Aug 12, 2007

Pilgrimage to Fallingwater

Our summer vacation this year included a trip across Pennsylvania to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. While much ink has been spilled on this particular house, what I thought was interesting is why it remains such a pilgrimage site in the 21st century, not only for anyone interested in modern architecture and design but also for regular tourists. I haven't read enough about Wright or even the house to add anything much to the volumes already written, but a recent book, Franklin Toker’s Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and American’s Most Extraordinary House (New York: Knopf, 2003), sparked some ideas towards a contemporary reading of Fallingwater. Buoyed by documents and letters recently come to light, Toker debunks many Fallingwater myths. But most interestingly, he considers the relationship between the architect and his client, or rather, patron, E.J. Kaufmann, as central to the house’s creation and subsequent fame. He also looks in detail at the role Kaufmann’s son, the imaginatively named E.J. Kaufmann Jr, curator at MoMA, played in ensuring the house’s lasting reputation and transfer into a tourist site.

the classic photo: "stand here and shoot"

The Patron

Wright’s patron Edgar Kaufmann owned a department store, specifically the department store in Pittsburg during the 1920s and 30s, and, while he was very wealthy, Toker argues Kaufmann was always an outsider in Pittsburg society. Jewish businessman were generally excluded from the elite society of Gilded Age America. In Pittsburg, elite society meant the steel and coke barons – the Mellons, Fricks and Carnegies. Furthermore, as a department store owner (a mere merchant), Kaufmann was positioned on a lower rung of both social and financial ladders.

However, Kaufmann was known for his innovative business practices and as a patron of the arts. He showed art and design regularly in the store and Toker argues that he was also particularly interested in modernist art and design – he knew the Viennese designers Paul Frankl and Joseph Urban and also some German modernists personally from time spent abroad. The famous 1913 New York Armory exhibition toured on to Pittsburg and was shown in Kaufmann’s store. There was a close connection between the promotion of modernism and consumer culture here – the modernist art blockbuster went not to a gallery or museum in Pittsburg, but to Kaufmann’s department store.

In his shift from modernist art, design and fashion to architecture, Kaufmann would make his mark through becoming one of American modernism’s greatest patrons. Ten years after Fallingwater, he commissioned Richard Neutra to design him a winter escape house in California, the Kaufmann Desert House. Kaufmann clearly understood design’s value as a means of advertising his store as well as elevating his social status. Fallingwater could function as symbolic capital to use against the society of Pittsburg from which Kaufmann was excluded. However, the continued public relations coup of Fallingwater would take Kaufmann beyond Pittsburg to national and international fame.

Franklin Toker raises a convincing argument that Kaufmann’s changing architectural styles was calculated for maximum effect. Frank Lloyd Wright referred to him as “the Shopper” and in a sense Kaufmann consumed architectural styles – first a suburban home by the Beaux Arts-trained Benno Janssenn in the 1920s, then Wright’s Fallingwater in 1937, and finally Neutra’s Kaufmann Desert House in 1949. Toker argues: “The cost and care that Kaufmann lavished on his three houses … shows that, like his Medici predecessors, he knew that a merchant could rely on no more effective advertising than a glamorous lifestyle. In the 1930s the patrician John Nicholas Brown refused Life magazine’s request to publish his modern house, but Kaufmann accommodated everyone who wanted to write on Fallingwater. His homes were not merely opulent: each was a perfect definition of high style at the moment. Kaufmann’s suburban Pittsburgh estate perfectly expressed the lavishness of the nineteen-twenties, Fallingwater the search for American roots in the Depression thirties, and his California house the technological beguilement of the postwar forties and fifties.” (Toker, p.53).

MoMA held an exhibition on Fallingwater in 1937, not long after the house was finished, and soon after the Time-Life publication machine got onboard via its owner, Henry R. Luce, a promoter of modernism and MoMA board member. Ten years later, Luce promoted Neutra and the Kaufmann Neutra House through his magazines in much the same way as he had Wright and Fallingwater. With both houses, the circulation of photographs was crucial – neither were in accessible cultural centers so very few people saw them first hand (with the exception of well-known architects who made the pilgrimage – Gropius, Breuer and Aalto, for example, all made it to Fallingwater within a few years of its completion). Luce was also famous for his advocacy of “the American century”, an expression of mid-century manifest destiny whereby American culture should rightly be spread around the world with religious zeal. In this context, both Wright’s and Neutra’s homes could be seen as quintessentially American, expressive of indigenous modernism in the thirties and technological supremacy in the postwar era.

A 21st century pilgrimage

Whatever the house meant in the prewar era, today, it is a major tourist site and pilgrimage for architecture and design enthusiasts from all over the world. Our tour guide said the house sees upwards of 135 000 visitors every year (and it closes for a few months in winter) and has an annual budget of around $3 million. But I’m jumping ahead a little. Like all great pilgrimages, a long journey is an important part of the process and for most, a trip to Fallingwater is a major commitment. The house is not near any other notable cultural sites, and the closest city, Pittsburg, is not usually noted for its tourist appeal. Typically, I suppose, most tourists get there by sitting many hours in an automobile across Pennsylvania from East Coast cities such as Washington, Philadelphia or New York (we came across from the latter). While the trip to Fallingwater is unlike a traditional pilgrimage which involves some kind of physical effort, it does involve singular commitment and importantly, a sacrifice of time.

