12 Facts About Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater

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Tucked away in the sleepy forests of southwestern Pennsylvania sits one of the world’s most famous buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Commissioned by wealthy department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann and completed in 1937, the home’s cantilevered tiers hang suspended atop a 30-foot waterfall—Wright’s ingenious way of melding the man-made structure with its natural surroundings [PDF]. Here are 12 facts about the work’s history and legacy.

1. FALLINGWATER HELPED FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT MAKE A COMEBACK.

Today, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) is revered as one of history’s greatest architects—but by the time he reached his late 60s, many critics considered him to be washed up. Wright had only built a few buildings in the previous decade, the Great Depression had diminished demand for new projects, and, adding insult to injury, his younger peers considered his style to be anachronistic. Kaufmann—whose department store, Kaufmann’s, was later incorporated into Macy’s—helped resuscitate Wright's career when he asked the architect to design a weekend home in the Laurel Highlands for his family.

Nobody quite knows how the Kaufmann family and Wright first became acquainted. However, we do know that Kaufmann’s son, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., admired the architect's work, and studied under Wright as an apprentice at his Taliesin Studio in Wisconsin. In 1934, the young student's parents visited Taliesin and met Wright in person. Shortly after, the Kaufmanns asked Wright to build Fallingwater.

With Fallingwater, Wright proved to the world that he wasn't quite finished yet, ushering in a final, fruitful period of his career. Near the end of his life, Wright designed a handful of other renowned works, including the Monona Terrace Civic Center in Madison, Wisconsin and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

2. FALLINGWATER’S CONSTRUCTION SITE WAS ORIGINALLY A “SUMMER CAMP” FOR KAUFMANN’S EMPLOYEES.

The site Kaufmann chose for his home was a swath of wilderness near the villages of Mill Run and Ohiopyle, on a mountain stream called Bear Run. Once upon a time, the wooded area had been home to a small cabin where Kaufmann’s employees sought refuge from Pittsburgh’s pollution. But once the Great Depression struck, the employees could no longer afford to travel there, so Kaufmann decided to convert it into a country getaway.

3. WRIGHT IS RUMORED TO HAVE SKETCHED FALLINGWATER’S DESIGN IN ONLY TWO HOURS.

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According to legend, Wright sketched Fallingwater in only two hours. In 1934, the architect visited the home's construction site and asked for an area survey. Then, he did absolutely nothing for nearly a year—until Kaufmann traveled to Milwaukee and called up Wright, announcing he’d be paying a surprise visit to his Wisconsin studio, Taliesin, to view the plans. Wright and his apprentices reportedly drew Fallingwater in the time it took his wealthy patron to drive to Taliesin.

Needless to say, Franklin Toker, author of Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America's Most Extraordinary House, is skeptical of this claim. “We want to believe drawing up Fallingwater needed only two hours, just as we want to believe—despite massive contrary evidence—that Lincoln scribbled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope,” he writes. “We don’t want to hear that Lincoln struggled through five drafts on his historic oration because that makes the speech less of a work of genius.” And in this case, one of Wright’s associates remembered Wright and Kaufmann discussing that the house would be built on the falls months before the supposed rush of inspiration.

4. THE KAUFMANNS DIDN’T KNOW THAT THEIR HOME WOULD BE BUILT ATOP A WATERFALL.

According to another legend (many of Wright’s apprentices disagree on key details of how Fallingwater was conceived, so learning the truth is difficult), Kaufmann thought that Wright would design the home on the banks of the river, facing the waterfall, so he was surprised when he looked at Wright’s plans and saw that his country estate would sit on top of it. Wright explained that he wanted to integrate the house with the waterfall so it would be an essential part of the structure instead of simply serving as a pretty backdrop. (You can’t actually see the waterfall from Fallingwater, but visitors can hear rushing water if they listen closely.)

5. FALLINGWATER'S INTERIOR IS DESIGNED TO RESEMBLE NATURE ...

Wright wanted Fallingwater’s interior to feel like the surrounding forest. The 5300-square foot home’s walls and floors are constructed of local sandstone; a rock outcropping is incorporated into the living room's hearth; each bedroom has its own terrace; and its cornerless windows open outward so windowpanes won’t interrupt visitors' view. There’s even a glass hatchway in the main level's floor that opens to reveal a staircase leading down to the stream below.

6. ... BUT ITS OUTSIDE WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE COVERED IN GOLD LEAF.

Wright opted for a rustic, natural look when he designed Fallingwater. Only two colors of paint were applied to the concrete, sandstone, glass, and steel structure—light ochre for the concrete, and Cherokee red for the steel. However, Wright originally envisioned a more flamboyant aesthetic: He proposed that the home’s concrete exterior be coated in gold leaf.

