Lloyd Wright's Masterpiece: The Architectural Marvel, Fallingwater

By Kenneth Branagh

Radio Times Travel Supplement, 23-30 January 2004

About 90 minutes' drive south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a remarkable country house. It was commissioned by Edgar Kaufmann, a successful businessman, and was intended as a place to spend quiet weekends and holidays with his family. But even before construction finished, the house began to take on a life of its own.

Shortly after completion, the design appeared on the cover of Time magazine. When it eventually opened to the public, it drew around 70,000 visitors a year. Readers of the American Institute of Architects voted it the best American building of the last 125 years. For many, it is the crowning glory of the 20th century's most renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who not only designed it, but gave it its name: Fallingwater.

About 15 years ago, I saw a photograph of this house and fell in love. Last spring, I made the pilgrimage.

I arrived at its remote mountainside location expecting the ravages of modern tourism to have placed the house in some architectural theme park. Not so. Everything for the visitor, from the car park onwards, is discreet. The dense, mysterious woods seem to lull you into a calm that you leaves you unprepared for the magnificent shock that is Fallingwater.

A collection of concrete rectangular terraces, at irregular angles, seems to float into the woodland before you. The red ironwork of a narrow castellated window tower shoots up into the trees. As you try to process the momentarily incongruous modernity and massivity of the place, you hear the noise. For there, apparently running through the house itself, is the waterfall from which the house takes its name.

Senses reeling, you enter the house by its modest, almost hidden front door, and are immediately enveloped by a sense of human warmth. It's as if the Kaufmann family have only just popped out and left the tangible atmosphere of their country life: space, light, wonder. You marvel at the hearth, the top piece of the enormous boulder on which the house sits, and around which Wright designed everything; the house seems to "grow" out of the site.

Open steps under an exquisite interior lead from the centre of the living area down into the waterfall itself. All through the house, simplicity of design is produced by boldness of idea, material and construction. Yet it exists on a scale that is both human and in perfect balance with its magnificent setting.

The Western Pennsylvanian Conservancy has done a superb job in allowing vast numbers of people to experience the house, with exceptionally knowledgeable and friendly guides, and yet maintaining the sense of space and quiet that the house conjures. It is a temple to Wright's notion of "organic architecture", which continues through every fabric, stone and view, to produce what the great man himself described as a "sense of the marvellous".

I spent just three magical hours at Fallingwater, but for me it was worth travelling across the Altantic to experience. I returned to my hotel, the excellent Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, half an hour away, and reflected on having witnessed the most extraordinary meeting of man and nature.

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