Thursday, 7 September 2006

Architect v Architect: 'Fallingwater' by Frank Lloyd Wright

Well, just look what my interlocutor has selected in a blatant attempt to steal our wee show! For the second of his five favourites exhibited here at Not PC, Den MT has chosen ... well, just take a look what he's gone and chosen, this chap who maintains that my taste and his are galaxies apart. (Frankly, I would have thought this masterpiece far too 'unfashionable' for today's young Gen-Y trendies -- but I'm enormously pleased it isn't).

I give you,
Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, on Bear Run, Pennsylvania:

Says Den of this selection:

I have, no doubt, gazumped PC on this one [yes, he has], as it is probably not far from the top five buildings of anyone interested in architecture. Gotta be quick!

It was designed as the private holiday house for Edgar Kaufmann, in a sum total of three hours, if rumour [and the testimony of Wright's apprentices who assisted] is to be believed.

This building, for me, is an outstanding example of two crucial aspects of architecture - response to site, and narrative.

In describing the importance of considering site, one of my old lecturer's made reference to the 'genius locus,' or 'sense' of a place, and that good architecture necessarily involved invoking this concept. Basically a flash way of saying that the best buildings respond sympathetically and are in part 'created' by their site or context. With Fallingwater, FLW created a structure that was an incredibly sensitive response to what is a beautiful natural setting for a country getaway spot. The formal elements of the house all invoke the specific stand-out features of the site - the waterfall, the rock masses, the glades of trees encircling the site - in a truly original and sensitive way, that transcends a simple formal 'copy' of the surrounds. His use of materials further cements this feeling of unity with the site - building and site are inextricably linked - almost interdependent.

On the second aspect - narrative - I return to another of my old lecturers, Russell Walden (forever famous for his frothing tirade against Te Papa on Backchat with Bill Ralston) who was totally enamoured with this building. One of his traditional exam questions for first year architectural history students was based on a lecture he always gave, and involved relating Fallingwater to one of Beethoven's symphonies. Old Russell may have been a bit loopy (put mildly) and I disagree with such a didactic comparison, but the succession of spaces - both internal and external - in Fallingwater, create an undeniable narrative. The story told by each space, from the moments on the exterior where the visitor must gingerly step over rushing water to the 'safety' of the house, to instances inside, such as communal living spaces with riverstone jutting from the floor, all combine to create a palpable sense of narrative.

FLW majorly overreached himself technically on this project, which began falling apart almost from the moment the roof went on* (due largely to his over-ambitious cantilevers and shortcomings of the materials used at the time) and his cost control was as atrocious as ever, blowing his client's budget by a factor of FIVE, but it perseveres as probably the most famous house ever, for good reason. The understanding of site is virtually unparalleled, and the narrative created by the interconnected spaces is extraordinarily powerful.

Cheers, Den MT

RELATED: Architecture

* Ahem. We have slightly different information on this score. I outline my own understanding of some of the many canards held against Fallingwater here and here.


  1. He he, good move Den.

    It would be interesting to get the opinion of yourself and PC on New Zealand's best piece of architecture and also on what each of you consider to be your own best work.

    I'm no architect, but I do have an interest in architecture, especially as one day in the next couple of years I would like to build an architectural masterpiece myself! My tastes definitely extend to the non-traditional. I like houses such as Bart Prince's Price House (which I have just noticed has already been subject to a post by PC) or Zero Cosmology by Masahura Takasaki (sorry, can't find a link).

    My current least favourite piece of architecture is the entire London Docklands development, which I can see from my living room window. Truly banal. And I include Foster's Canary Wharf station as part of that. Architects like to heap praise on it, but it does nothing to lift your spirits on the way to work in the morning. It's all business and no pleasure.

  2. Peter, I know next to nothing about architecture but that is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It just exhudes relaxation, harmony and peace.

  3. PC & Den,

    Again, I am one of those who know nothing about architect, but for curiosity, I want to ask a question about types of architect.

    I remembered at my Physics lecture stage 1, for topics covered in acoustics & waves, the lecturer (late Professor Orange) at the time described, the problems of standing waves which causes the prolonging of echo (standing waves one that bounce back & forth between solid boundaries). This echo prolonging has a huge nasty effect during concert in a concert hall. Prof. Orange mentioned in one of those acoustics lectures that a best-known pioneer in the field of acoustic architecture is Professor Herald Marshall, from Auckland University School of Architecture. Prof. Orange went on to say that Prof. Marshall revolutionalised architecture by incorporating acoustical design methods. Orange also said, that all concert hall designed by Prof. Marshall has very minimal effect of echo, since the architect involves something that the wall can absorb all the sound & noise during concert and not bounce them back & forth between walls, thus having an unpleasant hearing effect on the audience.

