a story on architecture some years ago but I didn't know much about him beyond that. Before we visited, I did nonetheless drop by the house's website and initial glimpses of its strong primarily horizontal, clean, minimalist lines reminded me of Le Corbusier, whom I largely associate with having designed Chandigarh at Jawaharal Nehru's request. That's just a purely personal association though!

Also known as the Kaufmann residence, Fallingwater essentially was a house owned by prominent Pittsburgh business family, Kauffmanns, which comprised Edgar Kauffmann Sr, his wife, and son; the house derives its name from the water-fall on Bear Run that it is partially built upon and its iconic design resurrected Wright's career, which was otherwise fading into obscurity. Considering its significance to Wright and the subsequent acclaim it enjoyed, the house is an interesting way to understand his design mindset.

View of Fallingwater from the spot it was originally meant to built upon

Set inside a thick forest which the Kauffmans incidentally had had re-planted, you can easily imagine what a sanctuary it must have been as you approach it through the grounds and down a winding path. The tour guide mentioned that the house was originally to be built in a spot overlooking the waterfall; however, Wright instead decided to structure the entire house around the water-fall so that it became a part of the house, rather than merely to be looked at. Such a decision was in continuum with his design philosophy of integrating the surrounding environment into the architectural narrative and making the structure organic, examples of which abound in Fallingwater. Indeed, once the windows were open, you would get a glimpse of the water-fall but also listen to the sound of continuously falling water, which would permeate the house. There is also provision of directly accessing the fall and Bear Run from the living room.

We took a basic one-hour tour, which involves exploring the house and being offered little anecdotes as to how the house evolved into being, including how the Kauffmans and Wright actively collaborated and innovated about the design and space. For example, at the fireplace in the living room, Wright retained boulders on the site and made them part of the hearth. I also liked the living room terrace, where you could gaze at the fall and Bear Run while a meditative Buddha head bust standing in the center of the terrace contemplated you in turn. 

I especially liked the living room area which took up the entire ground floor; upstairs, though, we saw the bedrooms of which Mrs Kaufmann's bedroom was my favorite. While the guest and Mr Kauffman's master bedrooms were cozy/cave-like (or as someone more bluntly mentioned in our tour-group, claustrophobic!), her bedroom was luxuriously roomy and opened out to a terrace which was almost as large as the bedroom itself. What a seamless transition it must have been to make from nocturnal dreams into dream-like natural surroundings upon waking...

Kaufmann Sr's terrace

Each room had its corresponding open terrace/space, creating an interplay between open/closed spaces. One anecdote which charmed me was that the design sought to accommodate a tree growing bang in middle of the property at the time; it was supposed to grow through the terrace facing Kauffman Sr's bedroom, creating a natural pillar of bark and green. The tree didn't survive though but I appreciate the design embracing and adapting to the natural contours, rather than entirely bypassing them altogether.

Apart from the main house, one can access the guest annexe by a curving flight of stairs; the rooms retain similar lines and features and what especially caught my attention was a table fashioned from a tree-stump. I actually thought that it was something that Wright had incorporated into the room...however, it turned out that the Kauffmans had had it made and Wright was a little disapproving, describing it as tad rustic. While in the guest annexe, I couldn't help but think that Fallingwater was as perfect a location for a murder mystery thriller as it could get! 

Living room and fireplace (courtesy:www.digdigs.com)

Apart from admiring its design, what I was also drawn towards was how every effort has been taken to preserve the original atmosphere and character of the interiors through paintings, books and magazines, artefacts and sculptures, and furniture. Photographs are forbidden inside the interior and you must carefully navigate your way through the rooms, wary of disturbing the house and its invisible occupants. It seems to be only a matter of time before they will eventually make their appearance, filling up the living room with gales of laughter and conversations and merriments...or retreating into their private terraces and soaking in precious moments of contemplation. For, it was a home at the end of the day - and like any home, it nests within its interiors many stories and secrets.

First glimpse of Fallingwater
The tour concluded, we ambled into the exhibition space, which testified to Fallingwater's national and global popularity and how it has been a muse for many. You can also indulge in a bit of in situ poetry so to speak, answering seven questions in one word answers to distill your Fallingwater experience and later weave those words into a poem. 

These were few of mine:


The poem awaits to be made...

Do you have a favorite structure/building? What do you feel when you are/were inside it?


  1. Pretty interesting read, loved the way you have shared your thoughts, I havent visited this place, may be when I visit the East Coast, I can try. My experience in the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo"s paintings was just amazing.


  2. Thank you, Padmaja...well, if you're ever in the area, I would definitely recommend paying a visit - there are many notable FLW buildings around the States but this is the most renowned one.

    I visited Sistine Chapel when I was quite young but even then, I recall being in thrall of the paintings...btw, to digress a bit, I recently watched 'The Agony and Ecstasy', a movie which explores Michelangelo's journey of painting the Sistine Chapel. Have you heard/seen of it? If you haven't, definitely recommend it!

  3. I will check it out, thanks for letting me know, I am sure I would enjoy it :-)


    1. Yes, I will be curious to know what you make of it:)

  4. I love Frank Lloyd Wright. I saw one of his building in Marin Co. He's amazing. I now want to go see Falling Water. Love your pictures!


    1. So glad you enjoyed the pictures, Katherine...and yes, you will definitely appreciate Fallingwater (the gorgeous location alone is enough to make you understand how it inspired and influenced his work). Meanwhile, I am now looking forward to visiting his other buildings - any recommendations?:)


Thank you so much for taking the time out to leave a comment. I look forward to hearing from you!