Thursday, December 7, 2017

A FALLINGWATER MYTH – THE WRIGHT WAY?


It had been discovered and purchased by pure chance – Fallingwater, published by Rizzoli, New York, 2011 in association with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy on the 75th Anniversary of this home: edited by Lynda Waggoner, photographed by Christopher Little: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/12/frank-lloyd-wright-accommodating.html The book looked to be an interesting publication. This judgement was not made by admiring the classic image on the cover taken in the half-light of dusk with the layered warmth of the interior lighting all softly aglow above the blurry fuzz of the waterfall. The pages were filled with a broad collection of unusual, unfamiliar images of the place, different aspects of the home: its details, contents and context. After flicking randomly through the stunning illustrations, and reading some of the captions, it was noticed that, at the very end of the publication, there were short articles by Edgar J Kaufmann Senior, his wife Liliana Kaufmann, and their son, Edgar Kaufmann Junior, collected as the Appendix: Kaufmann Essays. These texts were added, seemingly to complete the commentary and overview, to give the clients' version of things. It is an interesting idea. Only too often do the clients get ignored when really everything relies on them for all projects to be initiated and completed. Indeed, we frequently ignore the clients’ opinions when it comes to assessing and judging a home or any project, when simple logic has it that the success of an architectural outcome surely has to do with the clients’ satisfaction, rather than that of the architects, or the profession’s glossy PR award system.#





The article by Kaufmann Senior looked as though it might be an interesting read. It gave the story of the house from his point of view: how it began, developed, got built and was finished. One wondered how Kaufmann Senior might have recorded his first sightings of the sketches for his house. Famously, the ‘Wright’ story goes that Kaufmann Senior was travelling close to Taliesin, and had decided to take a detour, to call in to see how things were going. He had apparently not heard anything from Wright for some time. He telephoned Taliesin to tell Wright that he would be there in a couple of hours to see his project. The tale is that Wright then sat down and started drawing Fallingwater for the very first time, and completed the remarkable design prior to Kaufmann's arrival.




Apparently all of the apprentices sensed something significant was happening, and gathered around Wright at his drawing board, gazing on intently as ‘The Master’ developed the design before their very eyes. When Kaufmann Senior arrived, Wright had the sketches of Fallingwater ready to explain the concept for his weekender – or so the story goes. These were said to be the first lines Wright had ever put to paper for this house. Who might dare question The Master? There is a photograph of the students standing around Wright as he draws, an archival document that seems to want to prove that the event actually occurred. Was this staged? It certainly looks like it. Who took the photograph? Why? There is no great surplus of images of Wright at work in any of the records. Why does this photograph exist? Here one is reminded of the architect carefully and self-consciously drawing the 'preliminary' sketch to give to the client, to be framed as a memento of the project, after the event: “This one is for the client.” One frequently sees such informed ‘sketches’ that have been prepared specifically for promotional material under the guise of being an inspired preliminary sketch that has been removed from the pile of office scribbles: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/01/murcutts-mosque-meanings-sources.html



Oddly, in spite of the pervasive quality of this story, Kaufmann Senior mentions nothing of it. He does document a visit to Taliesin to see his son in 1934. Here he tells of his dining experience with Wright and others, and outlines his discussions concerning: the Broadacre City model – Wright wanted money to develop this model; a planetarium that Kaufmann was promoting in Pittsburgh; and a proposed weekender at Bear Run. It was shortly after this that Kaufmann and Wright visited Bear Run to inspect the site. “The Master was amazed at the beauty and forceful contours.” Wright requested a detailed survey of the site, “a topographical map which was to include everything 100 feet above and 200 feet below the falls, showing every tree more than 2 inches in diameter, and every stone and boulder permitted, by the ages, to rear its head above the ground.”


One can assume that, given his sensitivity to place, Wright would not have started drawings prior to the receipt of this detail.


In 1935 Kaufmann Senior records his attendance at a workshop on the Broadacre City - “It was the busiest workshop I have ever lived with” - an experience that was followed by a chat on the planetarium, and detailed discussions on the house at Bear Run. Wright wanted to know more about how it was planned to be used; what materials might be available; how many rooms; how it might be lived in; etc. In short, Wright was developing his brief. It seems that Wright might not even have thought about the house before this chat. Kaufmann records that the topographical map was sent to Wright on 9th March, and writes: “On April 27th a letter arrived: “We are ready to go to work on the waterfall cottage at Bear Run . . . ” . . . ” It is difficult to know if the ‘we’ is Wright referring to himself, or to the office generally, but it seems that the manifestation of the idea took over four months rather than two hours.
Kaufmann continues:
“September 15: Floor plans and coloured elevation of Fallingwater arrived. The next few nights were sleepless. . . .
On September 16 I could not work. I thought of nothing but the house.”



Kaufmann clearly does recall his excitement – his sleepless nights and distracted days – after receiving coloured drawings of the house in September. He does not tell us of any meeting with Wright at Taliesin to view freshly completed sketch drawings prior to this occasion. One might have thought that Kaufmann would remember his first sighting of the sketches in every detail; that he could not be wrong in his recollections of this event. The impact that the drawings had on him seems to suggest that there was no earlier viewing of any material to do with this ‘waterfall cottage’; that the documents that ‘arrived’ - apparently by post – were the first images Kaufmann had seen of Wright’s ideas for his weekender.



