At the outset of the 1930s, any sensible observer could have told you that Frank Lloyd Wright was washed up.
He was in his late 60s. His once-celebrated prairie houses, designed for mid-western American businessmen, were considered artifacts from an outstanding past, but not lights on the path into the future. In 1932, Philip Johnson grudgingly featured him in the Museum of Modern Art's landmark show about the International Style in architecture – he had been admired by the early European modernists – but excluded him from the exhibition's immensely influential catalogue. Commissions had dried up due to the Great Depression.
Then, in 1934, a young American named Edgar J. Kaufmann, Jr. discovered Mr. Wright's recently published autobiography, read it, and instantly became a fan. "I had no inkling of the character of his art," Mr. Kaufmann wrote years later, "and his story flowed into my mind like the first trickle of irrigation in a desert land."
This star-struck aficionado promptly arranged a meeting between Mr. Wright and his father, Edgar Sr., the owner of a successful Pittsburgh department store. Mr. Wright was looking for work. And the elder Mr. Kaufmann was looking for an architect who could give him (among other things) a weekend retreat at a wildly picturesque spot he owned deep in the rugged countryside near Pittsburgh. These two intelligent and ambitious men hit it off at once, and so it was that Mr. Wright, just when the world thought he was finished, landed the job of creating the stunningly original place known as Fallingwater.
Like everyone else fascinated by modern architecture, I had long known something about this famous project – the novelty of its design, for example, and its influence on the art of housing the well-off. But until last week, when I visited Fallingwater, I had never understood exactly what the fuss has always been about. Here follow some things I found out.
First off, there is the unexpected thrill of Mr. Wright's design.
Popular appreciation of Fallingwater is dominated by a single image, endlessly reproduced. In this view, from a vantage point downstream from the waterfall that cascades beneath the house, the volumes cantilevered out over the fast, small creek take on a monumental character, imposing and sedate.
Approached from the upstream side, however, the dramatically horizontal composition of projecting concrete terraces and stacked stone walls is immediately more animated and intimate, less grand, more dance-like (as in angular modern dance, not classical ballet).
These strong rhythms, worked out in material contrasts, pit warm woodwork against cold rock. Long strips of steel-framed windows let green nature in, while solid stone walls keep it out. Tight, low-ceilinged interior spaces are sharply juxtaposed with the expansive exterior terraces attached to the open-plan living and dining room and every bedroom. In each detail and in all its large gestures, the house speaks of vigorous, young-minded modern living, and of attention to comfort that does not come at the cost of excitement.
Then there is the splendid marriage of the building and its site. Photographs of Fallingwater predictably emphasize the house's daring geometry. But being at the location on a sunny, cool autumn morning, the visitor can appreciate more vividly the complementarity between architecture and wilderness Mr. Wright was striving for.
The structure makes no apologies for its very human nature: It is abstract, bold, intellectually rigorous, formally unnatural. Even the mimicry of exposed sedimentary rock faces in the exterior and interior stone treatments is more allusive than literal. The house operates in unison with its forest surroundings like a bow operates with a violin (or like a man with a woman in a union that works), creating something wonderful by being opposite.
The good result, in other words, comes out of creative tension, much like that which prevailed during the several years Mr. Wright and Mr. Kaufmann Sr. were turning the architect's vision into reality. On more than one occasion, the link between Mr. Wright and his client was strained by disagreements, tantrums and unreasonable demands that would have forced a divorce on partners less remarkable or less committed.
In the end, they built Fallingwater more or less as Mr. Wright had imagined it. But while the house is an artistic and cultural marvel, it is also a deeply flawed one. As soon as the building was completed, it leaked badly. The cantilevered concrete elements, on which so much of the house's aesthetic effect depends, began to droop right away, causing Mr. Kaufmann worry for the rest of his life.
But if the irresponsibility of the scheme is undeniable, so is its ingenious brilliance. Go there, as I did last week, and you'll see why Fallingwater deserves to be regarded as a wonder (however imperfect) of modern imagination.