The Wright Stuff

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Fallingwater/Frank Lloyd Wright, 1937

I made a trip last weekend to Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house about an hour’s drive outside Pittsburgh. There wasn’t any news-related reason. I just wanted to see the thing while I still had my visit to the Philip Johnson Glass House fresh in my mind. In their different ways both houses were crucial to the American understanding of Modernism in the last century. I won’t data dump my notebook here, but there are one or two things worth saying.

I like something I found in Fallingwater Rising, Franklin Toker’s definitive book. He’s trying to explain Fallingwater’s role in getting Americans to warm towards Modernism.

The key was the way Wright had presented European themes in a muscular, down to earth, American manner. The International Style showcased industrial materials, but Fallingwater accentuated its natural components. The International Style shrouded itself in the bland anonymity of smooth transparent surfaces; Fallingwater presented itself instead with robust walls that were strongly colored and textured.

To say the least, Wright had a fraught relationship with the European Modernists like Mies and Le Corbusier. They owed alot to his rethinking of architectural space, a debt they generally acknowledged. But they had moved on to a radically distilled Modernism that left him cold. He’s supposed to have said that with Fallingwater he planned “to beat them at their own game.” And what you recognize once you get there is that in some ways he did.

With this house Wright deconstructed architectural form into planes as radically as anything that Mies did with the Barcelona Pavilion. But he built with warmer materials, stone and painted concrete, as if to prove that Modernism could have a human face. This is exactly the effort that a lot of later architects would make as they tried to find ways to warm up that glass and steel box that Modernism had squeezed architecture into.

And in particular, this is what Philip Johnson, the architect of the Glass House, would spend a lot of his own career attempting. The Glass House, which Johnson finished 12 years after the completion of Fallingwater, was his way of showing that, as a matter of fact, the most reductive glass and steel Modernism could be very beautiful too. (Take that, Frank!) But we know that even as he was building it, Johnson was thinking about how to bring certain values back into architecture that Modernism had squeezed out, like historical reference — values that Wright had managed to incorporate into Fallingwater. You could say that in the conceptual space that separates Fallingwater from the Glass House, any number of the core issues of 20th century architecture would be played out.

The Glass House/Philip Johnson, 1949 — Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation.