What's Wrong with Fallingwater

In which I go off on a rant about Frank Lloyd Wright.

(Posted 2015-05-28 14:51:00 +0000)

Recently I was driving with my son (he was driving) and we saw a “low-rider”, a car whose suspension had been lowered so much that the wheels had to be canted inward just to fit into the wheel wells. Each tire was within millimeters of coming into contact with the fender.

My son opined how much he hates being stuck behind a car like that, because minor road conditions—speed bumps, potholes, etc.—become major obstacles for such a car, whose driver inevitably has to slow to a crawl to navigate “terrain” that a normal car could almost take at speed.

I noted how, ultimately, a car is a vehicle to get you from point A to point B faster and with less effort than on foot, and if you modify your car so that that function is impaired, it’s no longer a car, it’s a hobby and an art piece that can function as a vehicle, under some circumstances.

So now to the part that has to do with Fallingwater and Frank Lloyd Wright. Fallingwater is arguably one of Wright’s best-known buildings, a single-family home straddled over a waterfall in Western Pennsylvania. I’ve been there; it’s nice; but when first built it shared a flaw all too common to Wright’s buildings.

The roof leaked.

“Leaked” may be an understatement. I wasn’t able to find anything online to quantify how bad the leaks were, but Edgar Kaufmann Sr., who commissioned the house and lived there for years with his family, called it a “seven-bucket building”. Between the leaks and the fact that it was built over running water, Kaufmann nicknamed Fallingwater “Rising Mildew”.

Now, Wright’s designs are a far cry from living in a cave, or a yurt, or an igloo. They’re not the same as other houses and domiciles; they are unique. They do, however, share one thing in common with all of those: they’re intended to function as places to live that are preferable to living outside. This means a number of things, and one of them is keeping the friggin’ weather off of your head. If a house fails to do that, it’s not a house. It’s a pretty art piece that you can climb inside of, under ideal conditions.

Wright’s creations were notorious for leaking roofs. Wright himself is said to have responded to a questioner asking about the leaks, “That’s how you know it’s a roof!”

No. That’s how you know it’s failing at being a roof.

Wright’s designs suffered from any number of flaws. Fallingwater, besides being damp, had severe problems with its cantilevered floors and balconies, because Wright miscalculated the stresses they’d be under. (The cantilevers weren’t fully repaired and strenghened until nearly 70 years after the house’s completion.) Much of the furniture is built into the walls and floors; good luck trying to redecorate. Much of the humidity problems stemmed from its being built over a waterfall, instead of downstream with a view of the waterfall, like the Kaufmanns originally requested.

And it ran 440% over budget.

The Illinois, an imagined mile-high skyscraper, could not have been built with the materials on hand at the time, and even now it would be difficult, if not impossible. If you “design” a building that can’t be built until the future, if at all, using materials that haven’t been developed yet, you’re not an architect, you’re a science-fiction illustrator. I can draw lots of impossible stuff. Wright’s real trick was getting paid to do so.

(Wright believed it could have been built at the time, but this is the guy who couldn’t correctly work out the stresses on a room-sized concrete slab, so take that with a very large grain of salt.)

So, in summary: Wright designed buildings that, if they even could be built, would forever have habitibility issues, wouldn’t be where you wanted them to be, and would cost far more than you originally intended. That reminds me not so much of an archtect as…ah, I have it.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Government contruction manager.