In a remote, yet stunningly beautiful corner of the commonwealth, sits perhaps the most important house in America. Designed in the mid 1930s by Frank Lloyd Wright and built for the Pittsburgh retail magnate, Edgar Kaufman and his family, it is a compelling, multifaceted wonder that highlights Wright¹s genius; is rife with wonderful stories; exposes the complexities of the client/architect relationship; is touched by celebrity including Picasso and Frida Kahlo; and perhaps most importantly, triggers an intense contemplation of the meaning of home. It’s a weekend trip from Philadelphia – a 4-1/2 hour drive so the best plan is to leave early on a Saturday, explore the trails and waterways of the local parklands then settle into a cheap motel for the night. The next morning set out for a short drive to Bear Run where you can take a tour (must be reserved well in advance.) After the tour enjoy a delicious lunch at the visitors center and then boogie home in time for dinner. Winter, summer, fall or spring – each season offers its own special context in which to ponder Wright¹s absolute genius.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy responsible for the preservation of this treasure and the tours does a remarkable job. The tours are kept small and the guides are passionate, intelligent and exceptionally knowledgeable. The home remains almost completely as it was (down to the Scotch bottles on the tray by the fire) when the last of the Kaufmans left and the house was turned over as a museum of sorts. You¹ll be hard pressed to get closer to priceless art and artifacts anywhere. But of course it is the total enveloping experience of extraordinarily rendered space knitted to its enthralling natural setting that hits you like nothing you have ever imagined. The mind-blowing is only enhanced when one considers that this place took shape in 1935!
At first blush, the Kaufmans appear as wealthy, extraordinarily forward thinking (Edgar commissioned another very important American house in Palm Springs designed by Richard Neutra), uniquely influential people and while this is no doubt true, that is not the essence that comes through in this home. What I see are people who lived and entertained casually; who enjoyed a stiff drink; and who loved to read and swim surrounding by both the beauty of nature and beautiful works of man. The yin and yang of living seem in exquisite balance here and the resulting harmony yields a soul satisfaction, a reduction in stress, and a positive energy. It is not, in the end, the look of the house, or the colors and textures, or the room’s names, or the views, or the finish materials, or the arrangements and adjacencies of spaces or any other singular factor that one can identify as key to the genius – it is a masterful composition like a great piece of music that folds the infinite variability of a variety of instruments into sound that makes you swoon. This should be the goal of all architecture and while it sounds grand it is really quite possible in the hands of an informed client and good architect. That is why I start with the notion of taking each client through Falling Water. It is not about suggestion that their solution look anything like the Kaufman’s house. Rather it is a lesson in several architectural fundamentals that, once understood, will make every project better. These start with questions of meaning and travel through ever more definitive and quantifiable aspects referenced above (colors and textures, etc.) The result may look like a French Country manor house or a Georgian colonial as opposed to a cascading cantilevered modernist icon but if it feels good to be home it is its own form of genius.