Wednesday, May 19, 2010 American Icon

     Preface: For years I tried to picture the setting and surrounding countryside at Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.  In May of 2007, with the sunlight sifting through the Pennsylvania woodlands, I finally made the architectural pilgrimage to the house, located on Bear Run (creek).  As I walked from the visitor’s center, deeper into the woods, a peaceful feeling enveloped me; time and the outside world faded in importance.  Walking into, through, and around what is arguably the most famous house in America gave me a great appreciation for the three-dimensional aspects of the architectural icon.  The cantilevered outdoor terraces seemed like tree-house platforms above the creek.  I was spellbound by the natural surroundings that were integrated into the design.  I breathed the country air and listened to the creek, full from spring rains, rush over the waterfall.  I fell in love with the space and when the tour ended I wanted to linger as long as possible.

The cantilevered terraces of Fallingwater
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
(used with permission of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)

Fallingwater…an American Icon
Non-fiction Research
by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
copyright 2010

     Frank Lloyd Wright. Clients loved him, or hated him, or both.  Enigmatic, egotistic, and iconic…he was an original American architect whose design philosophy was built into the American landscape, from the Wisconsin farmland to the Arizona desert, and was in the details of houses and buildings from coast to coast.  His flat-brimmed hat mimicked the prairie-style roofs and cantilevers. His bright suit reflected the color of stucco.

     Although his long and storied career was legendary, one project was the most defining, the most recognized and revered.  Tucked into the forest of maples, oaks and beeches, in a valley of the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, and resting on the sandstone ledges of Bear Run (creek), Fallingwater embraces the natural surroundings.  The holy grail of American architecture, a mere country home for its original inhabitants, juts over the creek, creating a daring and unique design which marries the house to the site.

     By 1934, Wright was sixty-seven years of age.  He had established himself as a well-known architect through a prolific career in Chicago, but many believed he was past his prime.  His practice languished in the depression era and he had retreated to his family’s property near Spring Green, Wisconsin, where he established the Taliesen Fellowship, a design school for architectural apprentices.  Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., the son of a Pittsburgh department store merchant, wanting to learn more about architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright, applied to the fellowship and was accepted to attend in the fall of 1934.

     Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr., and his wife Liliane traveled to Taliesen to visit their son and meet Wright.  Their conversation with the famous architect was engaging and lengthy.  Thus began a famous relationship that blossomed and made Fallingwater a reality.

     Wright traveled to Pittsburgh in December of 1934 to visit Kaufmann, Sr., at his downtown department store and office.  The trip included a visit to Bear Run Creek (approximately 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh), where Wright walked the property, viewed the falls on the creek and inspected the woodlands.  Kaufmann, told Wright that he and his family used the property and a small cabin there as a retreat, but wanted something more permanent and livable.  Wright asked Kaufmann for a detailed survey of the property, including locations of the large trees.  This would assist Wright in designing the house and establishing its location.

     Wright’s design process for the house was slow, though one can imagine him continually designing and redesigning it in his mind, hesitating to commit pencil to paper.  By September of 1935, Kaufmann was anxious to see Wright’s progress.  He traveled to Milwaukee and called Wright to let him know he would arrive in Spring Green in just a few hours.  According to the apprentices, Wright quickly developed detailed sketches of the floor plans and elevations, using his colored pencils to enhance the drawings.  The design that had been established in his mind flowed freely to the paper.  Upon Kaufmann’s arrival, Wright suggested lunch, which allowed two of the apprentices to create some additional drawings for discussion.  After lunch, Wright shared his design, while Kaufmann, not knowing the drawings were freshly completed, absorbed the presentation.  Once Kaufmann understood that the house was built over the waterfall, he was somewhat shocked, but accepted the design.  Over time, he fully embraced Wright’s bold creation and allowed the architect to continue with the construction drawings.

     In his excitement, Kaufmann arranged for some natural stone on the property to be quarried for the house.  Without Wright’s knowledge, Kaufmann also retained an engineer who had worked on some of his projects in Pittsburgh.  Being cautious, he wanted to have the design reviewed independently.  The engineer expressed concerns about the condition of the soil and rock where the house was to be situated.  Kaufmann ignored those concerns but did take heed of one of the engineer’s recommendations…to increase the size of the reinforcing bars from one-half inch diameter to three-quarter inch diameter…to which Wright surprisingly agreed.  Even though the size of the reinforcing bars was increased, structural problems, as described further in this article, were not eliminated with the change.

