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Falling Water

Where Wright was Right and Wright was Wrong

I recently read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. What a great story about an architect—Howard Roark—who refuses to compromise his creative ideals or his personal values. In a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, Brendan Gill discusses the comparison between Wright and Roark, and the common misconception that Rand based her character on the famous architect (Many Masks, pg. 490-492). After reading several biographies of Wright (and learning Wright was a colossal egotist), then visiting many of his homes (where I was overwhelmed by their timeless beauty), I have to agree: it’s too bad there wasn’t more in common between the man and the myth. But Wright’s work, and especially his influence on architecture, will definitely outlive his personality.

Traditional design

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Traditional architectural is dependent upon classical designs that date back thousands of years, to the Greeks and Romans. For centuries, our homes and buildings have been influenced by countless architects and artists—from Vitruvius to Palladio to Michelangelo, but almost all of them based their designs on historic styles, and classical orders.

Yet in one lifetime, Frank Lloyd Wright influenced architecture in a way no single man ever had; he changed the form of the homes in which many of us live; Wright’s innovative work can be seen in diverse styles from modern open-plan designs to ranch-style homes. While it’s regretful that Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t a better man, that he didn’t care more about his clients’ needs and the small details that make people comfortable, no one is perfect, not even Mr. Wright.

Examples of Wright’s work

The first Frank Lloyd Wright home I visited was right here in Los Angeles, the Ennis House, one of Wright’s “Mayan” designs. Wright's Ennis HomeEven in these concrete-block homes Wright stressed horizontal lines over vertical rise, using long repeated rows of decorative block and extended headers over doorways—even piercing whole walls with low soffits. The house isn’t currently open to the public, but hopefully it will be soon, after extensive renovations are completed—especially to the foundation. You see, Wright didn’t grout the walls solid—not even the bond beams: the steel reinforcement bars rusted out—sometimes staining the block. A few of those walls are retaining walls, too. Sometimes Wright got it pretty wrong.

Another nearby home is open to the public, the Barnsdale House, which is designed with similar decorative concrete block. If you’re ever in the area, don’t miss seeing Wright’s Los Angeles work.

A few years ago, while doing a JLC Live show in Chicago, the folks at Hanley Wood organized a tour for the entire JLC Live Crew—they took us in a bus to Wright’s Robie House. Talk about stressing horizontal lines: even the brickwork was laid to emphasize the horizontal joints: all of the horizontal joints are struck and raked out deeply, but the vertical joints are flush, making them—as Gill notes—”nearly invisible.” After visiting the Robie house, I read that the ‘horizontality’ of Wright’s Prairie Style Homes originated with the endless ‘horizons’ of the Midwest—at least that’s what Wright said. Except few of his homes were built on the prairie.

Greg Burnet did some remodeling work on Unity Temple and introduced me to that Chicago icon. The Unity TempleEven though the building required substantial height—it’s a temple, after all, and replaced a Gothic Revival church that burned—Wright still tied the design together with horizontal elements. The main floor seems to float as you enter the temple, the ceiling rises past the upper pews, but long slender bands of horizontal molding break through the height; the pews add to the horizontal ‘grounded’ feeling inside the building. Like many of Wright’s low-slope and flat-roof buildings, water was always a devilish problem for Unity Temple. The scuppers are still being repaired today—though this time with self-adhesive, self-healing membranes.Unity Temple Pews

The same low-slope roofs and long horizontal lines—emphasized by extreme cantilevers, welcomes visitors to Wright’s own home in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the same problems with water damage are prevalent at Taliesin. While visiting the home, besides stained stucco soffits, we saw pots and jars spread around the floor to pick up roof leaks. And signs of rot were everywhere, from the windowsills to the rafters.

Falling Water

So what’s all this have to do with Falling Water? Prior to Falling Water, Wright had a vision of homes built without “order,” independent of the post-and-lintel structures that predate Stonehenge, and definitely independent of the classical orders that dominated architecture since the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893.

Looking back while writing his autobiography, Wright said: “…Changes came along slowly because, to eliminate the post and beam as such (the old order), I could get no help from the engineer.  …Engineers reduce everything in the field of calculation to post and girder.  …The engineer had not yet enough scientific formula in any handbook to calculate at all for continuity…the “third dimension” (as I myself had been calling it” (pg. 85, Gill).

Acting as his own engineer, pursuing his vision of a new architecture, without order, where the horizontal planes of a home melded with the surrounding land and the horizon, Wright achieved his greatest success with Falling Water.

