Skip to content

Fallingwater House Essays

What is Fallingwater?

Fallingwater is a house designed in 1935 by renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). The house was designed as a private residence and weekend home for the family of Pittsburgh department store owner, Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr. Fallingwater is one of Wright’s most widely acclaimed works and best exemplifies his philosophy of organic architecture: the harmonious union of art and nature.

Fallingwater is located in the mountains of Southwestern Pennsylvania, also known as the Laurel Highlands, in Mill Run, Pa. in Fayette County, which is about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. Wright designed Fallingwater to rise above the waterfall over which it is built. Completed with a guest house and service wing in 1939, Fallingwater was constructed of native sandstone and other materials quarried from the property. Fallingwater was built by local craftsman from Fayette County.

The Kaufmann family, Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr. (1885-1955), Liliane S. Kaufmann (1889-1952), and their son, Edgar Kaufmann jr. (1910-1989), owned, lived in and used Fallingwater in various capacities during their lifetimes. In 1963, Edgar Kaufmann jr. donated and entrusted Fallingwater and the surrounding 1,500 acres of natural land to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Today, Fallingwater is open to the public as a museum and is designated as a National Historic Landmark and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Treasure. The house was also named the “best all-time work of American architecture” in a poll of members of the American Institute of Architects. Since its public debut 82 years ago, more than five million visitors have toured and experienced Fallingwater. Travel+Leisure Magazine stated that Fallingwater is "one of the 12 landmarks that will change the way you see the world."

Fallingwater is the only major Wright work to come into the public domain with its setting original furnishings and artwork intact. Book a tour today to see Fallingwater!

That, at least, is the impression one has of Falling-water from the photographs. Being there proves this not so much wrong as incomplete. For it was Wright's genius to be able to make us feel as if nature is not only being challenged but also embraced - that this house exists both to give us gentle, nurturing sanctuary and to embolden us. It sits within a deep, wooded ravine beside a rapidly flowing stream, and it does not so much intrude on this wonderful landscape as enrich it. It may be the only instance outside of the Golden Gate Bridge in which the addition of a man-made structure makes a great natural landscape feel more profound, not less so.

Like all great works of art, Fallingwater gives up fresh meanings constantly, for every generation. Today, it seems particularly notable as a resolution of opposites - for in this splendid form we see not only Wright's own love of strong horizontal movement that dates back to his Prairie Houses of the early years of the century, but also the tighter, more tensile forms of the International Style architects of Europe.

Those architects, among them Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, had been partially influenced by Wright himself years before, and this house in many ways represents a marvelous completion of the circle. It is as if Frank Lloyd Wright - who by the time Fallingwater was designed was nearing 70 years of age, had relatively little work and was viewed by many as a figure of the past -summed up all his energies to make one spectacular gesture, as if to show his European rivals that he knew what they were doing and could do it better.

Fallingwater, of course, is not really a building of the International Style; it is far too Wrightian in its deep recesses of space, far too exquisitely picturesque a balanced composition, far too rich, in total, to be labeled as part of the austere style that the European modernists espoused. It is Frank Lloyd Wright, and uniquely Frank Lloyd Wright, however much it may involve Wright picking up on architectural themes that by the mid-1930's had become identified more with the European modernists than with Wright himself.

But while this building does join together, as no other piece of architecture had done, all the strains of the 20th century, maybe that is not where its greatest significance lies, important as it may may appear to us in this post-modern age in which integration and synthesis are so often sought. Being at Fallingwater, it is hard not to think all the more of the extraordinary relationship between house and land here - of the grace with which the horizontal forms appear to float, of the strength with which the house seems to grow right out of the massive boulders on the ravine within which Bear Run flows, of the perfectly framed views of the land and the water from within the house, of the constant presence of the sound of the water.