Upon arrival, the sacred site of American architecture is a well managed tourist experience. After parking the car, you begin at the Kaufmann Jr-designed visitor’s center (complete with cafĂ©, bathrooms, kid’s playroom and the obligatory gift store). The amenities branch from a central ticket booth, all constructed from raw wood, open to the forests all around and raised above the ground. It all feels like a 1970s environmental center (which, in a sense, it is) and thankfully makes no attempt to copy Fallingwater. From here, pilgrims are shuffled through in small groups to the house in tightly organized 55 minute tours (no photography, no kids). I opted for the 2 hour in-depth tour, which, at $55, wasn’t cheap, but at least I got to take some photographs (enjoy them, please).

The house is situated in the Laurel Highlands, an area formerly used for trapping, logging and mining before becoming a vacation area for prosperous Pittsburg families after the turn of the century. Gilded Age steel barons built mansions in the area to escape the city’s pollution (ironic, given the industries they had made their money in were the major polluters). With the phenomenon of the automobile in the 1920s, the concept of the weekender arose amongst America’s wealthy and for the Pittsburg families, the completion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1930s made travel to the area quicker and importantly, more privatized (previously it was accessible by train). Interestingly, Fallingwater now it stands one of the poorest counties in Pennsylvania whose main industry seems to be tourism (hiking, canoeing, skiing, etc).

While Modernism is generally associated with the city, many of its classic domestic dwellings were designed specifically as escapes from the urban environment – Fallingwater, Mies’ Farnsworth House, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Philip Johnson’s Glass House all fit the bill. Which seems somewhat ironic given modernism’s emphasis on new technologies, mass production and standardization (though this quartet were specifically not standardized but unique and lovingly hand-crafted). I wrote in a
previous post about Modernism’s relationship to the “back to nature” ideal of the 1920s and 30s, exemplified in this example by Kaufmann’s first forays into the area, a summer camp for Kaufmann Department Store employees to enjoy outdoor life – hiking, swimming, etc – again to escape from the pollution and crowds of industrial Pittsburg. Fresh air, exercise, healthy eating and natural light all were all also seen as a corrective to 19th century Victorian lifestyles. And these modern ideals are built into Fallingwater – the classic photos don’t give you the phenomenological experience – the waterfall’s constant sound provides a background noise over which you hear occasional bird calls, the heavy forest air is everywhere, flashes of birds appear through the trees. The house itself is surrounded by the forest, and once inside Wright is constantly pulling you outside with horizontal lines, low ceilings and the folds in the bedrooms (see photo below).

And this may well be the intriguing key to Fallingwater, that juxtaposition of the mechanical modern world with the sublime power of nature. At least that’s the appeal – though Wright did little landscaping, the site itself was hardly primeval forest, having been mined, timbered, farmed and hunted for over a century before Kaufmann began regenerating it. Wright’s modernism, in turn, is hardly the harsh geometry of European modernists – the molded concrete, the warm tones and natural materials speak of a humanist version of modernism, tempered to interact with the surrounding forest (unlike, say, the insulated glass boxes of Mies and PJ).

The specifically American references are also intriguing – the “Pueblo steps” (see above) and the concrete molded to look like adobe provide an indigenous reference for the house (and for American modernism) – here is concrete as symbolic as much as functional. However, Pueblos are specific to the Southwest Native Americans, not the indigenous peoples of the Laurel Highlands. Whatever happened to them or what type of dwellings they lived in I’m not sure (but they certainly weren’t made of adobe). My inquiries while in the area resulted in replies such as William Penn always had a good relationship with the Indians, or, there were no Indian Wars in Pennsylvania (I guess they all just packed up and left then?). So are we then left with a vague indigenous veneer of adobe concrete that suggests “native roots” while simultaneously obscuring the particularities of local history?

The other specifically American reference is Wright’s emphasis on the primal scene of American architecture, the New England hearth. The heart of the house, the hearth is at the center of Fallingwater’s social life, provider of warmth (though the house also had heating) and also where Wright’s unwieldy and impractical kettle stood unused for many years (see above photo). This main socializing space also functions as a commercial showcase for a modern department store king. Ample shelving displays a cornucopia of objects from around the world, decontextualized and stripped of their original meanings or religious significance to become collectable exotica – Christian icons illuminated by Tiffany lamps under Chinese gravestones. Finally, adding to its Depression appeal, Fallingwater was also a futuristic “house of tomorrow” with a modern efficient kitchen with table and counters made using (recently invented) Formica that certainly looks post-war rather than pre-war (see below). Cork-paneled bathrooms and use of fluorescent lighting were also innovative and modern.

Finally, what still appeals to the 21st century pilgrim? Certainly the link between nature and authenticity remain – after sixty years, the yearning to escape from urban life to a calm, undisturbed space for self-reflection and contemplation of “nature” remains strong. Despite Wright’s attempts at integration with the site, Nature remains separated from everyday (urban) life, mythologized as it becomes increasingly scarce. Though, even in the 1930s, this was hardly “wild” nature, driving up a former logging road in an automobile to the front door of a luxury modern home. And of course, there’s the ever-enduring American fantasy of wealth – Kaufmann’s Fallingwater is a lifestyle to aspire to. Note, lastly, the adjacent servants quarters (which, to be fair, were designed by Wright with equal care as the rest of the house). And don’t forget the giftshop on your way out.

All photos by D.J. Huppatz

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