One of the world’s most famous private homes, architecturally and naturally, is Fallingwater in southwestern Pennsylvania, just about seventy-two miles from Pittsburgh. Fallingwater is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most widely acclaimed works, designed for the family of Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann. The key to the setting of the house is the waterfall over which it is built, causing many scholars to consider Fallingwater as Wright’s “finest work and epitome of organic architecture” (Herbert 54).
However, even though Wright was the great architect that he was, he did receive criticism for not being too keen-sighted with all his structural details. Over the years, Fallingwater suffered major structural damage and the name Fallingwater seemed that it “was not just evocative, but, structurally speaking, prophetic” (Silman 88). Yet, in this case, it may not have been Wright’s fault that the renowned Fallingwater suffered the damage that it did. Frank Lloyd Wright once received a phone call from a very displeased client, who was complaining that the roof of his brand new home was leaking onto his dining room able.
According to the story told, Wright’s heart “did not miss a beat” and he simply replied and told the client to just move the table (Herbert 54). It was said that indeed, Wright was known for his disregard to structural detail just as much as he was known for his brilliant designs. As a result of that, many of his gorgeous constructions have undergone repairs and maintenance over the years. Fallingwater is one of Wright’s constructions included in the group needing repairs; however, Fallingwater has somewhat of a different story behind who made the error in design that later caused damages in the structure.
A few years ago, the American Institute of Architects published a paper which rated the one hundred “Most Influential Buildings in the History of the World” (Green). Rated as the number one most influential building was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. It was rated ahead of the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon and the great Gothic churches of France (Green). “When you think long and hard about it, it stands the test of reason: virtually everyone has seen photos of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and almost all have marveled at this supreme wedding of structure and site” (Green).
Frank Lloyd Wright was the architect who took the challenge of placing his construction right on a waterfall, rather than just building across from the waterfall; it was a revolutionary move in architecture. Yet, the revolutionary movement did not survive without problems. Fallingwater has been “an American icon since its construction in 1937 . . . yet this incomparable structure has a critical flaw” (Silman 88). It was thought that Wright’s design did not provide the proper support needed for the part of the home that is suspended out over the stream.
Engineers believed that because of the error in design, the terraces of Fallingwater began to weaken as soon as they were built, which later on caused large cracks to appear in the concrete. Even more devastating, the terraces continued to gradually sag even more over the following decades. In 1995, a prestigious engineering firm out of New York City examined Wright’s construction and found that the beams supporting the house were continuing to bend and the building would eventually collapse into the stream if nothing was done (Silman 88).
Engineers had to work quickly to devise a plan to save Wright’s famed Fallingwater. Literally, the house was slowly, but surely, “falling” into the water. To determine how to ease all the stress on the structure, which was causing its downfall, “engineers used radar and ultrasonic pulses to probe the home and then performed a rigorous structural analysis” (Silman 89). The engineers tried to somewhat retrace how Wright had thought when he designed Fallingwater. After doing so, they came up with a theory as to why “the design of Fallingwater went awry” (Silman 89).
Sure enough, it was discovered that the error in design was not Wright’s error. First, the engineers went back and recalled the entire history of Fallingwater. It began with Edgar Kaufmann Sr. , a successful department store owner in Pittsburgh in the 1930s. His son, Edgar Kaufmann Jr. spent time as an apprentice in Wright’s studio at Taliesin, the architect’s estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Kaufmann Jr. eventually convinced his father to allow Wright to do some work at the department store in Pittsburgh and then later design a weekend home for the family.
The site the family had chosen for the weekend home was a nice wooded area, which had once been a summer recreation camp for the store’s employees. The Kaufmann family had really admired a certain part of this wooded area, a stream known as Bear Run, which at one point “cascades over a series of rocky ledges” to create a beautiful waterfall (Silman 89). The family assumed that Wright would construct a home downstream from the site where the falls could be viewed from their windows.
However, to the family’s surprise, Wright had used his architectural genius to devise a plan to situate the home right on the falls, on top of a large sandstone ledge that overlooks the stream (Silman 89). Wright designed the home in 1935 and construction began in 1936. All the design work for Fallingwater was conducted at the Taliesin studio in Wisconsin, with apprentices aiding Wright in his plans. Engineers Mendel Glickman and William Wesley Peters also did structural calculations for Fallingwater at the Taliesin studio. However, even before the construction began, some concerns about Wright’s design surfaced.