Comments/Discussion

11 Responses to “Falling Water”

  1. Anthony

    What a nice video and article about Falling Water. I grew up around that area and always like that house, but kind of shocked you didn’t go to the falls underneath and show the reinforcements made to the foundation. That was a big story especially since it was something Wright fought when the house was being built. But over time the house started to settle and the cantilevers started to move and the foundation needed repaired. Also this is one of the few houses that still had all of the custom Wright furniture and decorations, the house looks almost exactly as it did when it was completed. I just hope that more people can see this house in person and really enjoy its beauty.

    Thanks for the story and review of this house, it is an american treasure.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Anthony,
      I wish we’d had more time at the home. I would have crawled all over the place! But we were in between Roadshows and time wasn’t on our side. If anyone ever gets to the home and takes pictures of the foundation, but post them here!
      Gary

      Reply
      • Anthony

        Gary,

        I had to check, I guess they made the changes and they were hidden under the main floor so they are not visible. The last time I was there they had supports in place under the house and they were talking about the project to support the cantilevers and a they had a few mock ups. So I was under the assumption the updates were going to be visible based on this information.

        If I can find some pictures of the restoration I will post them.

        Anthony

        Reply
  2. LizPf

    What a wonderful article! You showed both sides of Wright, right and wrong.

    My mother was a FLW fan, so I grew up surrounded by books of his work. We were able to see the Usonian Homes exhibit years ago … FLW’s design sense was great, but his execution was … well, I wish his ego didn’t stand in the way of listening to a structural engineer, or even a good G.C. But it did.

    Reply
  3. tom struble

    Great read Gary,
    I’ve read a few biographies about him and was struck by the fact that if you wanted to be a client of his you better be willing to put up with a leaky roof

    Reply
    • Mike H

      How true!
      I live about 60 miles from the Rosenbaum House in Florence Alabama ( a Usonian), and have visited it more than a few times. The Rosenbaum’s are said to have “owned and occupied” one of FlW’s houses longer than any of the original owners of a FLW Design. It was stated that the roof of their home began leaking about 2 weeks before they moved in, and that neither of the 2 fireplaces ever “drew” smoke well, and that rain water poured from them as well.
      But they were TRUE believers in Wright and his designs, because they had him design and oversee the expansion to the home just 8 years later. They reared 4 boys there, Mr. Rosenbaum died in his 60’s, leaving Mrs. Rosenbaum alone there for another 20 years before she had to take residence in an assisted living Home.
      When they sold the house to the City, the roof was still leaking throughout the house. The City of Florence Restored the house ( and Roof) at a cost of over 700 grand. And as far as I know, the materials used to redo the roof are holding up fine.
      But the Rosenbaum’s deserve a medal for what they went through just to say they owned and lived in a Wright designed home!

      Reply
  4. Cobokk

    You have to admit the leaks are minor compared to the design and environment this man created. For over 20 years I review this specific house and always puts a smile on my face.

    Thank you for the tour and the article. I have yet found the time to get down there however I don’t know if I want to go – Because leaving would be a sin. I might have to build a replica here in Canada!

    Reply
  5. Henry Carmichael

    You mentioned Mr. Wright’s egotism – and I recall an anecdote to illustrate.

    Mr. Wright was called as an expert witness in a court case, and went with a friend. After being sworn in, he was asked to state his name and occupation. He answered, “My name is Frank Lloyd Wright, and I am the world’s greatest living architect.” When he and his friend were leaving, the friend asked, “Frank, how could you say you were the world’s greatest living architect?” Wright answered, “I had to. I was under oath.”

    Reply
  6. Mike H

    Good review and an honest assessment of the Architect.
    As typical, I too have been a great fan of all things FLW. That is other than his self absorbed ego, and the obvious deficiencies of his buildings as constructed. But then again, he was pushing the art of design further than it had ever been, and at a time when the materials technology to make his designs practical, were a long way off.
    In saying that, it’s not surprising to me in the least, that the cantilever beams of Falling Waters, were so not up to snuff both during and after construction. In fact, I don’t think they could have been, even with more steel: at that time, without substantial changes to either the bolsters, and enlargement of the beams themselves. Something I’m sure that Wright would never have allowed, even it had been proved to him his design might fail.
    He was far more interested in the pure overall design aesthetics of his buildings, more than he ever was about lasting structural integrity, or even sustainability of it’s components.
    The fact that the building survived intact for so long is a testament to those who were contracted to build it, and the owner’s intelligence to override the architect in the matter.
    But I also contend that Wright’s dreams come true, via his obvious overreach of structural/ materials capacity for his time was for us all a wonderful thing!

    Reply

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