Fallingwater: A Contradiction in Sustainable Design

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater building

Kelly Rossiter

It is hard, writing about Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater on a website devoted to sustainable design and living. It is possibly one of the most unsustainable buildings ever constructed, needing constant upkeep in the fight against moisture. It is a constant challenge and expense for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy who take care of it today. Yet it is also almost a definition of green design; Edgar Kaufmann Jr. who lived there, wrote:

Fallingwater is famous because the house in its setting embodies a powerful ideal -that people today can learn to live in harmony with nature. . .As technology uses more and more natural resources, as the world’s population grows even larger, harmony with nature is necessary for the very existence of mankind.
credit: Kelly Rossiter

Everything about it is un-treehugger, from the cost to the size of this second home to the fact that it took an entourage of four cars to drive the Kaufmann family and their servants from Pittsburgh. Perhaps the worst thing about it is its placement, right on top of the waterfall; "let's take something beautiful and natural and build right on top of it." It goes against everything an environmentally correct architect would do today. And yet it is also, as Frank Lloyd Wright noted,

...a great blessing - one of the great blessings to be experienced here on earth, I think nothing yet ever equalled the coordination, sympathetic expression of the great principle of repose where forest and stream and rock and all the elements of structure are combined so quietly that really you listen not to any noise whatsoever although the music of the stream is there. But you listen to Fallingwater the way you listen to the quiet of the country...
credit: Cantilevers

Cantilevers like this are ridiculous today, but then? Impossible. The Kaufmanns got a second opinion about the first engineer's work, added more steel and it still started cracking away as soon as the shoring was removed. Wright blamed the second engineer, saying that the cantilevers were too heavy after the change.

credit: Kelly Rossiter

Le Corbusier put his Villa Savoye on pilotis "to provide an actual separation between the corrupted and poisoned earth of the city and the pure fresh air and sunlight of the atmosphere above it." But Frank Lloyd Wright revelled in it, and made the house part of the rocks. He brought them right into the house, poking through the walls.

credit: Kelly Rossiter

This is the definition of TreeHugging- you don't chop it, you build around it.

credit: Kelly Rossiter

The main floor is really just one big room; there is a dinky staff kitchen but otherwise, everything happens here, looking out at the trees and the terraces, and filled with the noise of falling water. The furniture is, well, like all Frank Lloyd Wright furniture, looking very uncomfortable. (I apologize for the slightly fuzzy photo) Edgar Kaufmann actually wanted to place the house where he could see the waterfall, but FLW had other ideas and wrote:

I want you to live with the waterfall, not just to look at it, but for it to become an integral part of your lives.
credit: Kelly Rossiter

They appear to have been serious drinkers, and had this wonderful ball that would rotate over the fireplace to warm a couple of gallons of grog on a cool night.

credit: Kelly Rossiter

Proportions are strange. The living room and terraces are huge; the kitchen is tiny. The stair to the second floor is sort of hidden and narrow.

credit: Kelly Rossiter

Other than the main room on the ground floor, bedrooms and bathrooms are extraordinarily small by today’s luxury standards, with very low ceilings- bedrooms are for sleeping, and ceilings are low to make the transition to outside more dramatic; a compression then expansion. Every bedroom had a bathroom, with cork tile on the floors and walls.

credit: Kelly Rossiter

Edgar Kaufmann Jr.’s bedroom is positively monastic.

credit: Kelly Rossiter

Even the desks were tiny, and half of it was taken up by a radiator grille. Edgar Kaufmann Sr. wrote to Wright and complained that the desk "was so tiny that there was no room to write a cheque to his architect." So Wright designed this extension with a cutout to let the casement window open.

credit: Kelly Rossiter

The house is full of nightmare details like this, where the glass is caulked into a slot in the stone. No doubt it was a money pit from the day it opened.

credit: Kelly Rossiter

Above and behind the main house, a guest house was built a year later. Edgar Kaufmann wanted to wait and see what the family learned from the main house, and there are significant differences; the bedroom is bigger and more comfortable, the living space is really the most beautifully proportioned and comfortable room in the house. Mrs. Kaufmann may have preferred it; she often stayed here instead of the main house. I thought it felt far more comfortable. (Alas, for some reason our photos inside did not turn out.) Interestingly, the Kaufmanns might have waited longer to finish it but the contractor pleaded with them to start; the depression was still raging in this part of Pennsylvania and everyone was desperate for the work at twenty-five cents an hour.

credit: Kelly Rossiter

In the end, it is perhaps the most remarkable house of the 20th century. Is it green? Is it sustainable? Edgar Kaufmann Jr. gets the last word:

It has served well as a house, yet has always been more than that, a work of art beyond any ordinary measure of excellence. Itself an ever-flowing source of exhilaration, it is set on the waterfall of Bear Run, spouting nature’s endless energy and grace. House and site together form the very image of man’s desire to be at one with nature, equal and wedded to nature.

Thanks to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy for permission to publish these photos, and to our wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide Susan.