What really happened? Is the story about ‘The Master’ – even Kaufmann Senior refers to Wright in these terms – purely a promotional fantasy, what we might today call a ‘Trump-like ego-boosting’ yarn: ‘fake news’? Wright was never backward in coming forward with glowing self-assessments of his genius. Was this story a creation to support the legend – perhaps to reinforce it? Wright had gone through some tough times.



Kaufmann’s relationship with Wright varied, to finish as love: “I know that I am a better man for having met him, built with him, battled with him, and learned to love him.” There were bumps. Kaufmann had the engineering drawings checked. Wright was not happy. A genius is never questioned!
“August 27: The following letter from Taliesin:
If you are praying to have concrete engineering done there, there is no use whatever in our doing it here. I am willing you should take it over but I am not willing to be insulted.
So we will send no more steel diagrams. I am unaccustomed to such treatment where I have built buildings before and do not intend to put up with it now so I am calling Bob back until we can work out something or nothing . . .
Kaufmann responded likewise. The matter was settled; the work progressed.



In late December 1936 – Fallingwater was finished in the Spring of 1937 - Kaufmann records that the engineers “made a complete investigation of the engineering features of Fallingwater. . . .” The report noted that “the structure does not have a satisfactory factor of safety, or what might be termed reserve strength.” One chapter of this Rizzoli publication is titled: Strengthening Fallingwater by Robert Silman. It describes how, in 1995, cracks in the concrete were causing concern: engineers were consulted. After much research, the large cantilevers were stabilised with concealed tension cables. The deflections of about 150mm could not be reversed. The work strengthened the cantilevers to stop further deflection and possible failure. Wright would not have been pleased – he sacked Edgar Tafel who told one apprentice to put steel into a car port cantilever - but his presence was felt. The solution had to be totally unobtrusive; it had to maintain the image - and the reputation? - unchanged; unquestioned. As Kaufmann discovered, his genius could not be challenged.

Like Wright himself. photographers usually prefer the supports to be hidden in the shadows






It is in this somewhat oppressive circumstance, Liliane bravely tells of her lack of excitement about the house; how she had to change to live in it and grow to like it. She learnt to live “the Wright way.”
“I moved into the house with numerous misgivings . . . In a very short time, I decided that since I could not adapt the house to my way of living, I must adapt my way of living to the house.”
She concluded her one-page essay with: “Perhaps these are the vestigial remains of my previously undeveloped standards – they may disappear with the rest in another year when I have learned to live the Wright way.”





It is a sad observation: the lack of appreciation is the client’s fault - ‘undeveloped standards’! The architect has placed demands on the client rather than accommodating the client’s preferences: the creative genius must prevail. Wright did suggest that Fallingwater was a response to the European modern white buildings, especially those of Le Corbusier and Aalto. Such self-interest is becoming a very familiar scenario in the profession, almost a cliché. Little wonder that architects are so disliked as pompous and self-centred individuals concerned only with their own reputations. Is this ambition the origin of Wright’s photograph of himself working on Fallingwater? It certainly appears to be formally staged, indeed, a little awkward.




Kaufmann Junior, an apprentice at Taliesin who designed some interior items of Fallingwater – he was the contact that got Wright the job - ends his piece by talking about the trial and error of the lighting design. What else in this project was trial and error? He sums up: “Thus, gradually, after trial and error, our big problems have evaporated, leaving us a house we love to live in, flexible, still growing.” Was there a list of the ‘big problems’? Just how the house is ‘still growing’ is not clear; it was certainly still deflecting. Perhaps Kaufmann Junior was aware of the philosophy of incompletion: see sidebar – THE NECESSITY OF THE INCOMPLETE.




The Kaufmman Essays tell us a lot about Fallingwater and Wright. They show Wright in his true colours; and his limitations. Perhaps it is good to find out that he was just human too, able to be wrong. When laid out on the dray that took him to his grave, one apprentice commented on how tiny a man he was. Photographs of Wright at the Guggenheim, (it is not a good gallery space in spite of Wright’s insistence otherwise), show how small he was when standing beside its balustrade.* Yet he was large in presence. Sadly he would not listen. Is this his weakness; his fundamental flaw or his strength?


Mies van der Rohe once visited Taliesin with one of his students. As they were walking around, the student nudged Mies and pointed out a scrappy detail, anticipating Mies’s agreement with his perceptive criticism. Mies, known for his precision and rigour, ("God is in the details"), merely responded, “Be thankful that it’s here.” Indeed, we can all be thankful.


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NOTE:
In a recent talk at the Abedian School of Architecture, Bond University, Hannah Tribe of Sydney, (Tribe Architects), used the words of her clients to accompany the images of their houses that she had designed for them. It was an inventive approach that gave both good and bad reports on her work. At least it acknowledged the importance of the client in architectural outcomes: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/12/hannah-tribe-portrait-builder.htm



*
Wright built tiny places: see Taliesin Street View -

"Mind your head!"

FALLINGWATER: THE POWER OF THE IMAGE -










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