Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece Fallingwater

Frank Lloyd Wright’s relationship with water could be problematic. “If the roof doesn’t leak,” he once said, “the architect hasn’t been creative enough.” And when one client complained that water was coming through his new roof he famously asked whether he had considered getting a bucket.

But it is for a different kind of falling water that Wright has been remembered. Growing out of the rocky hills of west Pennsylvania, Fallingwater is perhaps the best known and most genuinely popular house of the modern era. A mesmerically beautiful building set theatrically above a waterfall in the woods, it perfectly expounds the architect’s notions of an organic architecture wedded to the landscape, yet with no reference to history, to what has come before. It is also the perfect illustration of the incredible drama that can be achieved by setting a building beside, or above, water.

The house was commissioned as a country residence by Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J Kaufmann Sr in 1934 and it took Wright nearly a year to arrive at a design. His genius was to make the house a part of the topography. Kaufmann had been expecting a building set some distance below the waterfall on the stream that ran through the site; instead he got one growing out of it.

The core of the house, constructed in striated rock extracted from a nearby quarry, rose from the bedrock like a rustic skyscraper at its heart, while horizontal planes of smooth concrete were cantilevered out over the falls, seemingly floating above the landscape. The expression brilliantly echoes the big flat boulders beneath it and the planes, the verticality of the trees supporting the forest canopy and the levels cascading down the side of the hill like the waterfall. Wright referred to it as an “extension of the cliff beside a mountain stream”.

Wright had enjoyed his greatest period of success before the outbreak of the first world war. The following years were scarred by tragedy and scandal, including the axe-murder of his lover by a servant, the collapse of his subsequent marriage due to his second wife’s addiction to morphine and then a marriage to Montenegrin ballerina Olgivana Lazovich, followed by a tussle with her former husband (also an architect) over custody of her children and a scandal when a prosecution for immorality was brought against them. Recovering from that extraordinary run of personal upheaval, by the time he was working on Fallingwater, Wright was on the rise again.

The first phase of his career had seen him define what he asserted was a truly American architecture in a series of brilliant buildings that he called Prairie Houses. Their horizontal planes, overhanging eaves, free-flowing interiors in which spaces melt into each other with few walls or doors, was intended to evoke the endless landscapes of the American west. It is impossible to imagine the rise of 1920s modernism in Europe, the dazzling geometry of de Stijl and Gerrit Rietveld’s houses, the flowing, exquisite spaces of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, without Wright’s pioneering houses. But he had seemingly achieved as much as he could with that typology. He had redefined the house and had nowhere else to go.

His 1920s houses were an extraordinary departure. Perched atop a hill in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, the 1924 Ennis Brown House was a strange, solid, Mayan-influenced block that became a weird cipher for darkness in Hollywood history, appearing as haunted houses (The House on Haunted Hill) and sci-fi dwellings (Blade Runner).

With Fallingwater Wright did it again. Modernism had matured in Europe and his early houses, with their pitched roofs, brick walls and stained glass, had begun to appear passé. Fallingwater was, at least in part, conceived as a critique of the prevailing movement, a riposte to the familiar, Bauhaus-influenced white functionalism the architect referred to as “cardboard houses”.

Fallingwater’s free-form plan – in which rooms run as fluidly into one another as the stream tumbles down the rocks below, in which the house defers to the landscape yet makes itself a theatrical part of it, in which indoor space is allowed to flow into broad terraces so that rooms run seamlessly into fresh air – was the most radical and convincing response Wright could have made.

Fallingwater is also, arguably, the last complete Gesamtkunstwerk, the realisation of the house as a total work of art, in which not only context and architecture are woven inseparably together but in which each element of the interior becomes indispensable to the conception of the whole.

The floor of the living area is built from rustic stone slabs, as if the space was a cave and, suddenly, a boulder rises out of the floor towards the fireplace. This is a piece of the rock ledge upon which the house is built, allowed to impinge on the interior so that the foundations become part of the conception and the everyday life of the space. It serves as a reminder of the power and presence of nature amid the resolutely man-made. The floor itself is waxed so that it shimmers, as if beneath a shallow mountain pool, while the boulder is left raw, as if drying out in the heat of the fire.

The eye is constantly drawn outwards. Entrances are barely there; the plan is so informal that it is hard to tell exactly where the architect meant you to enter. The emphasis is always on without from within, not the other way round.

Of all the routes to and from the landscape the most sublime by far are the ethereal steps floating out from below the terraces that lead into the shallow, cold water itself, an exquisite conceit that embeds the house as much in the liquid as in the solid of the rock. Oddly, though, the water is never very visible from inside the house. It is one of the strange ironies of the building and an intriguing lesson to architects in what can be implied rather than made explicit. The best view of the tumbling stream is from the huge terrace of the relatively small bedroom and from another terrace leading only from a gallery above that. Yet the water is ever-present, its gurgling audible in every part of the house, the light reflected from its surface twinkling always just in sight.

What gives Fallingwater its depth and intense beauty is both its relationship to the watery landscape and its astonishing formal creativity. Nothing since has come close. Wright was not content with providing a view; he attempted to embed the architecture in its surroundings and make it a part of the topography, not a receptacle from which to merely view it. He celebrated it as one of his happiest commissions, referring to “the inspiration of a site [and] the co-operation of an intelligent, appreciative client”.

That client, in spite of terrible problems with maintenance, was delighted. After a few years of use he proudly declared Wright’s masterpiece “a seven-bucket building”.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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