The Kaufmanns thought that gold leaf would be too over-the-top for a country house, and after rejecting Wright’s secondary proposal (a white mica finish), they settled on the ochre, which, according to Wright, was inspired by “the sere leaves of the rhododendron.”

7. FALLINGWATER STILL HAS ALL ITS ORIGINAL FURNISHINGS AND ARTWORK.

Wright didn’t just design Fallingwater—he also custom-designed its furniture. Around half of the furnishings were built into the house, which Wright said made them “client-proof” (i.e., unable to be removed and replaced with tackier/incongruous purchases). Today, Fallingwater is the only remaining home designed by Wright that still has its original furnishings and artwork.

8. FALLINGWATER HAS STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS.

Fallingwater is an architectural marvel, but it still has a few major flaws. Its skylights leak, the waterfall promotes mold growth (Kaufmann nicknamed Fallingwater “Rising Mildew”), and—even worse—the builders didn’t use enough reinforcing steel to support the first floor’s concrete skeleton.

Kaufmann had initial doubts about the technical feasibility of Wright's concept, and he hired consulting engineers to examine Wright's plans. They discovered that the main floor's girders needed additional reinforcement, but Wright dismissed this claim and forged ahead with construction.

Over time, gravity caused the home's first floor cantilever to sag, and in 2002, the structure’s foundation was reinforced to prevent a future collapse. In the process, the first level’s stone floor and furniture had to be ripped out.

9. FALLINGWATER WOULD BE WORTH MILLIONS OF DOLLARS TODAY.

Kaufmann's original budget for Fallingwater was somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000, but in the end, it and a guesthouse ended up costing the family $155,000. (This sum included $8000 worth of architect fees and $4500 for installed walnut furnishings.) That amount now translates to over $2.5 million after calculating for inflation.

10. FALLINGWATER RECEIVES THOUSANDS OF VISITORS PER YEAR.

Fallingwater remained in the Kaufmann family’s possession from 1937 to 1963. Edgar Kaufmann Jr. inherited the home after his father's death in 1955, and he later donated the home and its surrounding 1750 acres of land to a nonprofit trust called the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Nearly 5 million people have visited Fallingwater since 1964, and the home received more than 167,000 visitors in 2015 alone.

11. AYN RAND'S THE FOUNTAINHEAD WAS PARTLY INSPIRED BY WRIGHT AND FALLINGWATER.

Both Frank Lloyd Wright and Fallingwater are believed to have inspired writer Ayn Rand’s seminal 1943 novel The Fountainhead. Its protagonist, the iconoclastic architect Howard Roark, bears a striking resemblance to Wright, and several of the homes Roark designs for clients resemble Fallingwater. Toker even goes so far as to guess that the book’s title—which Rand changed from Second-Hand Lives to The Fountainhead—pays homage to Fallingwater, as both monikers are 12 letters long, begin with the letter “F,” and conjure the image of cascading water.

12. FALLINGWATER HASN’T MADE THE CUT FOR THE UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE LIST QUITE YET.

Fallingwater has received plenty of accolades and honors over the years. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1966, and in 1991, an American Institute of Architects poll voted it as the "best all-time work of American architecture." However, the home has yet to be added to the United Nations’s World Heritage List of significant cultural landmarks.

The U.S. Department of the Interior nominated 10 of Wright’s buildings (including Fallingwater, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and more) for inclusion in 2015. But last summer, a UNESCO committee decided they needed to review additional information before making a final decision. Their requests included a revised argument for why Wright sites should be considered to be of “outstanding universal value,” along with clarified specifics of how the individual properties would be managed.

Additional Source: Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America's Most Extraordinary House

Why 1 Million People Live in Cold War-Era Bunkers Under the Streets of Beijing

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iStock.com/Wenjie Dong

In Beijing, anywhere between 100,000 to one million people live underground in old bomb shelters. Dubbed the shuzu, or "rat tribe," these subterranean citizens occupy a cramped, musty, and windowless world located dozens of feet below the bustling streets of China's capital city. This extensive network of largely illicit bunker housing is unlike anything found in any other major metropolis in the world.

The roots of Beijing's invisible underworld were laid during what could be called the other Cold War. In 1969, tensions between China and the Soviet Union escalated, with the two communist-led countries clashing at the Sino-Soviet border. When Chinese troops ambushed Soviet border guards that year at Zhenbao Island—a disputed territory located in the middle of the Ussuri River separating northeastern China from Russia's Far East—the hostilities turned bloody, prompting both countries to prepare for a possible nuclear attack. In China, Chairman Mao Zedong advised his cities to build nuclear bomb shelters. Beijing responded by constructing approximately 10,000 bunkers.

