Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen numerous attempts – notably from GE and the Siebel Foundation – to create a “zero energy house” that could be used as a template for others. Most acknowledge or draw from traditions of “organic architecture”, a term coined by Frank Lloyd Wright to describe homes which united seamlessly with the nature of the site on which they’re built.
For someone with such hippy ideals, Lloyd Wright was forever hustling for larger and more prestigious projects, and the best known – Fallingwater – was no exception. Created as a vacation home for one of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest families – the Kaufmanns, whose wealth came from their department store – Fallingwater is now owned by a conservation trust and is generally lauded as the greatest of Lloyd Wright’s many achievements. It’s way out in western Pennsylvania and sufficiently popular that you’ll likely be allocated a visiting time at an ungodly hour, especially since Angelina Jolie boosted its popularity by surprising Brad Pitt with a private tour for his birthday. Thankfully, you can spend the night at one of the more modest Frank Lloyd Wright houses in the surrounding countryside, complete with tiny bathrooms and old school kitchens. The one that I stayed in was approached by a road that turned to dirt a few miles before the house emerged in a clearing. There’s not much out there beyond deer – which amble close to the house – and trees, and this is probably how Frank Lloyd Wright intended it.
Fallingwater is a whole other kettle of fish. Clinging impossibly to the edge of a 30’ waterfall, it is instantly recognizable and the cantilevered concrete design is still considered revolutionary. The stone for the house came from a local quarry, albeit for reasons of expediency rather than sustainability, and it’s very much a study of its time in other ways. Walking through it, you realize how much our society has changed. It is relatable neither to the rich of today (no trophy art, nor frivolous accoutrement, both of which Lloyd Wright frowned upon) nor to regular folk (“why’s the kitchen so small?” was one common question).
The plans were presented to the long-suffering Kaufmann at Taliesin; Lloyd Wright loved to put on a good show for clients, and his summer home and studio in Wisconsin was the perfect backdrop. In his later years, Lloyd Wright migrated west in winter to Taliesin West in Arizona, his entire school traversing the country with him in a fleet of black cars that Lloyd Wright could ill afford. He so prized the spectacular view from his winter home that he threatened to move once the lights of a growing Scottsdale began to appear in the valley below at night.
It’s still one heck of a view, and still a school functioning in much the same way that it did in Lloyd Wright’s day. Students rotate through duties, such as, cleaning and decorating the communal dining room. Recently, a group of students reinstituted the tradition of gathering weekly in the home’s modest living room, dressed in black tie for an evening of discussion.
The tradition of organic architecture also continues, in part in the green buildings that Taliesin West students can build for themselves in the expansive grounds, some of which are being used as templates for other developments. Fallingwater is also set to host eco-cottages, carved into hills in the grounds.
As to the GE and Siebel Foundation experiments, both appear to have gone the way of many a grand architectural vision and disappeared, for the moment at least.