The Wright stuff

Fallingwater, America's most famous modern house, made its architect a star - again

Few works of art stir the modern imagination like the fusion of rock, water, word, and form that Frank Lloyd Wright created in the Pennsylvania woods. For many, the mental freeze-frame of Fallingwater is some approximation of the famous black and white shot snapped by rookie photographer Bill Hedrick in November 1937 when the house was done. The view is from the base of the falls, angling up as in Wright's celebrated drawing. Cantilevered concrete rectangles, jutting horizontally from vertical stone walls, crisscross and hover - weightlessly, antigravitationally - overhead. I think of flight, of Daedalus, the legendary first architect, inventor of labyrinths and wings.

That's the beauty of the house: It sparks mind adventures. And spills lots of ink.

Now architecture historian Franklin Toker throws his smart, well-researched, and amply illustrated book into the ring. Dispelling myths and miracles along the way, "Fallingwater Rising" describes the details of the planning, construction, engineering, and post-production hype. It shows that Fallingwater was launched from a deep matrix of human, cultural, architectural, geographic, and metaphorical forces.

At the heart of the story was the creative synergy of unlikely twin protagonists. First there's Wright - the down-and-out architectural genius, irritated by Jews, who had set European architecture ablaze with the publication of his stunning portfolio in Germany in 1910, but couldn't find a client as he approached 70. Then there's Edgar J. Kaufmann - the vexed Jewish businessman, a Pittsburgh department-store magnate and philanthropist, who wanted to electrify the world with a landmark of modern architecture.

In Toker's words, "What made the house so radical, I believe, was the urgent need of its designer and of its patron to redress the wrongs the world had done them. For Wright, this meant the mockery of the German modernists who had outflanked him; for Kaufmann, it meant the anti-Jewish snobbery of Pittsburgh."

The story of this Depression-era house and its rise to fame includes an A-list cast of supporting actors - William Randolph Hearst, Albert Einstein, President Franklin Roosevelt, Time founder Henry Luce. Toker fills out the back story about how the real-life idealism of Wright and Kaufmann were the inspiration for the architect-client partnership in Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead."

But Toker debunks the myth that Wright designed Fallingwater quickly or without influence. Wright designed the house in his mind for nine months. Then he quickly drew it up. And he drew freely on European and California modernism. "Mies, Gropius, Le Corbusier, Schindler, and Neutra - Wright profited from the lessons of these five celebrated designers while reviling them personally," Toker writes. And he includes photographs that prove it. My only gripe is that the clincher, Schindler's 1928 Wolfe house near Los Angeles, isn't one of them.

Toker also throws light on Fallingwater's poetic identity, and gets at why the house strikes a universal chord. "Nature challenged," he calls it. The house is a celebration of metaphorical counterforces. Nature and culture are locked in serene combat. Critic Donald Hoffman called it, "a great machine in the forest."

What's original is the way Toker beautifully unlocks Fallingwater's symbolic link to "smoky old Pittsburgh." What could have been a vernacular waterfall cottage, he says, "grew in size, strength, and severity until it took on the industrial image that made it the perfect counterpart to the city that E.J. wanted to impress." The cold, hard-edged modern materials and forms evoke the spirit of the nearby metropolis.

"This assessment of Fallingwater as Pittsburgh-on-Bear-Run makes it into a kind of industrial trophy, set in the bosom of nature and enhancing nature not by copying but by superimposing itself as a man-made nature - a literal second nature - over the real thing."

The book's biggest weakness is its insistence that Wright was the 20th-century's greatest architect. Toker sounds too often like a groupie, and it leads him to say oddball things about Wright and other architectural giants and issues that diminish his credibility.

Better to tackle the issue of "Who's the greatest?" in another book. It's enough that this one presents an insightful, fascinating account of Wright's struggle as he created the house that architect Paul Rudolph called "a realized dream [that] touches something deep within about which, finally, none of us can speak."

Jeffrey Hildner is an architect and architectural critic and educator in New York City.

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