     By June of 1936, construction began on the house.  As with any project, many issues and obstacles had to be overcome, but a paramount issue with Kaufmann was his continued concern over the concrete structural design for the cantilever beams.  Without Wright’s knowledge, Kaufmann hired another engineering consultant from Pittsburgh.  Their recommendation was to increase the size and the amount of reinforcing steel in the beams…from three-quarter inch diameter to one inch diameter bars, and from a total of eight bars to sixteen in each beam.  Additional reinforcing was added prior to construction without Wright’s knowledge, and once he was told, he became furious with Kaufmann, telling him that he was insulted for being second-guessed.

     The change, although an improvement which prevented collapse of the beams during the twentieth century, did not provide the proper strength needed for structural integrity.  When the forms were removed, the cantilever beams deflected downward a full one and three-quarter inches.  As the construction progressed, cracks began to appear on several cantilevers, including some on the second floor balcony.

     The cost of the project mushroomed to over $150,000, well over Kaufmann’s originally expressed desire to spend only $25,000, but he allowed Wright to continue with custom furniture designs for the house.  Kaufmann wanted to position himself in Pittsburgh society and impress those of importance with his bold and unique country home.  With construction complete, the family was able to move into the house in November of 1937, prior to Thanksgiving.

Fallingwater...timeless beauty in the woods
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
(used with permission of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)

     The Kaufmanns enjoyed their new retreat, and added a guest house further up the hillside, where many famous people came to stay and be comforted by the natural setting.  The family enjoyed the house until the 1950’s; Liliane died in 1952, and Kaufmann, Sr., died in 1955.  In 1963, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., who wanted the house to be preserved, donated it to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

     In the 1990’s, renewed attention was given to the structural condition of the house, and studies were made by engineering students and professionals.  After a seventeen month study by Robert Silman, a structural engineer, it was determined that the cantilevers had deflected downward as much as seven inches since the house was constructed.  The deflection would continue to increase over time, and if not corrected, the structure would ultimately collapse onto the waterfall.

     The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy moved forward with plans for structural and architectural repairs, and hired the necessary consultants and contractors to restore integrity to the house.  The structural solution was to strengthen the cantilever beams with post-tensioned cables, hidden in the floor cavity.  It was a high-tech solution not available to Wright and his engineers in the 1930’s.  In late 2001 and early 2002, the renovation was accomplished.  The flagstones on the terraces and in the living room were removed and numbered, piece by piece.  The structural repairs were executed, and the flagstones reinstalled like a giant puzzle.  Other repairs were made to the stairway, windows, cabinetry and furniture.  Although the house is now considered structurally sound, some of the deflection in the cantilever remains, providing a historical reminder of an issue that plagued the masterful design.

     Fallingwater, with its appearance and structural integrity restored, continues to be an American icon, visited by more than 130,000 people each year.  After their rendezvous with nature and the house, many visitors reluctantly walk the path back to the visitor center, straining to hear the waterfall, until the woods and underbrush cloak the senses, leaving the timeless beauty of the site for others to enjoy. American Icon
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
(used with permission of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy)


Atkins, Jim. FAIA. “Fallingwater: The Story of a Country House.” AIArchitect. Six-part monthly series, 19 June 2009 through 13 November 2009.

Saving Fallingwater, directed and produced by Kenneth Love, written by Tom Dubensky and Bill Doorley, narrated by David Conrad. Kenneth A. Love International, 2006.

Toker, Franklin. Fallingwater Rising. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Age of Man

The cliffs at Les Eyzies
(photo by Greg Larson)

     Preface: Gretta and I have been pleasantly surprised with the extracurricular activities included in our European bike tours.  In 2007, we toured the Dordogne River valley in southern France, taking in side trips to caves, castles, and other points of interest.  Our tours of the caves with prehistoric paintings caused me to pause and absorb their historical significance.

The Age of Man
travel memoir
by Greg Larson

     One of the most interesting features of the Dordogne Valley and the Périgord region of France is the historical evidence of ancient tribes and their habit of dwelling along the rivers at the edge of the limestone cliffs.  One of the tell-tale signs of their existence is the collection of holes chopped into the limestone by the ancient people to allow their leaning tent poles to be set along the cliffs.  As we wound along the river on our bikes we could see the cut rectangular depressions in the stone at various nomadic camping spots.

     We learned much more about these aboriginal people from a professor who was knowledgeable in the anthropological history of the area.  He was a short Frenchman with long wavy hair.  His passion on the subject of the cave dwellers was evident, and he spoke very good English.  Before we toured the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume (one of the few sites that allow viewing of authentic cave paintings), he shared a wealth of information, of which I was able to retain some bits and pieces.  We listened intently to his lecture in a beautiful setting by the riverside in Les Eyzies, at a meeting spot with a semicircular stone bench….a perfect place to relax and learn more about the region.

