|Saturday, October 28, 2023|
Harrisburg, PA, USA
ore than three and half decades ago, while in the undergraduate school of architecture back in Africa, the course, History of Architecture, took us back in time. We studied the works of many architects whose architectural designs and bodies of work have left indelible prints in the sands of time. Some that come to mind are Louis Sullivan, Ludwig Mies Va der Rohe and of course Frank Lloyd Wright.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, the Fallingwater, designed as a vacation home for Mr and Mrs. Edger J. Kauffman of Pittsburgh and constructed in Mill-Run Pennsylvania, became the centerpiece of the study of Wright’s work. It should be noted that in his lifetime, he designed more than 1,000 buildings, although several were never built. But of the ones built, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Taliesin West in Arizona, Fallingwater became his most famous. It has now been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with some other works of his.
The “horizontality” of the Fallingwater building structure, as well as its “organicness”, seemingly sprouting from the side of one of the Laurel Highlands’ escarpments, and blending subtly into the surrounding trees, became some of the features that made lasting impression in my young architectural mind then. I recall that after graduation and when I started designing buildings myself, the idea of horizontality in architectural design never left my mind. I was also always thinking in terms of Louis Sullivan’s phrase, coined in 1896 in an essay he wrote, that in architectural design, form follows function. This literally means that the purpose of a building should always influence the eventual concept. Frank Lloyd Wright must have been paying attention to Mr Sullivan because this thought is reflected in Wright’s design of Fallingwater. As a vacation home, the Edger Kauffman family wanted a place they could get away to, away from the hustle and bustle of Pittsburgh where they lived and be in tune as well as commune with nature. So, in consideration of that, Wright designed a building with ample windows and glass spaces, basically bringing nature into many, if not all parts of the building interior.
It was therefore with utmost nostalgia and expectation that I set out to Mill Run on October 26, 2023, from Harrisburg, a three-hour drive. I went with Alfred Junior, himself a practicing engineer, with the same interest I had in visiting the building.
Once we arrived, we quickly checked in and not long after, joined tour group 18. Tour of the Fallingwater had begun!
As we walked around, one of my first observations was that the walk paths were not paved but finished with pea gravel-like aggregate that basically allowed storm water to infiltrate on contact with the ground as against paving. That gave it a mild sustainability flair that delighted my heart as a sustainability buff.
Along the way, we came upon an outcrop of sedimentary rocks with their striated or layered disposition fully exposed. It dawned on me where the idea of the multiple use of stacked stones, arranged like pallets but mortared in place with cement, that characterized the whole building came from. This is part of the organic disposition that is always ascribed to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. He drew a fair amount of his design ideas and inspiration from nature and the surrounding escarpment. He masterfully but organically integrated a lot of the surrounding elements on the site into the building. The stacked stones that seemingly act as the “spine” of the building came from close by and most of the flooring of the building interior are flagstones that constantly reminds one of the exterior that is characterized by the ubiquitous presence of sedimentary and sometimes metamorphic rocks.
Everywhere I looked, as we toured the building, I saw elements of sustainability, something that continued to buttress the feeling I had about Wright and his buildings, decades ago. I felt that he was a man ahead of his time in the architectural design realm. Large swats of glass areas, with operable windows that could be opened to let in fresh air, directly provided both natural air and natural lighting into the building, very important features of sustainability.
Then I came face to face with one of the major features that not only influenced my young architectural mind but the design choices I made more than three decades ago. It was the bold and unabashed interplay of cantilevers everywhere. The many terraces that beautifully adorn the building and have given it the uniqueness it has till date, are masterfully cantilevered into the air, over the Bear Run, the stream that flows through the building. Those cantilevered terraces give the building an appearance of a structure floating over Bear Run, but sturdily socketed into the surrounding rock outcrop for stability and durability. Standing on the terraces, one feels a perpetual presence of the surrounding trees and nature at large. The interplay and unobstructed flow of the interior of the building into the exterior, giving the original owners the ability to commune with nature while still in the building, is frankly magical.
I have always loved cantilevers although I am aware of its added cost to a building. But that floating disposition it gives to a building always keeps it close to my heart. But I also know that cantilevers can sometimes, over the years, begin a downward descent by way of deflection because of gravity. I asked the tour guide if the cantilevers were still the way they had been when designed. She noted that there was a deflection of about 7 inches over the years but through rehabilitation work, some years back, which culminated in post tensioning some of the beam members that sustained the cantilevers, the cantilevers were restored back almost to where they were when originally built. Then I remembered a story I once read that during construction, some of the engineers were concerned about the cantilevers and asked to be allowed to add more iron bars. But when Mr Wright objected, the builders went ahead anyway and added some more bars without his knowledge. But I digress!
Enter the New Era – Solar Panels and Electric Charging Stations
In my current job, sustainability in design has become sine qua non- a requirement. It is a part of our strategic initiative. We consider that as we design our infrastructure, including deployment of solar panels for electricity and electric vehicle chargers. I was therefore elated when the Senior Director of Operations for the Fallingwater,- Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Mike Kuzemchak, told me that they had installed solar panels through a PPA arrangement that supplied about 25% of the needed electricity. I use this opportunity to thank him for his magnanimity in taking us to go and see the site of the installation of the banks of photovoltaic cells just less than a mile away from the Fallingwater. He mentioned that no trees were felled on the site for the installations.
I came away from the tour satisfied. I had eventually seen, firsthand, a structure I have admired from a distance for many years. I was equally impressed that the foundation is moving with time by continuing the legacy of sustainability that Wright set in his design almost a century ago by the use of solar panels and electric charging stations.