Escaping NYC: Fallingwater

      Nothing beats a first-hand experience. This is especially revealing when one gets a chance to see something that’s become universally known and reproduced in most publications/ lectures/ references on a specific topic. The surprise of discovering that an original is much smaller (or bigger); that the one angle from which the iconic photo is taken only tells a part of the story; that a person is quite different from their ‘official’ image – and other revelations of the kind are probably familiar to anyone who has seen the actual object/ individual after creating a certain idea of what they’re like based on second-hand sources. Unfortunately, the original often ends up being a disappointment – hyped up by the professionally edited photographs, a public awe and a resulting expectation of something otherworldly. This is why my visit to Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright was especially memorable – and pleasant: the experience of the actual building was indeed quite different, yet much more inspiring than what the already breathtaking photographs suggest.

In a way, this visit had a feeling of a pilgrimage – located about 360 miles (600km) from NYC, it required special planning and a dedicated weekend. Four brave GSA students interning in the City (Textile graduate Anna and the ‘Year Out’ Architecture students Neil, Lucy and I) decided to take up the challenge and go on a mini-roadtrip through New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – on a car we rented for the weekend. The plan sounded brilliant. However, we did not know one needs a credit (vs debit) card to get a vehicle – something we discovered on the day. We did not realize the drive would actually take most of our two-day trip – the destination looked much closer on the map (and we underestimated the size of the US in proportion). We were not prepared for two days of eating at Diners only (no more choices on the road). We were not aware how different NYC is from the rest of the country: at one of the Diners, the waitress asked where our accents were from, upon hearing that we were from “England, Scotland and Estonia”, she looked really astonished: “But what are you doing here? I’ve never had customers from outside this state!?!” The culmination of this ‘real USA’ experience was our stay in a Motel 6, just outside Pittsburgh, and the complimentary ‘coffee’ drink we got in the morning. Wow. If anything, going to Fallingwater was worth it just because of this cultural enlightenment. 

Morning at the motel, with Neil and Anna. Photo by Lucy

And yet the best part of the trip was the destination: what used to be a private retreat of the Kaufmann family and has now become a major sightseeing destination with guided tours running every 15 minutes. The building was indeed a bit smaller than what I had expected from photographs – especially inside with the famously low Frank Lloyd Wright ceilings – but the amount of carefully considered details and the variety of architectural experiences for a structure of this size was overwhelming. For some reason (black-and-white photos?), I was convinced the concrete structure was white – the actual colour came as a significant surprise and changed the perception of the building quite dramatically; I was even more startled when the Tour Guide mentioned that Frank Lloyd Wright had originally intended for it to be covered in gold-leaf (later, I found this tool showing all three options) The interior really did have a Japanese quality to it – and had a lot of overlaps with the designs by C.R.Mackintosh, as American visitors often point out during my own tours of the Glasgow School of Art building. When I asked the Tour Guide what he thought of the relationship (if any) between the two Architects, his answer was that of course Wright had copied a lot from Mackintosh - which is almost opposite of what we at GSA say as we refer to the fact there is no evidence suggesting they knew of each other’s work. Intriguing. 

The famous view

Overall, the visit was extremely inspiring as it allowed us to experience the ‘feel’ of the place that no photograph can achieve – especially so in a nature retreat full of smells, different textures and sounds (specifically that of the waterfall). The three hours we spent at Fallingwater were definitely worth the two day long pilgrimage. And I have reaffirmed my belief that visiting buildings in person is a must. 

Photo by Lucy