Fallingwater, the Rise of Organic Architecture

Fallingwater, the Rise of Organic Architecture

Let’s travel back in time to the 1930s, when our society was rapidly modernising. America was among the “new world” countries experiencing unprecedented changes. Skyscrapers sprouted everywhere, roads were heated by automobiles. All of a sudden, people found themselves living in an unfamiliar, if not disorienting environment.

These were the conditions that gave rise to organic architecture, a philosophy championed by Frank Lloyd Wright to link up nature, paramount to the lifestyle in the past, to the 20th century city. Organic architecture interprets order and balance from the natural and distills those into modern constructions. There isn’t a better project to sum up Wright’s style than Fallingwater. An instant sensation after completion in 1939, the holiday home in the Pennsylvanian woods represented a new way of living, one conscious about the surroundings and what we have at home.

Wright reviewing an architectural plan (Pedro E. Guerrero, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum); A family portrait of the Kaufmanns. (Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)

Fallingwater was commissioned by the successful department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann. From the outset, its location is an architectural work by Mother Nature. A stream runs through dramatic rock ledges and turns into waterfalls at various points. They are framed by different types of oaks, mountain laurels and ferns. The house gives Kaufmann a haven from the city’s disturbance, as he spends weekends there with his family to bath and picnic amongst the tranquil setting.

While nature had always inspired Wright’s work, the ledges were “a story and longing” to him. He continued to say, “For in a stony bone-work of the Earth, the principles that shaped stone as it lies, or as it rises and remains to be sculpted by winds and tide - there sleep forms and styles enough for all the ages for all of Man.” The building’s design became clear as the architect listened to the music of the stream. He placed the construction directly about the rock and a waterfall, stressing that the Kaufmanns could hear the water flow by just looking at the design.

Those passing through the bridge to the house are greeted by the crisp music of the adjacent Bear Run. (Library of Congress)

Integrity to the site is a main objective of organic architecture. In the late phase of his career, Wright knew exactly how to take full advantage of such a gifted place. A combination of manmade and natural materials reflects his endeavour to connect the two realms. Concrete reinforced by steel bars, a technological invention at the time, supports the cantilevered structure. This design helps overcome the lack of usable land there and generate ample terrace space. In conjunction to the maximal use of glass, it makes the picturesque views available from within the construction. Furthermore, the asymmetric structure went on to become Fallingwater’s most distinctive feature, realising his architectural ideal that form and function are one.

This drawing by Wright shows how reinforced concrete helps realise Fallingwater’s complex layout under the limited size of land. (The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

The bond between the built structure and the terrain is complete with the use of rock throughout the edifice. Bearing the weight of the concrete slabs, the stones on the walls were sourced from a quarry only 500 feet away from the site. Their texture and how they were stacked echo the natural ledges nearby. It’s even more amazing that a boulder original to the site remains untouched, penetrating into the living room near the hearth. With that, Wright’s motto that “it is in the nature of any organic building to grow from its site” comes to perfect fruition.

interior wall
The building forges a consistent narrative with the use of local stones on the exterior and interior walls. Boulders from directly below the house extends to hearth in the living room. (David Brossard; Christopher Little, courtesy of The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)

Every detail forms a part of the whole in Wright’s overarching view on architecture. If the cantilevered terraces and stone walls make up the face of Fallingwater, furniture is its heart and soul. He personally designed 169 furniture pieces for the house. Taking a step further, the architect even made specific plans to arrange them. For instance, zabutons, hassocks and coffee tables were supposed to spread out asymmetrically (though the idea was not fully adopted by the Kaufmanns) in the living room in respect to the dynamic nature. Some sofas are embedded to the alcoved walls, radiators concealed behind the seats and bookshelves. The result is palpable - the house looks as seamless as it can get.

Wright is an avid admirer of Japanese culture. Through his bespoke zabutons, he associates the serene environment of Fallingwater with Zen meditation, which seeks to be at one with nature. (both by Robert P. Ruschak, courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)

Seen throughout the building, the wooden chairs and tables employ black walnut from North Carolina. Sapwood and heartwood each boasts unique, elegant grains that adds to the house’s naturalism. Wright’s stroke of genius comes into play as he asked the grain to be used horizontally to prevent warping. The Barrel Chair in the guest room is undoubtedly a gem. Veneered for a smooth, shiny surface, the semi-circular frame comfortably wraps the human body. Its robust, slitted form complies with the prairie style popular to country homes then. Alongside the stony columns and walls, the wooden furniture creates the vibe that one is really living in the wild, worlds apart from the crowded, noisy city.

The Barrel Chair adds graceful accents to the desk in the guest room (Jack E. Boucher)

Eighty years later, Fallingwater is stylish as ever. As contemporary architects constantly seek new interpretations on the concept of organic architecture, Wright’s streamside sanctuary speaks for something lasting, a genuine marriage between design and nature.

While living in a natural oasis might remain a dream for most, you can always add splashes of greenery in the domestic space.
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