    My question? Does acoustic architectural design only concern with the interior of buildings and not its external look? To me, no matter how sophisticated an internal architecture of a building, if the outside does not appeal to me, then I won't appreciate its architecture.

    Having been to the concert hall at Aotea Centre recently for 'Magic Flute' opera, I observed that echo effect was unnoticeable or non-existent. I wondered if Prof. Marshall was involved in that design?

    I never met Prof. Harold Marshall, but I think that the website below is his consultancy service.

  4. FLW could never design that house here.
    It intrudes into a riparian margin. (ie It's built over a stream.)
    In fact virtually every building or piece of landscape in NZ would not get through the system now.
    Think of Tamaki Drive. The boat sheds.
    and so on.
    The War Memorial Museum is a reflective building on a sensitive ridge. (Like the Parthenon.)
    This is the real cultural cringe.

  5. Owen, you pointed out, "FLW could never design that house here."

    All too sadly true. Even some of the houses beautifully designed around trees here would be impossible, such as that wonderful rambling house at the North Shore's Thorne Bay, built around and to embrace the pohutukawa, allowing the house's occupants to really live with the tree: now impossible.

  6. "It would be interesting to get the opinion of yourself and PC on New Zealand's best piece of architecture and also on what each of you consider to be your own best work...."

    Now there's a very good question.

    Den? You want to do this as part of your five?

  7. Falufulu Fisi, you asked about Harold Marshall.

    What Marshall did was revolutionise the acoustic design of auditoria. Let me summarise just one aspect of what he did.

    You see, buildings that are designed for sound need to support the sound they are designed to host, such as speech, orchestral music, solo singing, choral singing, cathedral-type singing etc.

    Each of those particular sounds has a specific 'reverberation period' with which it works best. Cathedral type choral singing needs a longer reverberant period, allowing sounds to blend together beautifully, whereas speech needs a very short reverberant period so that sounds don't blend together.

    So different uses of an auditorium require different reverberant periods. One thing Marshall did superbly was to design auditoria that quite naturally, (ie., without electronic enhancement) could adapt and change to accommodate and support whatever reverberant period was required.

    And this was just one of the aspects of his genius.

    Marshall, who is based in Auckland, was the acoustic designer for both the Christchuch Town Hall, and Wellington's Fowler Centre, the acoustics in both of which are tremendously impressive.

    Unfortunately, he was not called on to design the acoustics for Auckland's Ayatollah Centre, because the architects (among the country's most unimpressive) decided instead to use electronic enhancement instead of natural design methods (which were by all accounts beyond them.

    Unfortunately at almost the last moment it became apparent that the project couldn't afford the electronic enhancement, and by this stage it was too late to apply the principles of natural acoustic design, and the result now is s rather 'flat' and bland acoustic experience inside the auditorium, which to be fair is a perfect reflection of the appearance of the building itself.


  8. Brian S., you said, "Foster's Canary Wharf station ... It's all business and no pleasure."

    Unfortunately, most of Foster's work is like that. But the business that it does is usually very, very good.

  9. PC - number four will be a NZ building. Number three should be in your inbox now.

    I wrote a long reply to Falafulu Fisi re: acoustic engineering and its impact on building design, but I am migrating my blog across to Blogger Beta so it didn't accept my login when posting the comment and the whole fucking thing disappeared into cyberspace. My desk still has forehead-sized indentations in it. Grrr.


  10. Den, you said: "PC - number four will be a NZ building. Number three should be in your inbox now."

    Ooh, so it is. And it's a beauty (though not my own pick of his)!

    That's a bugger about your post. I hope my own reply somewhat compensated?

  11. NOw this is a place I've been to and thru... fascinating.... but y'all be right - ther bugger blighters who thug the country would not let such magnificance be arisen in this day and age... but - that's not the fault of the architecture, just the scum y'all let control this architecture...

  12. PC,

    I will soon be moving into a new apartment with a view of Foster's Swiss Re building. Now there is a work by Foster that I do appreciate!


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