Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fallingwater & Kentuck Knob (english version)

(Deutsche Version HIER!)

When people from Pittsburgh talk about Fallingwater, then they usually rave about it. And the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy writes about this house: "Voted the most important building of the 20th century in a poll conducted by the American Institute of Architects, Fallingwater is Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterwork." And it seems to be in line for the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Hearing or reading this, then of course as a visitor one expects at least something like the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Seen from the outside, Fallingwater is awesome indeed. But being inside the building puts this impression a little bit into perspective.

The American architectural giant Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) built Fallingwater in 1936 in Mill Run, about 50 miles away from Pittsburgh, as a weekend and holiday recreation home for the Kaufmann family who ran a department store in downtown Pittsburgh. (It still exists today: It's Macy's now, but this doesn't keep off autochthonous Pittsburghers from calling it "Kaufmann's". - Which is a general phenomenon: Pittsburgh consists from places and buildings that are long gone but still used by the natives as marker points: "Well, go straight ahead here and turn left where the cinema has been.")

The way this house has been integrated into the landscape above a waterfall: without any doubts this is the fine art. Some of the architect's fingerprints are also catching the eye immediately, especially the building components he used (dressed stone, reinforced concrete, wood and metal) as well as the consistent coloring (metal parts are coated with "cherokee red" paint, the concrete has a shade of ocher named "covered wagon"). The colors find their counterparts in several room details and decorations. Most furniture is made from mahogany, the floor is covered with waxed flagstones.

The embedding into the landscape works excellent; even inside the house one feels connected to the ambience. On the one hand this results from the waterfall that can be heard all over the place and always reminds to where you are, on the other hand it's the windows - several of them are frameless, the glass panes are set directly into the stone, so one doesn't even realize them as "windows". Besides this, all over the building (exept at writing desks) there's only indirect lighting, so there's a blend of artificial light and daylight.

 Living Room (Photo: Wikipedia/Jeffrey Neal)

The living room, combined with dining area and a direct stair down to the watercourse underneath the building, is marveless. However, as soon as you leave it to see other rooms, the building, as spacious as it seems to be at first glance, can give you a trace of claustrophobia. I'm 6'2" above sea level, and I'm quite sure that people of this clear height existed already in 1936. It is annoying when you bump your head on stairways or you have to learn that some rooms are too low-ceilinged for people like me.

Some of the connecting passages are so narrow that one feels thronged, while the balustrades are so low that it's dangerous to life for small children.

There is no A/C in the house, only a mechanical ventilation system. Fortunately it works without power supply, but it doesn't prevent the house from being damp all over. The mold formation can be restrained only chemically.

Fallingwater includes a guest house and several bungalows for the domestic and service personnel. It is clear that it would not be possible to run the whole complex of buildings without staff. Their rooms, by the way, are not shown to the visitors.

Fallingwater may be a work of art and probably was seen as this by the architect. But who wants to live in a work of art for more than a couple of days?

Wright, one may not believe it, didn't carry out the structural calculations for his masterwork correctly. Had the building contractor not nearly doubled the amount of steel - ignoring the architect's declared intention! -, the building would have collapsed long ago.


Which, after all, would have been a pity. The Kaufmann family used Fallingwater between 1937 and 1963. In 1964 they conveyed the building to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy which cares for the building since then. The costs per year all-in-all are five million dollars, collected from donations, entrance fees and a shop.

But Frank Lloyd Wright was also able to do it different ways. Kentuck Knob shows it - another house designed by him, finished 1956 for the Hagan family at Chalk Hill, a couple of miles away from Fallingwater.

This house is much smaller than Fallingwater. It's from Wright's "Usonian" phase, which means a U- or L-shape-outlined building around an inner courtyard, following the outlines of the classic American farm house. Kentuck Knob has a main building, a carport (which, by the way, was also invented by Wright) and an atelier.

Even if it looks like the opposite on the photo above, the house is not windowless. On the yardside indeed there's indeed only a narrow line of windows under the copper rooftop, nearly hidden behind a wooden blind. The main windows are on the other side; Kentuck Knob is let in at 2050 ft into a hill.

Seen from the slope, one big window front is visible, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. This is one complete side of the living room. Besides this, the house has skylights.

The construction material and elements are similar to Fallingwater; mainly it's cypress wood, sandstone and glass. If reinforced concrete has been used, it's not visible here.

Another design mark is the fact that there are no right angles in this house (or to be correct: only two, but they are well hidden). On the short side of the living room the architect repeats his idea to set the window pane directly into the stones of the curtain wall without frames.

Eye-catching in this house: For me, the living room is too big and too longish, while the other rooms - as already in Fallingwater - are strangely narrow, dark and look somehow crammed. And the kitchen, with all due respect, must have been constructed by somebody who never did the cooking himself; it's completely inexpedient.

The patio merges into a sculpture garden. There, asides from several interesting works by contemporary artists, the following can be found:

Let's hope nobody will take this monster accidentally for a work of art.


Homepage Fallingwater
Webcam Fallingwater
Homepage Kentuck Knob
Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

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