At a symposium earlier this month at Columbia University's Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, held to mark Fallingwater's 50th birthday, Vincent Scully, the Sterling Professor of the History of Art at Yale, divided 20th-century architecture into buildings that stand in confrontation with nature, as does a Greek temple, or seek integration with nature, as does an Indian pueblo. Mr. Scully placed Frank Lloyd Wright's work in the second category - but his comments suggested that Fallingwater transcends such categorization. For this great building at once stands proudly on its own, with nature as but a backdrop, and merges itself into its setting. Man and nature are both protagonists here. The symposium at the Buell Center, which was attended by several hundred scholars, honored not only the house but Edgar Kaufmann Jr., the son of its original owner, who is himself a distinguished scholar and patron of American architecture. And here it is worth saying a word about the happy story of this house's history, for Fallingwater has had an unusually smooth half century. Edgar Kaufmann Jr. was in his 20's in 1934 and was serving as an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright when his father, owner of the Pittsburgh department store Kaufmann's, came to visit and decided to commission Wright to design a weekend retreat on land the Kaufmanns had had for years. Wright at that time was a celebrated figure but nearly bereft of real commissions. The concept came together rapidly, as if Wright had been bursting with ideas that his dearth of clients had prevented him from expressing, and while construction of the house took longer than expected and cost substantially more than Wright's original estimates, the Kaufmanns moved in with great contentment.

Wright may never have had a better client than Edgar Kaufmann. Fallingwater instantly became celebrated and launched Wright on a final phase of his career that lasted for another 23 years, until his death in 1959. It also spurred Edgar Kaufmann Jr. onto his career as a writer on American architecture, a career that has just brought forth a handsome 50th-anniversary book on Fallingwater, published by Abbeville Press, that contains both a pleasing memoir of the house by Mr. Kaufmann and photographs by Christopher Little that are probably the finest ever taken of Fallingwater. As a final anniversary gesture, the Buell Center has honored Mr. Kaufmann with an exhibition that includes drawings and photographs of Fallingwater that he has donated to Columbia's Avery Library, as well as other drawings and books purchased with his help. It can be seen in the rotunda of Low Library through Dec. 4.

The house has never really left the Kaufmann family's hands. After his father's death in 1955, Edgar Kaufmann Jr. maintained Fallingwater with respect and affection, and in 1963, he donated the house and the grounds, which include roughly 1,750 acres, to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which manages it as a public trust. The conservancy, under Mr. Kaufmann's continually watchful eye, has maintained the house with all the care the Kaufmanns themselves devoted to it and has opened it to public tours, the income from which goes to further upkeep.

Fallingwater is virtually as intact, then, as any Frank Lloyd Wright house anywhere. Its integrity is complete, even down to the presence of most of the original furnishings and the Kaufmann family books that are still on the shelves - supplemented, on occasion, by current books that Edgar Kaufmann Jr. ships over whenever he prunes his own library shelves in New York. Although the conservancy ushers more than 70,000 visitors per year through the house, the building shows little evidence of heavy traffic - its real enemy is the weather in this deep Appalachian forest, which hammers away constantly at Wright's concrete and glass structure, keeping a large maintenance staff active at all times. (The house has leaked occasionally throughout its 50 years of existence, and despite repeated re-roofings, it still does.) The very fact that more than 70,000 people journey to this remote site each year - its location in southwestern Pennsylvania is closer to the West Virginia border than to Pittsburgh, the nearest large city - is ample evidence of the sway that Fallingwater still holds over our imaginations. At 50 years of age, it is as potent a work of architecture, surely, as it was in 1936; those who visit it frequently say that there are new perceptions with each return, and those who come for the first time sense that great onrush of emotion that comes with the first sighting of any profound work of art.

Still, the greatest thing of all is to walk down the steep path on the opposite side of Bear Run from the house and look back at Fallingwater leaping over the waterfall, its cantilevered concrete terraces soaring into space. It is the point from which the most familiar photographs of the house have been taken, but the view is too striking to be bound by images seen before. It is a sight of great energy tamed to a perfect harmony, and so spectacular is the lift that one's only impulse is to sing.

Continue reading the main story