Frank Lloyd Wright’s extraordinary Fallingwater is an object lesson for all architects in how to get the client to want what you want them to want
Not many buildings on tourist itineraries live up to expectations. St Peter’s is overwhelmingly vulgar, the pyramids aren’t remote enough, Elvis’ actual birthplace in Tupelo was deemed too tacky to spring on his adoring public and so the version presented is only a fictional cradle of the King.
However, more by accident than by design, I recently saw something that really did hit the button. I’d seen pictures of Fallingwater since I was about 16, but it wasn’t till last month that I actually found myself in the holiday house that Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1936, at the age of 68.
By this stage of his career, Wright’s clients had lost their taste for his organic pioneer craft-based buildings, having been seduced by the international style, with its emphasis on reinforced concrete, as exported by the Europeans. For 20 years, he had built practically nothing and had been surviving (more or less) on the tuition fees paid to him by his apprentices (that is, staff). It is perhaps no surprise that the owner of Fallingwater was Edgar J Kaufmann, the department store owner father of one of Wright’s pupils.
Despite his client’s pleas, Wright was pretty tardy about coming up with the drawings for this house. It was months since he’d been taken to see Kaufmann’s 900-acre spread round a river in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, and, despite assurances that “the thing was nearly finished”, FLW had actually done sweet FA. It wasn’t until Kaufmann telephoned from the station to say that his taxi would be at Wright’s studio in two hours that the great man finally got out his pencils. By the time Kaufmann arrived Wright had drawn two plans and two sections which he used to persuade his client that he didn’t want a house looking at the waterfall, which is what he’d asked for; he wanted a house built right into the waterfall itself. What is extraordinary, looking at the building 70 years later, is the seeming inevitability of that exact house being built in that exact place, with everything looking exactly the way that it looks.
OK, so it’s a rich man’s toy, but then so is most big art. It is an inspired piece of architect client patronage despite being the opportunity America’s most autocratic architect had been waiting for, to show those effete European nancy boys that he could teach them a thing or two about reinforced concrete.
What makes his achievement so impressive for us is it was a one-off built very much in our world – a world of quantity not quality. Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap. Environment? What environment? (Although I suppose if you owned 900 acres of forest today, the last place they’d let you put a house would be in the waterfall.)
It’s a reminder that there used to be only one trick to being an architect. That was getting the job
The price, $150,000, is what today? Thirty times more? Four and a half mill? Fairly steep, but that’s what the Blairs paid for a gloomy house in Paddington, and nobody is going to be standing outside that gasping in wonderment in 70 years’ time.
Is there anything we’ve built in the past 50 years that will attract this kind of admiration? The high-tech merchants seem to like to build to spite the landscape. Although Richard Rogers’ Lloyds Building still has the ability to quicken the pulse 20 years later, it was really a continuation of elements already seen at the Pompidou Centre. Fallingwater, on the other hand, was just right (or perhaps Wright) out of the box. Corner windows, flush glazing, cantilevered reinforced concrete. The man is making the whole thing up as he goes along.
It’s a reminder that there used to be only one trick to being an architect. That was getting the job. After that it was up to you to persuade your client that what you want is what they want. I suppose that is what I find so dispiriting about the current PFI free-for-all. Here is an extraordinary opportunity to build heroically in the public interest with generous budgets. Yet the system is designed to keep the architect away from the client. So we’re ending up with expensive buildings of not much better architectural quality then the portakabins they’ve been designed to replace. Anyone who becomes exhausted by the gigantism and charmlessness of so much corporate building, need only to take themselves off to Bear Run to remind themselves that it needn’t be so.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London