     According to what he shared with us, the tribes of the area were nomadic.  They roamed the area around 27,000 B.C. to 15,000 B.C., during the Ice Age in northern Europe.  They followed the reindeer herds as the animals roamed a circular route of approximately 100 kilometers in diameter.  Sometimes the circles of reindeer and nomads overlapped, and the herds and tribes intermixed.  The nomads were dependent on the reindeer, using every bit of the animal for their subsistence: hides for clothing and tents, sinew for string, meat and fat for cooking and eating, and bones for tools.

     The professor commented that several hundred caves with paintings have been discovered in the Périgord region of France.  Historians have long wondered why the symbols and animals were painted on the cave walls.  According to our lecturer, no one has a definitive answer.  Many believe the cave paintings were the beginning of recorded pictures and symbols that acted somewhat like an alphabet.  He shared with us that our symbol of the “alpha” letter “A” is really an upside-down picture of a deer with horns.  The nomads did not live in the caves because these large fissures were too damp and cold, and there was no ventilation for the smoke created by their fires.  But the painters found a spot on the cave walls to record their various pictures and symbols; some as obvious as a European bison herd, and some that looked like graffiti gang symbols.  They used animal-fat candles for their light source, and applied the organic pigments with sticks and crude brushes made from animal hair.  Some of the paintings required the artists to use some type of scaffolding, due to the location on the upper walls of the caves.

     The larger caves that have the most worthy collection of paintings are mostly off-limits to the public.  Upon their discovery, the paintings began to deteriorate and decay, due to the carbon dioxide emitted from the crowds and from the introduction of mold and microbes brought in on the feet of the visitors.  The Grotte de Font-de-Gaume is one of the few large caves allowing viewers.  Each group of fifteen is granted a few minutes in the cave, and only twelve groups are allowed in each day.  The most prominent paintings in the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume are the European bison (now extinct in the wild), the horses, and a small number of reindeer.  Our guide noted that although the nomads lived among the reindeer, there are very few cave paintings of this specific animal.

     These ancient artists began to experiment with three dimensional pictures through the positioning of the artwork.  The bison shoulders and humps were located on the rock to appear to bulge from the surface.  Some of the artists attempted to show the running animals in perspective, with the front appearing larger than the rear of the animal.  A rare image shows a male reindeer “kissing” the head of a female reindeer.

Painted reindeer in Grotte de Font-de-Gaume
(internet image)
     All of these nomads were of the Homo sapiens species…the same as you and me.  A fact that I did not know…Homo sapiens has existed as a species for only 40,000 years.  According to our guide, the Homo sapiens species is “but a babe” compared to Homo habilus and Homo erectus, each averaging a span of over 1.2 million years.  At the high point of the lecture we were told that as Homo sapiens, we are like “children playing with matches.”  The professor looked around at us with a very serious expression and slowly asked, “Will we learn to use the matches to our benefit…or will we burn the house down?”

     A couple of days later, we toured a simulated cave of Lascaux, called Lascaux II.  The original cave was discovered in 1940, by a boy and his dog.  After returning to the cave with a friend and torches, they went to their schoolteacher, who in turn contacted Abbé Breuil, a pre-history authority.  After viewing the discovery, Breuil was quoted as saying the Lascaux caves were the “Sistine Chapel of the Périgord.”  Over 1,500 paintings and symbols fill the cave.  Unfortunately, an early photo shows Brueil smoking a cigarette, standing with the boys at the entrance to the caves.  Thus began the damage to the cave paintings.  By 1963 the cave had seen one million visitors and the damage was so great that it was closed permanently.  Only scholars with special permission are allowed into the original cave.  Eventually, authorities decided to create a simulated cave near the original Lascaux, with the same three-dimensional shape and matching replicated paintings.  Painstaking detail was given to make the simulated cave a true replica.  It was opened in 1983 and has been admired by thousands each year since its opening.

Painted Horse in the Lascaux Cave
(public domain image)

     The professor’s talk caused me to think about the relatively young age of man, and how we’ve quickly developed the use of our brain.  The creative power of Homo sapiens is a double-edged sword, striking a swath from learning and entertainment to harming and destroying others.  As I walked out of the Lascaux II cave, and began to adjust to the bright light of sunshine, I wondered what the remnants of our civilization will look like 15,000 years from now, and I thought of the professor’s comment…We are like children playing with matches…