“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” —Proverbs 29:18
In 1993 while living in the DC area, I signed up for a bus trip to Mill Run, Pennsylvania, where Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Falling Water is located. Despite all the pictures I had seen and books I had read, I was unprepared for that first breathtaking view of this magnificent structure. The bus had stopped after a long winding road and I walked to that spot where I saw that dramatic view of a woodland retreat with 3 levels cantilevered over a waterfall! According to the story, Mr Kaufmann, who had commissioned the house, was surprised that the house had not been built on the slope overlooking the waterfall, but Wright’s vision prevailed and the “Falling Water” was built right into the waterfall! As I sat there in total awe, I remembered reading that his mother had prepared a nursery for him before he was born with pictures of beautiful cathedrals and other works of art. She also commissioned a set of building blocks for him. Was she prescient and knew to surround him with beauty from the very beginning? What would it have been like to live in this house in total beauty? That question called me inside.
On the terrace of the main floor leaning over the parapet, I could feel the spray and hear the water falling on the pools and rocks below. In Wright’s own words, “Falling Water is a great blessing—one of the greatest blessings to be experienced here on earth. I think nothing yet ever equalled the coordination, sympathetic expression of the great principle of repose where forest and stream and all the elements of structure are combined so quietly, that really you listen not to noise although the music of the stream is there. But you listen to Falling Water the way you listen to the quiet of the country.” He knew was that beauty is itself a healing experience, and that beholding that beauty one becomes it, and there are no words to describe it when you are immersed in it.
Wright coined the phrase “organic architecture”; organic architecture integrates the home with the site, into a harmonious relationship. Falling Water is a striking example of the blending of the purpose of the home as a nature retreat and the materials of the surroundings—glass and stone. Even the furnishings and art work are part of the harmonious whole. The building is anchored in the cliffs at the back, and expands out through glass windows and doors that lead to the first floor terrace on the other. There are no frames on the windows and no partitions between the rooms, which opened from one to the other creating a feeling of openness inside expanding out into total oneness with all that is.
Wright believed that one can not build a beautiful building unless it comes from the human heart. The hearth is the heart of the home and the hearth in Falling Water was built on a boulder the Kaufmanns had used for sunbathing. The hearth was where the family and friends gathered for quiet conversation in a sense of shared warmth. Referring to the Declaration of Independence, and its guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Wright felt that we must build something that expresses our own heart, and our love of life unlike the contemporary boxes that separate us from nature. He said that we must get back to ourselves and live in harmony with our environment. In Falling Water, when I heard the water cascading over the rocks and felt the spray of the waterfall, I felt the oneness that Wright was attempting to convey.
Nature was his church. He believed that nature was God’s only visible body. All was secondary to his vision of all life. Every structure he created, private or public, was designed for its function and served to dignify the activities and enlighten those who lived, worked or gathered there.
Throughout the 50 years of his career, he explored many different types of structures, but in all that he created we find originality, dramatic beauty and a harmony of purpose, function and materials.
For years after this experience at Falling Water, I longed to find one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes that was for sale within my budget. How naive was that! However, my present home which I bought for the view through dense trees to the lake below gives me some sense of harmony with the environment, and I have savored the experience of going out onto the deck that extends out over the house to watch the birds, the waves on the lake, and the cats chasing bugs.