Is Fallingwater Modern? Not According to the Wall Street Journal
Is Frank Lloyd Wright a Modernist? Is Fallingwater Modern?
I was stunned by one part of a short Q-and-A published May 7, 2011 in the Wall Street Journal, titled “What’s So Great About Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater?” It begins,
The fabled house Frank Lloyd Wright built for the Kaufmann family over a stream in southwestern Pennsylvania turns 75 this year. Below are bits of wisdom gleaned from ‘Fallingwater,’ a new book edited by Lynda Waggoner and with beautiful photography by Christopher Little.”
The second of four question-answers posed to the authors is,
“2. Is Fallingwater a work of modernism? No. Philip Johnson’s Glass House is a modernist building. Lever House is a modernist building. Fallingwater is modern in the sense that its form is untraditional, but not Modern in terms of belonging to a school of architecture like that propagated by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. It is a unique example of a path championed by Wright and not taken up by the field generally: a kind of streamlined, handmade, organic architecture that at the top of its list of goals relates to, and celebrates, nature. Fallingwater was seen as beacon and highly appreciated in its time—the first MoMA show devoted to this house was in 1938, and the accolades have continued ever since—but still almost everybody went the other way.”
Fallingwater, 1935, is a modern modernist modernistic building born of modernity. Its floor plan; asymmetry; the use of the same materials inside and outside; the alternating unornamented rectilinearity of powerful solids punctured and balanced by equally powerful voids; a rhythm as bold, as self-confident and as apparently indifferent to blending in with “nature” as Eileen Gray’s E1027, 1929; Walter Gropius’s “Master Houses,” at Bauhaus Dessau, 1926; Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, 1931; Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat, 1930; Richard Neutra’s Lovell Health House, 1929 … all unique, all speaking to an original way of thinking that fully exploits 20th century issues of freshly conceived spatial relationships; a newly kinetic interaction among outdoors, indoors, and human being; the radical importance of the diagonal view in which movement is implicit, countering the static view of the elevation view favored in the Renaissance or in the protocols of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, an elevation and view compounded by symmetry; what else … oh, yes, for Wright in particular, a daring exploitation of 20th century technology in that outrageously presumptuous cantilever stretching out Bear Run, a cantilever so literally eccentric, apart from its visual asymmetry, that decades later it required the world’s best structural engineers to restore.
Fallingwater was as handmade as any of the early Modern experimental structures that, while earnestly seeking the hallowed label of prefabrication, were largely handmade, with lumpy (handcrafted!) white stucco that was smooth only if you were two miles away. Like finally seeing a real Mondrian, with all of its beautiful “imperfections,” much of building today still remains “handmade” even when it means the final connections that make a building sing.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wasmuth Portfolios, published in Germany in 1910, were quite modern and startled all of Europe, who continued the implications of his ribbon windows, diminished ornament, “honest” use of materials, and above all his floor plans. These highly scrutinized drawings were indeed “taken up by the field generally.”
Like many of us, I imagine, I’ve pondered what, exactly, is “modern”? Is it capitalized, if so, under what circumstances. In historic preservation, “the Modern Movement” (Style No. 70) is a style; so is the “International Style” (Style No. 72.) One can also classify a building under Style No. 80, “Other,” or Style No. 90, “Mixed.” But is Modernism a style — a set of characteristic features?” If, for example, modern = flat roof, no wonder Harwell Hamilton Harris, that gentle protege of both Wright and Neutra who often pitched his roofs, was never invited to design a house for the postwar Case Study House series. If one considers Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s essay on Wright in “Modern Architecture International Exhibition,” pp. 29 – 37, published contemporaneously with the 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art unapologetically championing the International Style, one flinches at Hitchcock’s indictment, with very faint praise, of Wright’s place in Modernism, citing the “exuberance of the inappropriate ornament” in one case; and, more importantly, Wright’s isolation (“Behind Wright was only Sullivan.”) versus the hip cliques and, could one say, groupthink?, of like-informed Euros abroad. The “large areas of painted decoration on the upper surfaces [of the 1908 Coonley House] are less authentic and integral than the rambling functionalism and the native stone walls of Taleisin. Finally, “at the bottom they are classicists and he a romantic,” sticking him in the mid-nineteenth century with bosoms heaving picturesque and sublime. (One could argue that Mies was romantic, too, considering his search for the spiritual, the Platonic ideal form, the universal, in his work, a search that quickly shook off smaller minds intent on rigid adherence to a particular architectural platform. Mies didn’t get off scot-free, either: in the same book, Philip Johnson calls Mies, among other things, “a decorator in the best sense,” alluding to Mies’s “luxurious amounts of [high-end] materials,” employed with the “able assistance of his associate, Lilly Reich.”) But what might it mean to have “only” Sullivan behind one? Through his own connections and especially Dankmar Adler, his partner, Sullivan was connected to the German (!) intelligentsia, architects and engineers, who were slowly infusing the design of skyscrapers with imagination and precision. Sullivan trained at MIT and the Ecole, but nonetheless thought his way through all that influence to give us a deeply poetical understanding of the relationship between form and function. As a preservation specialist, at my work, I label buildings as Modern in style, and know it is important to do so because in that context the nomenclature serves as an anchor that can be elaborated. Privately, I struggled, especially when I began to read Walter Benjamin’s stringent, even anguished, writings on modernity. It struck me that Modernism was not a look or a set of feature but the questions an architect raised and how he/she resolved them. What is the architect critiquing, what value does that question have in light of a particular time, place, and set of circumstances? What alternatives does the architect propose? Each Modernist, I realized, had their own critique, their own relationship to cities, to politics, to nature — landscape, geography, light, air, sun, color — and to the role of technology and the promise, if any, of prefabrication. Unless Wright had something to critique, his architecture would not be known today. It would be accomplished, but not original. Not Modern.
I recently had a great talk with a friend, and we were agonizing and laughing over when to capitalize “modern” in addition to defining it. Like the early Modernists themselves, it depends on the context and the individual using the term. And later, on-line, while looking for something else (of course), I came across a great quote by Eric Owen Moss, F.A.I.A., the well-known architect, director of Sci-Arc, the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, holder of two M.Arch. degrees, who said what I had said, but better:
Remember the appendix to Hitchcock and Johnson’s International Style? Philip told us how we could all be modern architects. And NYMOMA was his enforcer. Just follow the rules. And that codification didn’t begin the modern era. That book and his exhibit ended modern architecture as speculation, and began modernism as style. Study. Learn. Replicate.