Kaufmann had the final plans reviewed by his consulting engineers, who from the start were doubtful about both Wright’s competence with a material like reinforced concrete-still considered ‘new’ in America and atypical for domestic construction-and his decision to place the house on the rock ledge above the waterfall. (qtd. in Green) Unsure about Wright’s plan, the Pittsburgh engineering firm Kaufmann had hired insisted that there were not enough steel bars in the concrete beams below the living room of Fallingwater. Keeping it secret from Wright, they decided to double the number of bars in each beam.
Just when construction was almost complete, Wright discovered what had been done and was instantly furious about the change that had been made in the design. In an angry letter to Kaufmann Sr. , Wright once wrote “I have put so much more into this house than you or any other client has a right to expect, that if I don’t have your confidence – to hell with the whole thing” (qtd. in Silman 89). Frank Lloyd Wright was certainly “a social rebel who lived by his own rules” (Bell 50). Wright liked either to do things his way, or not at all.
He certainly had reason to do it his own way. He was an architectural genius and many other engineers in his day could not match up with such knowledge and skill. Such a statement can be proven by what experts recently discovered: The most serious mistake in the construction of Fallingwater was made by contractor and engineer in the pouring of first-floor concrete slab. At Kaufmann’s request, his engineers had redrawn Wright’s reinforcing plan for the slab, and by their own admission ‘put in twice as much steel as was called for on plans’.
This excess steel not only added enormous weight to the carefully calculated slab, but was set so close together that the concrete did not properly fill in between the reinforcing bars, causing an actual loss of strength. (qtd. in Green) Wright was not the one responsible for the error in design, which later caused Fallingwater to suffer damages. In turn, Kaufmann’s own engineers who had secretly altered Wright’s design and added extra steel bars to the reinforced concrete had caused the error in the design of Fallingwater.
So many people had been under the impression that the great Frank Lloyd Wright had made a grave mistake, had failed to make a proper design plan for his Fallingwater construction. However, all that “smattering of criticism of Fallingwater that one hears is hardly well founded” (Green). The criticism should now be geared towards Kaufmann’s engineers, for they were the ones who made the grave error of altering Wright’s genius design. In 1996, studies proved that the “stresses in Fallingwater’s main cantilever beams were great enough to raise questions about the house’s safety” (Silman 89).
Due to the fact that the home was becoming unsafe to be in, the trustees of Fallingwater immediately decided to begin a design for permanent repairs which would prevent the terraces from sagging any further. The Western Pennsylvania Conservatory commissioned New York engineer Robert Silman to come up with a permanent “retrofitting plan” (Herbert 54). The approach that Silman came up with to restore Fallingwater is called “post-tensioning – requires that holes be drilled through the concrete slabs; steel cables will then be inserted through the holes and gradually tightened, in order to reduce stress on the terraces” (Herbert 54).
After the entire process is finished, all the steel scaffolding will be removed and the house will look much more like what Wright had originally intended it to look like. The $11. 5 million restoration project was scheduled to take place during the winter of 2001-2002, but was put off until the Spring of 2002. The Fallingwater trustees and Robert Silman hope that the plan they have will strengthen Fallingwater and guarantee the “structural stability of the house for years to come” (Herbert 54). Engineers today owe it to Frank Lloyd Wright to repair and restore his construction to what he had planned for it to be.
It was not Wright’s designing error that caused the damage to the structure. He was a “visionary on the cutting edge” and his visions to create a revolution for architecture were right on target (Green). A famous historian once said, “If I had to limit placing the title of ‘genius’ on just one man who lived in the twentieth century, I would say that man was Frank Lloyd Wright” (Green). It was Wright who had created the original design for Fallingwater, the design which would have prevented the damage that occurred later.
Wright’s Fallingwater was not only a spectacular work of art, but it was a revolution in architecture. After Fallingwater was built, architects everywhere praised Wright for bringing architecture to the next step. He had built a home on top of a waterfall, something which no other architect had ever attempted before. Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture at Fallingwater “is a major artistic, philosophic and social statement by one of the most important design figures of the twentieth century” (Sandefur 40). Through his architecture, “man is more a part of his own world” (Green).