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A visit to Fallingwater (and thoughts on image versus experience)

This past Easter holiday, whilst visiting our family Stateside, we thought we would make the most of the time we had together to take a bit of a road trip. As it is not too far from NYC, we decided on Pennsylvania (PA). Three generations of our family packed in a car, with yours truly behind the wheel for most of it and plenty of back seat driving from my parents. But knowing how precious these moments were, I wouldn't have had it any other way.

This was actually my second family road trip through Pennsylvania. The first one was almost 40 odd years ago, when I was about my son's age. Back then, we only made it as far west as Hershey. This time, we punched a bit further to the Pittsburgh area. So amongst other PA sites, we booked a visit to Fallingwater - that house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW).

Someone call the plumber!

For those who may not know, Fallingwater (FW) is a bit of a bucket list thing to visit (and not just for architects). But being from New York, I could hardly justify the drive in the past, as I hate driving long distances with all that time lost in transit. I've also gone through various FLW phases throughout my life - a trajectory which would probably be familiar to many American architects from my generation. From idolic veneration in my high school years, (what else did we have exposure to back then?) to contemptuous disgust through college, the feigned indifference during my early years of practice, to my now middle age and quiet reflections of astonishment on what he was able to accomplish in his career.

As someone who specialises in residential design, it was probably inevitable that my date with Fallingwater would have happened at some point. And I am glad I got to visit it later in my life, whether due to being well past the angst that accompanies youth, or just having a clearer sense of what is important in my life and those around me.

Not too far from FW, is another house by Wright - Kentuck Knob (KK), which we also visited on the same day. (If you ever go, I would recommend visiting both - especially considering the journey time it takes to get there.) In addition to getting more bang for your time, KK helps to act as a counterpoint to its more famous neighbour, thus helping to understand or ponder both (as people tend to be inherently good at comparing). It is worth noting the timeline - KK (1956) came after FW (1938), and the original owners of KK knew of FW before they hired Wright.

The usual FLW predilections and trademark tricks are present in both houses. His use of compression and release, the long horizontalities, the control-freak detailing, the myriad ways he would address rainwater runoff, etc. I myself use compression and release a good deal in my designs, but more often because I usually work with existing buildings; It is not because I have a predetermined preference for lower ceiling spaces. If, like Wright, I felt a need to make my architecture more horizon-hugging, (which I don't,) I suppose some selective spatial constriction would almost be a necessity, lest your clients think you are gyping them. In this, Wright was enormously successful in being able to convince his clients to appreciate the experience of relative space as opposed to quantitative space and its more-for-the-sake-of-more. This alone is cause for celebration. Although I wonder how far one could take the analogy of compression and release? Like tying my shoelaces super tight just for the pleasure of taking them off? Or if I deprived myself of music for months, would I suddenly enjoy listening to any music at all, even if it was crap?

I admire Wright's efforts to create a more "American" architecture which was not a replica of Europe, even if his influences from Japan are clearly evident. Though this may sound somewhat bombastic when viewed from the multi-cultural lens of today's waning Pax Americana, I can see how this would have had a scrappy sincerity back in the early 1900s. I am reminded of more recent parallel efforts - such as David Adjaye's survey of Africa architecture, in wanting to look beyond Greece and Rome. But perhaps more than contributing to notions of American exceptionalism, FLW was a master of directing his own narrative, and he was exceptionally good with the quip. He must have been insufferable to be around, projecting himself the way he did as an iconoclast - especially when modelled by Ayn Rand into the ridiculous fictional character of Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead". If I could have met Wright in his later years, I'd have loved to ask him if it was all deliberately calculated or if he would admittedly cringe at parts of his past with sanguine acceptance, a la tennis legend John "you cannot be serious" McEnroe.

In doing what I do, I am able to visualise the design of a space simply by studying a good set of drawings (provided the drawings are actually good, which is very often a big ask). So I don't always feel the need to visit places, not unlike a computer programmer who knows the end result will turn out well when they see the code is elegant. It takes something more exceptional for me to feel it would be worth schlepping out there - the work of someone like a Carlo Scarpa perhaps being the epitome of needing to experience them in person. Spaces by FLW have a similar sense of intimacy - in moving through them, there are moments where you feel it embraces and directs you; There is an intuitive understanding of human scale and experience that is not simply plucked from the numerical dimensions of a Metric Handbook. As such, the spaces are often smaller than you would think from the photos. The main living area of FW is a good example - some photos make it look cavernously sprawling, as if it was solely meant for entertaining big gatherings with the multiple seating zones. But in fact it felt much cosier in person - with the custom furniture each offering slightly different settings to lounge about. Likewise, some of the passages can feel ungiving and hastening, like he wants you to feel the walls pressing on you - almost to a perverse degree in the case of the corridors of KK. The days before Building Regulations...

