Master architect Frank Lloyd Wright was an expert at manipulating how his clients would move about his houses. That is particularly evident at Fallingwater, one of his most famous houses nestled in the Pennsylvania countryside about 60 miles west of Pittsburgh where he put nature front and center.
Fallingwater is wondrous to be sure. The dramatic cantilevered terraces over the waterfall, the look of the rooms, the feel of the spaces, the simplicity of the palette, the limited number of materials, and the disciplined spareness of the detailing are captivating. But a visitor who’s allowed to linger and enjoy a quiet afternoon in Fallingwater, as I did when I participated in Fallingwater’s Insight/Onsite program, begins to understand that for Wright the house was also a lens through which the sights and sounds of nature could be viewed, heard and experienced.
Following Fallingwater’s completion in 1937, Wright designed several houses in the Washington area, including the Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria and the Luis Marden House in McLean, and his work influenced the design of many others in the region including the entire Holmes Run Acres neighborhood in Fairfax County.
Sitting in the living room at Fallingwater, it’s easy to be engrossed in the view out the window: mossy patches, birch trees, laurel bushes and squirrels.
To regard what is outside a house as more important than what is inside is not how most architects approach design, but Wright was in a class by himself. His understanding of nature profoundly differs from our own, though it was not unusual for someone born in 1867, shortly after the end of the Civil War.
Like most children of that era, he spent his summers outside, in his case in the woods of rural Wisconsin. There he learned to love both the minutia and the majesty of a wild landscape, the drama of the occasional thunderstorm and the continual change in the sights and sounds of a forested area, depending on the time of year and the time of day. Wright felt this strong connection to nature throughout his life, and Fallingwater presented him with a unique opportunity to showcase it.
Unlike his previous houses, which were surrounded by manicured lawns and gardens, this one would be set in a huge wooded area that was not unlike the Wisconsin forests of his childhood, with the added bonus of a dramatic waterfall.
Wright chose to present these in a completely unexpected way. Most architects would have planned the house so that the falls could be seen from every room, but not Wright. He placed the house above the falls, so that they are not visible from inside. To see them, you must go outside, cross the stream and find the path that leads to the only area for viewing them, in the process encountering the surrounding flora and fauna.
Some have likened the architectural experience of Fallingwater to a walk in the woods — just as the landscape and reference points constantly change as you move along a trail, your sense of Fallingwater constantly changes as you move in and around it. Unlike most houses that have a recognizable geometric shape that can be easily grasped, Fallingwater is a mass of concrete terraces that project in different directions, and rough-cut stone walls. Its appearance on one side gives no clue as to what it will look like when you turn the corner and see another side, or what it will look like when you look down from above or up from below, but in Wright’s masterful hands the composition hangs together.
Once you’re finally inside the house, Wright quickly turns your attention to what’s outside. Though he famously designed everything down to the doorknobs and often included elaborate trim embellished with floral or geometric patterns, everything here is pared down to the bare essentials — rough-cut stone flooring and walls (the Pottsville sandstone was quarried on site), a few concrete walls finished to look like stucco and simple steel casement doors and windows. All the eye candy is outside.
In the main living area, you see it through a band of glass windows and doors that run around half the room. In 1937 when the house was finished, this was so extraordinary that it would have been shocking. Today’s visitor has been in many glass walled spaces, but this one is still amazing. As Wright intended, you’re transfixed by the panoramic view of the wild, exuberant landscape that surrounds the house.
Though a weekend guest of the original owners might have planned to spend a quiet afternoon in the main living area reading, Wright designed and placed the seating to ensure that much of that time would be spent feasting on nature and not lost in a book. The only seats with backs and the most obvious place to sit are the built-in bench sofas that run under the windows; every sofa affords a great view.
To make your contemplation of nature pleasurable, Wright’s furniture invites you to relax and lounge about. Coffee tables, hassocks and zabutons (a type of seat cushion) are low to the floor and nestled around the bench sofas so that the solitary occupant feels safely cocooned, not uncomfortably alone in a big room.
Seventy-five years after its completion, Fallingwater is still compelling to both the first- time visitor and a jaundiced architecture critic who has seen the house many times. Wright himself would doubtless appreciate the endless accolades, but he would be even more pleased to know that modern science has validated his belief in the healing power of nature.
Wright’s convictions were rooted in his own life experience. But neuroscientists today have discovered that his intuitive understanding of the power of immersion in nature as an antidote to the stresses of life was correct. The scientists have found that the countless interruptions of texts and e-mails that characterize the average day for most people rapidly deplete our ability to make decisions.
The docs’ suggested cure: periodic breaks in a natural setting that is absorbing but not taxing. A walk in the woods with plenty of distracting flora and fauna — what you would encounter as soon as you stepped outside at Fallingwater — is ideal.
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.katherinesalant.com.