MILL RUN, Pa. — Frank Lloyd Wright's greatest house strikes a bracing balance between opposites. It seems to be soaring through the air even though it's firmly anchored to the ground. It evokes our instinctive need to seek shelter in caves, yet it recalls our equally strong desire to peer off the edges of cliffs. It appears to be in complete harmony with nature, yet it also appears distinctly man-made.
But the most precarious of all the balances associated with the structure known as Fallingwater has more to do with physics than with aesthetics: Six years ago, it became clear that if nothing was done to shore up the house's heroic projecting terraces, they eventually would collapse into the tumbling stream below.
To anyone familiar with the house, now 64 years old, the news came like a thunderclap, the equivalent of learning that Beethoven had gotten the harmonies wrong in his Fifth Symphony or that Picasso's hand had faltered as he painted "Guernica."
Geniuses aren't supposed to make mistakes.
Yet geniuses probably are more prone than the rest of us to push things to--or beyond--their limits. Now with an $11.5-million, five-year renovation nearly concluded, that seems to be precisely what has happened at Fallingwater. It has taken the latest structural technology to rescue Wright's masterpiece from the architect's stupendous overreaching.
Masterminded by New York City engineer Robert Silman, the structural fix has corrected the problems that threatened to destroy Fallingwater and renewed the house that the American Institute of Architects in 1991 voted the best work ever designed by an American architect. The project is scheduled to be completed in October.
"The house won't have looked this good since it opened," promises Lynda Waggoner, Fallingwater's director and vice president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the nonprofit group that has owned and operated the house since 1963.
It is an extraordinary time to visit Fallingwater, 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and three miles south of the nearest town, Mill Run. In early August, the woods around the house were lush, and Bear Run, the stream it stretches over, was moving smartly. Enough of the house was back in place that it looked like Fallingwater. Yet there were spots where the underlying structure remained exposed, like a life-size cutaway diagram.
Plainly visible on the house's east terrace, for example, was a concrete beam almost big enough to carry a bridge over an expressway. Except, of course, Fallingwater isn't a bridge. It's based on the structural principle of the cantilever, in which a horizontal beam extends beyond a vertical support. Think of a diving board on steroids.
At Fallingwater, the cantilevered portion of the main floor, which rises directly above the waterfalls that give the house its name, weighs 75 tons, according to John Matteo, Silman's project manager. The master bedroom terrace weighs nearly 50 tons. Ironically, all of this heavy lifting creates the impression of incredible lightness.
It is no accident that a visitor feels compelled to applaud this structural drama. Long before the current crop of "spectacle" buildings--such as Santiago Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum addition, which flaunts a moving sunshade that is wider than the wings of a 747--Fallingwater had the market cornered on gravity-defying, jaw-dropping architecture.
Although the structural undergirding of the terraces is one of the house's big surprises, the other shock, paradoxically, is that Fallingwater turns out to be far more intimate than it looks in the pictures of the mid-20th century photographers who were all too eager to emphasize its monumental form.
Anybody who walks through the big but cave-like living room, the tiny kitchen or the ample but hardly sprawling bedrooms will come away with a distinctly different impression: Fallingwater is a house--a grand house, to be sure--but not a palace. It's 5,330 square feet, and nearly half of that, 2,445 square feet, is the floor space of the terraces.
The house is filled with artful contrasts, like the one between the smooth, sleek terraces and the highly textured walls of Pottsville sandstone, which was quarried just downstream. And while Fallingwater thrusts horizontally through space, Wright also reveled in the vertical dimension with elements such a stairwell that leads from the living room to a landing just upstream of the waterfalls. The stairs poetically underscore the house's grand theme of uniting man and nature.
Wright designed Fallingwater for the family of Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., whose son, Edgar Jr., was one of the apprentices in the architect's Taliesin Fellowship, the school Wright invented to give him a source of income that would him see him through the Depression.