Fallingwater, as the architect Frank Lloyd Wright named the house that he designed for Edgar and Lillian Kaufmann, was commissioned shortly after the Kaufmanns’ son, Edgar, Jr., joined Wright’s newly formed Taliesin Fellowship in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Founded following the Great Depression, the Taliesin Fellowship was instrumental in Wright’s emergence at the age of 70 from 15 years of obscurity, signaled by the construction of the Johnson Wax Building (1939, Racine, Wisconsin), Taliesin West (1940, Scottsdale, Arizona), the first “Usonian House” for Herbert Jacobs (1937, Madison, Wiscon sin), and Fallingwater. After visiting the site for the Kaufmann house in 1934, a full nine months passed without any drawings or other evidence that Wright was working on the design of the house. In a famous story told by his Fellowship apprentices, Wright drew up the design in the two hours that it took Kaufmann to drive from Milwaukee to Spring Green on a Sunday morning in September 1935.
Wright’s design is first and foremost a brilliant piece of site planning. Kaufmann had expected the house to be built to the south of the stream, looking north to the waterfall. However, Wright sited the house to the north of the stream, above the waterfall, so that the house opens to the south sun. As a result, it is the sound of the waterfall, not the view of it, that permeates the experience of Fallingwater. Fallingwater is also the greatest example of Wright’s capacity to draw the spaces and forms of his architecture out of the very ground on which it is built. The house is anchored to the earth by vertical piers of sandstone quarried 500 feet from the waterfall, the stones set to resemble the natural strata of the rock exposed along the streambed. The floors of the house are constructed of broad horizontal cantilevered reinforced concrete slabs that appear to float effortlessly over the stream, for the structural beams are hidden between the flagstone floors and plastered ceilings. As a result of these two complementary systems of construction, Fallingwater is anchored to the ground by the stone piers even as its spaces float along with the motion of the stream.
The spaces within Fallingwater are at once surprisingly small, with only 2,885 square feet of enclosed space, and incredibly generous, opening in three directions to the east, south, and west onto large exterior terraces that almost double the floor area of the house. Glazing, set in red-painted steel frames, runs in continuous bands around three sides of the main living and dining room, opening at the corners in celebration of the spatial freedom given by the cantilevered structure. Wright detailed the house so as to reinforce the integration of interior and exterior space, creating delightful moments such as the glass that runs right into the stone wall without any vertical framing at the kitchen and small bedrooms and the flagstones that are set into the floor of the living room so that they appear to continue unbroken beneath the glass doors and out onto the terrace overlooking the waterfall.
Perhaps the most poetic moment in this most natural house is the “hatch” that Wright designed at the east side of the living room, whose glass doors may be opened to give access to a suspended concrete stair leading down to the stream below. Descending these stairs, we pass through the stone floor to find light stairs floating over water, in which is reflected the sky, the roar of the waterfall behind us reverberating off the enormous concrete slab overhead. In the living room, the dark gray color of the bedrock ledge under the shallow water and the way in which the light is reflected from the rippling surface of the stream are matched exactly by the waxed gray flagstone floor on which we stand. The fireplace in the opposite corner, a half-cylinder stone cavity running from floor to ceiling, built directly into the sandstone wall, has as its hearth the original boulder of the site, on which the Kaufmann family formerly took picnic meals. This boulder, left unwaxed, rises above the waxed flagstone floor like the dry top of a stone emerging above the water of the stream.
In Fallingwater, Wright captured the perfect essence of our desire to commune with nature, to dwell in a forested place, and to be at home in the natural world. Fallingwater is often considered Wright’s greatest work, for he was first and foremost an architect of the American house. In its startling integration of ancient stone walls anchored to the bedrock and modern reinforced concrete terraces hovering among the leaves of the trees, Fallingwater is both an organic, site-specific critique of the placeless products of the International style and one of the greatest masterpieces of the modern movement. At the time of its construction, Fallingwater was an instant success, the famous perspective view from below the waterfall serving as the background when Wright’s photograph appeared on the cover of the 17 January 1938 issue of Time magazine, in which he was profiled and the house introduced to the world. More than any other single work, Fallingwater signaled Wright’s return to preeminence in American architecture and initiated his final two decades of incredibly prolific practice.
In its 60 years of existence, Fallingwater has proven to be one of the most influential designs of 20th-century architecture, inspiring architects both near and far. This last is exemplified by Alvar Aalto, whose Villa Mairea (1939, Noormarkku, Finland) is indebted to Wright’s design both in its overall form and in its numerous natural details. Fallingwater is also, and perhaps more important, ever more popular with the general public, as demonstrated by the fact that nearly 150,000 people visit the house every year, this despite its remote site. In recognition of the unique and unmatched importance of this design, Fallingwater was named the best American building of the last 125 years by the American Institute of Architects. Fallingwater is today, without question, the most famous modern house in the world, reflecting its inspired embodiment of humanity’s fundamental and timeless desire to be at home in nature.