In the past two weeks we visited two of FLW’s masterpieces – Fallingwater and the Darwin D. Martin house in Buffalo. They are both so well known and documented that I don’t what I can add beyond a few photos and comments. (Neither of them allows photos inside under normal circumstances, so all my pictures are of the exteriors).
Fallingwater is considered the great house of Wright’s middle period, and it is a tour-de-force. Every inch has been designed and detailed to perfection. I must admit that despite years of looking at books about it, I didn’t have a very good idea of its spatial arrangement. After visiting it, the reason for that is now clear to me – it doesn’t have one big spatial organization, it is rather a series of perfect parts that are really quite isolated from one another
For each part, the big move is the connection between the interior space and the exterior terrace/tray. These are then pinwheeled around the central mass. One moves between the parts on very tight stairways attached to the mass. From the outside, the parti of cantilevered trays is obvious; from the inside, you can understand the logic of each part, but never comprehend the whole.
We now live in age where the open plan (and open section) are dominant; it is instructive to see how fantastic a house can be when it is divided up into discrete parts.
Edgar Kaufman Jr. was an apprentice of Wright’s, and convinced his parents to hire Wright to design Fallingwater. In the 1980s he was one of my professors, co-teaching a seminar on Wright at Columbia. It was a great course, and he was a lovely man, with a courtly manner, a beautiful voice, great reminiscences and insights into Wright, and the best wardrobe of anyone I knew in New York. In homage to him, I wore a nice tweed jacket while touring the house (instead of the normal tourist garb), and as I paused besides the tray of cocktail ingredients by the fireplace, I felt that he would have approved.
The Darwin Martin house has been restored by a non-profit over the past two decades or so. The main house had survived in bad condition, as had the Barton house (built for Martin’s sister) and the gardener’s house. But the carriage house and pergola had been demolished long ago, so the foundation undertook the complete reconstruction of them based upon Wright’s original drawings and photographic documentation. All of this work is painstaking and beautifully done, as is the restoration of the main house.
We had an excellent docent on the tour, who spoke of how Wright regarded this as his summa project, the one that accomplished everything he wanted. Having seen many other early Wright houses, I’d agree. He had an unlimited budget, and he used it to pursue every idea and piece to its most developed state. Nothing that could be developed or elaborated has been left alone. Sometimes it’s a bit much – there are just so many idea and moves and articulations. But it all fits together seamlessly – the underlying logic of the overall scheme is always apparent, and the development at successive scales reads perfectly – it’s like a rectilinear fractal.
The Barton and gardener’s houses are much smaller and simpler, and the contrast with the main house was intriguing, as one could see the bare bones spatial organization without the endless development.
Toshiko Mori designed the adjoining visitors’ center, which plays with some of Wright’s ideas (cantilevered roof, rigid modular plan) with very different materials and tectonics. It’s a fine little building, one which doesn’t compete with the house, but which has its own integrity and logic.
The houses confirmed my opinion that you can’t really understand a great building until you visit it.