The United States of America, a cultural powerhouse and dominant world player. Over three weeks the Red+Black Architect took a tour through a few of the most iconic pieces of the USA. If you missed the start of this series, Click here to read from the beginning.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Recognized by the American Institute of Architects as the greatest American architect of all time, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867- 1959) produced hundreds of brilliant buildings over his career. No architectural trip to the USA would be complete without a visit to at least one Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. On this tour we take a look at possibly his best two projects, one residential and one public.
Falling Water, Pennsylvania
An hour’s drive from Pittsburgh, past a small township aptly named Normalville, in an expanse of picturesque Pennsylvanian forest flows a small creek called Bear Run. Atop the waterfall, nestled between the trees sits possibly the greatest house ever built. Affectionately known as Falling Water, the home integrates perfectly with nature in a way that only the very best architecture can.
Falling Water was built for the Kaufmann family between 1936 and 1937. Edgar Kaufmann Senior was a very successful businessman as president of the Kaufmann Department Store in Pittsburgh. Bear Run was the family retreat from the then dirty city air of Pittsburgh dominated by heavy steel production. It is not surprising then that this building is all about the setting.
As one approaches the home, the crunch of the gravel underfoot gives way to the rushing sound of the waterfall. This can be heard throughout the home at different volumes depending on the room and if the windows are open or not. Approaching the front door one follows the path underneath a series of small concrete beams which fly out from the rock embankment. A small pool, not bigger than a coffee table, is provided in ground, adjacent to the entrance, for visitors to clear off their shoes.
Moving through into the main living space your view is immediately drawn to the trees outside, framed by the steel window frames painted in the signature Frank Lloyd Wright red. The living space is open plan yet carefully arranged for a variety of situations and uses. A gentle recess in the the concrete ceiling allows a crafted timber insert to provide a framework for the lighting fixtures to throw a soft upward glow. A series of glass sliding panels are easily pushed horizontally to access a staircase directly down to the river below.
The bedroom spaces were beautifully crafted and surprisingly modest in size. Again every opportunity was taken to capture the brilliant natural setting and invite it inside. The detailed design and craftsmanship did not stop at the floors, walls and ceilings but also included custom furniture including desks, bookshelves and some particularly elegant and functional bedside lights. Throughout the tour it was difficult to take a bad photograph or find a disappointing space. The only disappointment is that the photographs taken by visitors are not allowed to be published.
This building was the very first piece of architecture I can remember discovering in a book as a high school student on the other side of the world. In pictures Falling Water looks perfect and in reality it lives up to the promise. Falling Water is currently in the process of becoming a World Heritage Site.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Wright’s most famous public building is the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum which can be found on the East side, across the road from Central Park in New York City. The building was opened in 1959, 6 months after the death of Frank Lloyd Wright. As a consequence not all of Wright’s vision was fulfilled completely.
From the street, the Guggenheim presents as a sculptural element, monolithic in texture but dynamic in form. As one enters the building, they quickly find themselves beneath the atrium void, lit by the skylight above and encased on all sides by the spiraling balustrade.
Unlike Falling Water where the building is reaching out to the surrounding environment, the Guggenheim is completely internalized with the only views being of the art on display or the internal grand atrium space. The original intention of Wright was that visitors would take the elevator to the top floor before strolling down the very slight continuous ramp. In practice this seems to be discouraged due to the volume of visitors, however the experience of walking up the ramp is no less engaging.
For those who are strong believers that form must follow function, this building might be a disappointment. As was much criticized at the time, the curved interior walls do not readily facilitate the hanging of flat paintings. However for those who can look beyond the the process of hanging the painting the spiral form allows the viewer to engage in an art experience like no other.
Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the absolute masters of the architecture profession. Much has been written about his temperament and other flaws, but in 2015 his buildings are still as vibrant, energetic and architecturally relevant as ever. To visit these buildings was a privilege and a clear highlight of the tour.
The tour continues next week.
Architecture is for Everyone