It is easy to forget these houses were built all those years ago. And so one must look at them for the time they were situated in; It wouldn't be fair to compare them to how we live today. Even if some would place them under that over-generalised and unseemly broad umbrella of what is termed "modern". I am not always a fan of turning places into museums. But given the one-off nature of these houses, and the benefit of making them accessible to a large number of people, I appreciate and agree with the approach to freeze them in time, including all of their lived-in possessions. This does mean they are not for little kids to roam freely in. (Is that really a Picasso? I won't say where. You'll have to see for yourself.) It paints a picture of how the owners occupied the building at the time. We were fortunate in having tour guides at both homes who understood FLW's intent, but also his client's wishes and subsequent usage.

Along with the internal experience of both houses being undeniably FLW, there is also the site planning - specifically here choosing where to locate and position the actual houses within the land. As most of my work is in urban contexts, the siting of my proposals is relatively constrained. So to ponder this question is something of a luxury for me. In the case of these two houses, it is also the source of my consternation - for different reasons.

Image and experience are not mutually exclusive, nor should they be considered enemies. But I do think their relationship unfortunately tends to be dichotomous. As in, one (namely image,) dominating the other (experience) under the pretense of them being more evenly level. (Like other dichotomous pairings such as man:woman, centre:periphery, light:dark, etc.) Perhaps better conveyed by that commonly used adage which is similar if inexact, but piercing in its words: style over substance.

THAT image of FW, (you know the one - where it looks like it owns the waterfall,) which started as a drawing of that deliberate view and now immortalised in photos, makes a very strong contender for encapsulating the triumph of the visual over the spatial. Let's be honest here, the waterfall is what makes that image. Take away the waterfall and this house wouldn't be what the American Institute of Architects (AIA) named as the "best all-time work of American architecture". A lot has been made over Wright's move to place the house over the waterfall, how most other architects would have positioned the house away from the waterfall to look at it. I'd love to be able to go back in time to see the site without the building to ask myself what I would have done. But it is impossible - that image has been seared into our minds. And the desire to reaffirm that image is too great to resist - there is even a specific location at the site for taking selfies with that souvenir view.

I wonder if FLW himself realised how powerfully seductive the afterlife of that image of FW would become. Could the realisation of that image have been a stronger motivation for him than the space making properties and affects of what good designers can do? Beyond the image, Wright's design for FW was to get the owners to live with the waterfall - to hear the sound of it, to feel the mist rising up from it. Now having visited it myself, I am bought into this view. We were there after a heavy rain and the proximity to the waterfall was palpable - it draws you to want to be outside. During the tour, my mum made some wacky comment about feeling the beneficial effect of all the negative ions from the water movement. I had no idea what this meant, but our tour guide did and playfully chimed in on the similarity to Niagara Falls being a popular spot for honeymooners for all that negative ion energy it gives them... ahem.

On the other hand, KK is a more modest house in comparison (though most any house would be when compared to the extravagance of FW). It felt quite plan-driven, with its relentless adherence to hexagonal geometry. It doesn't call attention to any postcard views of itself. But I personally found the positioning of the house to be a bit perplexing.

If you visit KK, you can also walk to the location where it seems more obvious to place the house looking over a much more dramatic view below. FLW has been known for saying, "never put a building on top of a hill." But if Wright thought the house at KK shouldn't go there because it would dominate the landscape, how did he feel this was vastly different from building right next to and cantilevering over a natural waterfall in the case of FW almost 20 years earlier? Especially as the environmental impact of a move like that would seem preposterous to even consider today. So why deny the owners of KK the view they could've had? Surely Wright would have found ways to conceal the building in the landscape. I wonder what he would have thought of Casa Malaparte (1937) - that red-stepped culmination of a rocky outcrop on Capri. And what of FLW's Ennis House (1924 - predating both FW and KK)? It's a bloody Mayan-esque temple that overlooks LA. Did he have a change of heart in his later years?

The tour guides at KK allow you to roam around the site afterwards as there are also some sculptures on the grounds. They are well aware of the view from that more favourable seeming location and encourage visitors to see it. I can't envy them for the number of times they would have to deal with people like me questioning that decision, of having to be diplomatic whilst toeing the line of, "Well, Mr Wright did not think that way." One of the guides highlighted how the trees around the building would not have been as tall and screening back in the day. Although I don't think this explanation puts FLW in the most flattering light - as if he didn't know the trees would grow taller and forest around the house. Because KK seemed designed to be contained and cocooned. To feel nestled in the woods. Although if one was truly going for this angle, my favourite might be the Tombliboos' House from In The Night Garden on CBeebies.

I'll admit I can sometimes be a sucker for a cool image as well. But architecture is so much more than the making of trophies and commodified artifacts; It affects how we live our lives, it shapes the memories we make together. Whilst on our road trip holiday, something I did manage to curate was a selection of AirBNBs for our accommodation - to encourage us to spend time together as a family. Particularly for my parents - to prod them a bit out of their comfortable routine, just as they did for me all those years ago. I hope to be sharing more of these moments and writing about them. With maybe just a bit less bickering on how to get the best car parking space.


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