In Style + Design

Visiting Fallingwater, One Of The World’s Greatest Architectural Feats

Name all the famous houses you can think of. It’s okay, I’ll wait. So, there’s the White one, and the Opera one, although they’re not really houses as such, and there’s 10 Downing Street in London, while Windsor Castle is the Queen’s home, but not a house. If you’re in Sydney you might add the PM’s digs at Kirribilli.

Now think of the houses that are the most famous for being beautiful, works of art even. No, the Opera House still doesn’t count, because I’m talking about homes, places where people lived, yet which have become, in architectural terms, as revered as the Harbour Bridge, or the Chrysler Building, or even the wildly imaginative Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Funnily enough, the house we’re talking about, the one we’ve just travelled some 30 hours to visit, was designed by the same freakish architect as the Guggenheim, Frank Lloyd Wright, and there are those that  argue that this house, Fallingwater – hiding away in a forest in deepest Pennsylvania – is the greater work.

In 1991, almost 60 years after it was built, the American Institute of Architects dubbed it the “best all-time work of American architecture” and it also sits on the Smithsonian’s  “Life List of 28 Places to Visit Before You Die”. And a lot of people obviously agree about just how special it is, because this year it will welcome its 6 millionth visitor, since it opened to the public in 1964.

Before that, though, it was a house, or at least a weekender, for a wealthy department-store-owning family called the Kauffmans, who asked Lloyd Wright to build them a little holiday getaway with a view of their favourite water falls on the Bear Run river, which they helpfully owned.

Lloyd Wright kind of agreed, but insisted that putting the house where they wanted it, across from the falls with a lovely view, would be boring and wrong. Instead he would build them a home perched on top of the very rushing water itself, and pledged to make the falls “a part of their everyday lives”.

The result goes beyond simply spectacular, floating, as it does, above the water, like a series of giant leaves on the rushing river above, seemingly poised to tip over the beautiful falls.

It is, perhaps, the ultimate example of Lloyd Wright’s love of “organic architecture”; the idea of bringing the outside world in. Wherever you are inside this vast, unusual yet fabulous home, you are aware of the rushing of water – the sight, smell and sound of it, and even the rushing vibration of it.

Incredibly, you can’t entirely see the waterfall from anywhere in the house, but you can alway feel it (the cool air rushing over the mountain stream feeds up a floating stair case that allows you to dip your toes in the water, and provides free air conditioning for the house).

That “outside in” approach also reveals itself in other ways, as the boulders the house sits on are allowed to poke up through the floor of the living room and into he hearth of a giant fireplace.

There’s also the fact that, when it rains, the house still leaks quite badly. Lloyd Wright justified this by saying he was bringing the Fallingwater idea into the home.

You need to take a short walk through the forest to a spot known as The View, where the full genius of the Fallingwater’s location finally reveals itself.

Hidden just behind the house are the servants’ quarters, where Lloyd Wright added a little touch that not many people realised he invented.

The Kauffmans wanted a four-car garage, but the architect refused, arguing that it would simply fill with clutter (his organised mind hated the idea, and he refused to provide attics or basements in his houses for the same reason), so he made them what he called a “carport” instead, or a “minimalist automotive shelter” as he originally dubbed it, before landing on the more catchy term we now use.

The director of Fallingwater, Justin W Gunther, is used to seeing people walking around the property with their jaws hanging slightly open, struggling to believe that a house so seemingly of the now was built in 1937. He says Australian is among the most commonly heard foreign accents, and thinks it might be because of the Canberra connection.

“Walter Burley Griffin, who won a competition to design your national capital, was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and was working his office in Chicago as a landscape designer when he got the call to go to Australia,” he explains.

For Gunther, the form home where he works every day – with 150 staff – is clearly Lloyd Wright’s greatest achievement, although some would argue that the Guggenheim, an even more stunningly modern building that has stood the test of time, even in fast-changing Manhattan, deserves that title.

“There are a group of people known as the Frank Lloyd Wright ‘Obsessed and Possessed’, he has quite a following, and there are many of them who travel the United States, checking off all the buildings he created (of the more than 500 that were built, some 420 are still standing), and there are people who’ve seen them all,” he says.

“This one, though, has got to be the best, although I might be biased.  In Fallingwater, Lloyd Wright was pushing every conventional notion of living and building at the time and pushing the limits of domestic architecture, and trying to build something that is a tour de force and a one of a kind.”

To visit this unbelievable place is to recognise just how spectacularly the great architect succeeded in his goal. It might not be the world’s greatest house, but it’s certainly the most amazing, and moving, one I’ve ever seen.

Published 29 June, 2018