Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater

Special Edition

by Chadwick Jenkins

20 August 2008

This video beautifully illustrates what a wonderful achievement Fallingwater was, making this DVD set a wonderful achievement in its own right.

Fallingwater as the Echo of Nature

Imagine you are following a stream. In the distance, you hear the soft sibilance of a diminutive waterfall. As you approach, you reach a small clearing and see the source of the sound. Atop the waterfall, almost inconceivably, rests a house. But then you take a closer look at this structure. It is not merely a house. It is perched precariously on the rock. From afar the building strikes one as a study in rectangularity. It is constructed of concrete and stone. It is clearly a manmade structure and yet everywhere it seems to recede into the surrounding landscape.

The concrete slabs jut out from the building in blithe imitation of the protrusion of rock constituting the ledge of the waterfall. And yet the rectangularity blurs upon closer inspection. The stone, clearly related to the stone surrounding the bed of the stream, ripples with shimmering effect as though the reflections of light from the stream were so palpable as to actually shape the walls themselves.

cover art

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater; Special Edition

Director: Timothy Sakamoto
Cast: Lynda Waggoner; Richard Cleary

US DVD: 29 Jul 2009

The line of windows, running from the basement to the top floor, is reinforced by steel painted the deep red of rusted iron and yet the windows themselves seem to be curiously disconnected from the structure so that the floors inside the building appear to float in space. However, the verticality of the upward sweep of glass reinforces the verticality of the waterfall itself. Indeed the entire structure tempts one to believe that it emerged as the natural consequence of the soft reverberation of the water falling into the stream below as though the structure were nothing more than the manifestation of the echo of Nature itself.

To approach Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece built for the Kaufmann family in Western Pennsylvania, is to realize just how integrated a home can be within a sylvan setting without compromising a modernist aesthetic. Indeed, as the 2-disc Special Edition of the 2005 documentary Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater demonstrates with such remarkable clarity, Wright’s sense of the modern grew out of his interest in natural landscapes and indeed in Nature as a driving force of life. This is, ultimately, what he strove to achieve with his attempts to create an “organic” architecture.

This Special Edition contains the 2005 documentary; a series of 10 interviews on various topics with the director of the building Lynda Waggoner, curator Cara Armstrong, and architectural historian Richard Cleary; and a stunning CD-ROM featuring an interactive virtual tour complete with still photographs, Wright’s architectural drawings, and 17 panoramic views that allow you to turn a full 360 degrees within various locations surrounding and inside the house and guest house.

This is one of those very rare occasions where the main film and the supposed “extras” work together so seamlessly to produce an overarching effect on the viewer that there is little point in trying to separate out the contributions of the various components. Each component reinforces and illuminates aspects of the others to create a striking experience of the building, its history, the people involved with its construction and preservation, and what it has meant and means now for the community surrounding it.

The film is, of course, replete with breathtaking photographs of the house and its interiors. But even more importantly, the camera roves freely within the spaces of the home. As the camera moves through the main living area of the first floor, the viewer gets a deep sense of just how truly visionary Wright’s understanding of space was. There are almost no internal walls that block off one space from another on this floor. Living room becomes den becomes music room becomes dining room. Wright simply designed furniture that could be rearranged to create new groupings depending on the number of people and the kind of activity involved.

Thus, the room ought to be understood not as a static thing that Wright built but rather as a living entity in constant motion—or better yet, as the ephemeral, shifting document of the movements of its living inhabitants within the space Wright allotted. In other words, Wright did not so much construct a room as he provided an opportunity through which various trajectories of lived activity could take place. In the simplest manner imaginable, Wright allowed for a room that did not close off potentiality in favor of actuality; this room is, in an almost literal sense, alive to possibility.

The documentary and the supplementary interviews that accompany it are by no means a simple paean to the heights of Wright’s inspiration. Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects of this set is the way in which it illustrates just how important Wright’s patrons, the Kaufmann family, were to the development, building, and preservation of the home. Architectural historian Cleary clarifies the distinction between a client and a patron by declaring that the patron is much more closely aligned with the development of an artist’s career and the maintenance of that artist’s well being.

The Kaufmann family certainly exemplified this role. Edgar Kaufmann Sr. and his son supervised the progress of the building and the family made requests during the construction phase—some of which, such as the hatch that leads to direct access to part of the stream, became integral to the design of the house. More importantly, Kaufmann put his finger on what turned out to be the building’s most notorious structural flaw. A report Kaufmann had an outside engineer develop demonstrated that the structural system Wright had designed would not adequately support the cantilevers (the most famous aspect of the building). Wright, of course, disputed the claim.

However, had Wright’s initial plan been brought to fruition, the cantilevers almost certainly would have collapsed under their own weight. Even with the reinforcement Kaufmann demanded, the cantilevers increasingly drooped over the course of the building’s existence until restoration work was completed in 2002 and the cantilevers were secured through post-tensioning support placed beneath the floor.

The concern with maintenance and preservation, usually the point where viewers reach the nadir of their interest, here becomes one of the highlights of the video. Edgar Kaufmann Jr., fearing that the building would become just another museum and that the surrounding development would encroach too closely upon the building (thus eliminating the careful balance with nature that Wright produced), gave Fallingwater to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy thereby securing the property and the home.

Kaufmann Jr. also insisted that no velvet ropes be placed within the house, closing visitors off from moving about the space that Wright had designed. As director Wagoner relates, he preferred that ten art objects be destroyed per year rather than to transform Wright’s vision into a mere museum piece. This is a remarkable attitude to take and a difficult policy to manage but it reveals the spell under which admirers of the house are held.

That the video illustrates so beautifully what a wonderful achievement Fallingwater was and continues to be makes this DVD set a quite wonderful achievement in its own right. This is the perfect memento for anyone who has visited the building; it is the perfect preparation for anyone who plans to make the trek out to Western Pennsylvania. But, perhaps most impressively of all, it is the perfect video for anyone who does not think a visit to Fallingwater will be possible anytime soon but who wants to experience the building in all of its strange wonder, placidity, and charm.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater; Special Edition


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