By the late 1980s, China's government had started to liberalize and tensions with the Soviet Union had cooled, leading the Office of Civil Defense to lease these shelters to local landlords, who in turn began leasing the spaces to desperate migrant workers and young people. For many, living dozens of feet underground in a windowless bunker was the only way to chase their dreams of scaling the social ladder. That remains true today.

It’s a familiar tale: The cost of living in Beijing is high and still rising. With more than 21 million people now calling the city home, it is among the world’s most expensive places to live. The rising cost of rent far outpaces the average person's income, yet people continue to flock to the area because it brims with social and economic opportunity. “[W]ith limited access to public, affordable housing, nuclear bunkers are one of the few feasible options for migrant workers,” Ye Ming writes for National Geographic. A small, shared dorm in a concrete bunker can cost as little as $20 per month.

For many, the central location makes these bunkers worthwhile despite the lack of space and sunlight. As Annette M. Kim, an associate professor of public policy at USC, writes in the academic journal Cities, “[T]he priority for the lower-income, often migrant population in Beijing is for rental housing located in the central city. The ability to walk and/or bike to jobs as well as low rents, both of which allow for the possibility of accumulating savings, is worth making the choice to live in small underground rooms.”

As you might expect from a converted nuclear fallout shelter, the spaces have some of the basics—plumbing, sewage, and electricity—and very little of anything else. There’s no natural light, there's very little ventilation, and most amenities, such as kitchens and bathrooms, must be shared with neighbors. And while Ming reports that local law requires apartments to have at least 43 square feet per tenant, that rule is clearly not enforced. Some apartments might as well be closets.

But as Kim explains, super-dense housing conditions aren't unique to Beijing. “[T]his is not an idiosyncratic situation. History shows that immigrants coped by living in crowded basement units as well as tenements during the west’s rapid urbanization.”

The question is whether that trend should—or will—continue in the future. In 2010, the city announced a ban on residential use of nuclear shelters, but the decree has done little to stop people from making their homes there. “If it is desirable to not allow people to live underground, we are challenged with the task of finding other spaces for roughly a million people,” Kim writes.

For foreigners, it can be difficult to gain access to this underground shelter city. In 2015, the Italian photographer Antonio Faccilongo managed to sneak below, capturing life in the bunkers for a series entitled Atomic Rooms. For a look inside, you can view his work here.

Architect Creates Renderings of Frank Lloyd Wright Designs That Were Never Built

Frank Lloyd Wright designed more than a thousand works in his lifetime, but hundreds of his ideas were never built. One of those was the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, a tourist attraction commissioned in 1924. Now, thanks to new renderings by Spanish architect David Romero, you can get a better idea of what the proposed project might have looked like had it been completed, as Curbed reports.

Romero is the creator of Hooked on the Past, a project in which he translates plans for Frank Lloyd Wright's unbuilt designs into photorealistic scale renderings. He imports data and plans Wright drew up for the projects into modern modeling software in order to create the most accurate renderings possible of what these structures would have looked like. For the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective images, he collaborated with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which recently ran the images in its magazine, Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly.

A spiraling building on top of a mountain
David Romero

Intended to stand atop Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the plan for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective called for a planetarium and restaurant to accompany a scenic overlook. Its developer, wealthy Chicago businessman Gordon Strong, envisioned it as a destination where families would drive for the day from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The design shifted substantially from draft to draft. In some, it called for a dance hall instead of a planetarium; in another, a theater. He also designed in waterfalls, pedestrian paths, bridges, an aquarium, and a car showroom.

A rendering of a pedestrian bridge
The unbuilt Butterfly Wing Bridge
David Romero

Above all, it was to be a destination for drivers, as the name suggests, and visitors would have driven up to park along its spiral structure—similar to the one that would later come to life in the design of the Guggenheim museum, which Romero looked to as inspiration while translating Wright's failed plans into 3D renderings.

A rendering of a spiral-shaped building at night
David Romero

Romero also painstakingly researched the context and location of the building, including adding era-appropriate cars, traces of rain and dirt on the building, and other details in order to bring the project to life. As a result, at times it can be hard to tell these are illustrations rather than stylized photographs.

Romero has also created similarly detailed renderings of other unbuilt or demolished Frank Lloyd Wright projects, including ones that have long since been destroyed, like the demolished Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York and the burned-down Rose Pauson House in Arizona. You can see more here.

[h/t Curbed]

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