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.

8 Responses to “Is Fallingwater Modern? Not According to the Wall Street Journal”
  1. Christopher Samuelian says:

    Well, said, Barbara, I think that Modern is cut from the past–it is chained to the present–and our present is the introduction of new materials, at least with regard to look and feel, so this look has outstripped cultural mores and imagery/ornament. Wright’s blocks abstracted nature and perhaps his proportions framed or mimicked nature, but I don’t know if his ornamentation was so repugnant–while not my cup of tea–at least he tackled how to reduce scale for architectural elements once we were cut from a Greek/Roman/Gothic/Egyptian/Etruscan past and confronted wtih what? Math and jazz and tons of dead people with “modern” weapons.

    Mies’ materials were not about ornamentation directly (according to his quote*) but were instruction to an industry accelerating its quantity well ahead of quality (this was acute in Germany during the time of the World Fair) Both seemed to tackle it fairly well, but Wright was just a bit heavier as he was a product of masonry and chthonic considerations–probably more so than Mies.

    Wright is a little bit country; Mies is a little bit rock and roll. Each is modern, though.
    *Banham [TADITFMA]


    • Chris, don’t know whether I quite understand the reference to industry …thanks much for reading. My whole manuscript is on scale, essentially — that unpublished beast on ornament, so it’s interesting to me that you so get that about Wright.


  2. orhan ayyuce says:

    I always think that aesthetic of modernist architecture is a direct result of mechanical reproduction. Other modernisms in other fields are also. Wasn’t the manufacturing, serial production created the surplus trade and incorporated the agrarian society? The rest is ‘result.’ Modern lines were just the doctor ordered for serial production. It is easier to look, at least for me, early ‘trophy’ examples of this aesthetic are done even the technology wasn’t sufficient. Just like today, Greg Lynn’s rubber walls are x-acto blade cut and gluegunned together. It is getting the idea done with whatever means necessary. Fallingwater is a an antihithesis to serial manufacturing even though it uses steel, concrete, glass and etc.. But so are the many new buildings we see today. If Fallingwater is not modern, neither EOM’s cartoonish buildings..
    Interesting technology making its way into architecture today is robotics. Architecture is fairly new to this technology that has been around for many decades. A robot can be ‘many factories’ with the computational input. The critique of it however, this freedom is still used to create unmodern works like heavy handedly developed formal expressive architecture and sculptural escapades. We supposed to and eventually use the new technology for new architecture, not the variations of the same dead end street of ruling class spatiality. I degress before the conversation goes where it should really go; politics of space and its production.


    • Yes, robotics and its related freedoms are interesting; Cadcam makes Loos’s protest against the labor/cost of ornament moot. But I hope you expand on the “same dead end street of ruling class spatiality.” If you have written about it, or would like to point to a link, that would be welcome.


  3. orhan ayyuce says:

    I was referring ‘Towards A New Architecture’ (ie; leaders of the industry) in a backhanded way and drawing attention to notion of operational clientele of architects. In fact, large percentage of architecture has not reached to bigger part of society after 150 years. I think there is a political argument behind that most architects avoid to discuss. Maybe I have seen too many 10,000 sq. ft. homes for two people that get a lot of exposure in publications people study, learn and replicate.


  4. Alan Hess says:

    Wow — startling how many facts this quote overlooks. Do we attribute it to the success of the International Style PR machine? I thought it was pretty thread-bare by now. She ignores Organic architecture’s pretty powerful proponents besides Wright, from H.H. Harris to Anshen & Allen to Elizabeth Gordon. And before Sullivan were Frank Furness and H.H. Richardson, rooted pretty deeply in American culture. Oh well, you make a good defense — it’s just disappointing that it is needed in 2011.

    My only hope is that the Murdoched WSJ is misquoting her.


    • Good points, Alan … and I’m not even a born-and-bred Wright fan, in fact a lot of the time not. As you suggest, perhaps Hitchcock Barr Johnson’s accompanying book-catalogue to the show, so lay oriented, is part of that. But you’ll also recall Wright called Neutra’s work “cheap and thin” … which if you think about it was exactly the goal!, and nothing to be ashamed of. And we haven’t even talked about Japan …


  5. david netto says:

    Sorry I’m late to the party here…

    I think it should be pointed out there are several ways to talk about architecture. Also, the context matters. In the WSJ, which is not the JSAH or the Zeitschrift fur Kunstgeschichte, one confronts an audience of exceptionally high intelligence but possibly not as high levels of interest. One wants to tell them something of value before the room empties out and crickets kick in (and in a limited allotment of space, too).

    As the author of the Fallingwater piece you found so wanting, I happen to disagree with your interpretation of what I said in it. Since you reproduce the quote intact it seems a little silly to repeat, since I already said it there–but yes, Fallingwater is a modern building. Who would disagree? However, it really is a fair assumption that most people today who are non-architectural historians, when talking about modernism, mean Mies. I’m leaving out all the capitals this time.

    Explaining to readers that Fallingwater does not belong to a school of architecture and has no ‘progeny’ is not to say that about Wright in general, or to imply that I’m unaware of Loos, Richardson, Sullivan, Magonigle, and the other fellows. But if you have a paragraph to say what Fallingwater is, and what it isn’t–to a reader who might hear the term modernism and picture UN Plaza–saying that it isn’t a modernist building, and referencing that Miesian definition, is perfectly fair.


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