Set among trees, rocks and a waterfall, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater was a masterpiece beset with problems.
Jonathan Glancey tells its story.
Chicago, 16 October 1956. Frank Lloyd Wright, then the most famous living architect in the US, hosted a press conference at which he unveiled The Illinois, a mile-high skyscraper four times the height of the Empire State Building. Born 150 years ago this June, Wright was 89 at the time and, with the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum under construction on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, as radical and as provocative as he had ever been.
The name of Wright’s god began with an ‘n’: nature
The Guggenheim project, however controversial the form of the building, had endeared him to New York’s media, with Wright appearing on the popular TV quiz show What’s My Line? in June 1956. The following September, he was twice the subject of the smoke-laced Mike Wallace Interview. You can watch these on YouTube today. Compelling viewing, the crinkle-eyed Wright comes across as smart as a whip. It does seem remarkable that you can tune in to see and hear a man born 150 years ago talking with such relevance for the 21st Century across a broad spectrum of political, ethical and, of course, architectural concerns.
Wright was certainly a master of the one-line quip. He told a client who phoned to complain of rain leaking from the roof of her new house onto the dining table where she was sitting to “move the chair”. On seeing his lanky engineering assistant, William Wesley Peters, inside one of his latest and rather low-ceilinged houses, he said, “Sit down, Wes, you’re ruining the scale of my architecture”.
And when asked for his occupation in a court of law, he stated, “The world’s greatest architect.” When his wife remonstrated with him, he turned to her saying, “I had no choice, Olgivanna. I was under oath.”
Much of the furniture in Fallingwater, such as this living room, was built into the structure so its interior design would remain fixed
Despite the bravura urban projects in Chicago and New York and the media attention these gave him, the octogenarian Wright had no love for cities. The name of his god, he told Mike Wallace, began with an “n”: nature.
Designed to house 100,000 people, The Illinois was Wright’s way of attempting to curb urban sprawl, of trying to keep the city in its place and nature safe from its claws.
The Illinois was never built and Wright, in a career spanning three-quarters of a century, was to complete just one tall building, the 19-storey Price Tower opened in February 1956 in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.