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Pilgrimage to Fallingwater

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Sunday I made a trip that for any architecture fan or architect must be akin to a Muslim's pilgrimage to Mecca: to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, which the American Institute of Architects ranked in 2000 as the greatest work of American architecture of the 20th century. No argument here, folks.

Fallingwater1 There isn't anything around it. We'd started the day at a low-quality Quality Inn in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Visiting a nephew-in-law at school there.) Along the way we passed along winding country highways through towns like Point Marion, a dying coal town with dilapidated old row houses along main street and chintzy trailers on the outskirts. Not one person was on the streets. A little further down the road was Fort Necessity, a Civil War battlefield. But mostly it was just rolling Appalachian hills, forests of winter-bare deciduous trees, lots of roadkill, and not the slightest hint of modern architecture anywhere.

Then we pulled into Fallingwater's grounds, my heart almost beating out of my chest. (I'd given my traveling companions the evil eye for daring to want to stop for breakfast along the way.) When we pulled into the parking lot, Wright's house still wasn't visible - just a visitors' center. We were supposed to wait until our 10AM tour started to go down the trail, but I couldn't help myself and jogged down toward the nearest viewpoint.

At first, from that initial angle a few hundred yards away, Fallingwater didn't necessarily look incredible: a series of intersecting planes and boxes. But when it was finally time for the tour, it took scarcely little time for my jaw to drop. We crossed a little bridge over Bear Run river, and came beside a stairway leading from the house right down to the river. It'd turn out to be coming from the living room, where a ship-like glass hatch opened up near one of the sofas and descended right down to the water.

Inside, the house was literally carved into the hillside. Its fireplace was a combination of locally quarried stone that had been combined and fused with the boulders originally sitting on-site, so the fireplace simply extended as part of that boulder there for thousands of years. It was an overcast morning, but there weren't any electric lights on.

The most distinguishing feature of the Fallingwater house is probably its cluster of large outdoor terraces that cantilever out from the facade right out and over the river and about a twenty-foot waterfall. In fact, when I went out on the terrace from the master bedroom and looked down over the ledge, the waterfall was directly beneath. I think it was at that point the tears started to well up a little.

Fallingwater2 There was also a lot of glass, and I particularly remember a corner of the wall that opened up with two little swinging doors, so not only the glass itself disappeared, but also did so without any hinges in between, so the whole corner of the glass wall merely disappeared.

There was also a guest house and servants' quarters behind the main house, and to give you an idea of the level of genius that went into every detail of the design, we spent several minutes with the tour guide studying just the canopy connecting the two, which was made of one incredibly large piece of concrete that terraced down the hill for about twenty yards.

Fallingwater3 I also remember the ventilation system, in which all the vents were built into the already custom-made furniture. There was also a desk in one room that was carved around a slinging glass window opening like a quarter of a pie. Oh, and then there was the artwork: I saw two Picassos and two Diego Riveras, but the tour guide didn't even have time to mention them.

In addition to the concrete and glass, a signature feature of the house is its undulating stone facade, which perfectly mimics the natural outcroppings of stone along the riverbank. This is perhaps the best time to mention the overriding feature of the house, how it exemplifies the way modern architecture acts in harmony with nature. This is not cold unfeeling modernism, but a kind of minimalist sculpture that resonates with as much life as the trees and flowing river beside.

Aside from maybe the All-American super burger at the 'Eat & Park' restaurant in Morgantown, I can't necessarily recommend a lot of other reasons to fly across the country and then drive several more hours to this middle-of-nowhere locale. And yet, being at this house you feel like you're in the center, at the apex, of human achievement. A few minutes before writing this, I belatedly watched No Country For Old Men, a brilliant work but one all about the inevitable tide of death, viciousness and violence. It was nice to recover by thinking of Fallingwater, which seems to represent the exact opposite.

Frank Lloyd Wright isn't even necessarily my touchstone when it comes to architects; I'm more of a Mies man, personally. But seriously, if I were talking to any of you reading this in person, I'd grab you by the lapels and shake you until you agreed to (excluding the low quality Quality Inn at which my day began) make this same pilgrimage.

by Brian Libby, 2008­

Published with permission of Portland Architecture­­

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