A visit to Fallingwater, the famous creation of Frank Lloyd Wright, is a memorable experience. What captivated me was the prominent role that nature plays in this masterpiece.
In the early nineteen thirties, a wealthy Pittsburgh family, Edgar and Lillian Kaufmann, commissioned Wright to construct a summer retreat on their property of Bear Run, approximately two hours east of Pittsburgh. The area is heavily wooded, and continues to be relatively isolated to this day, without major towns nearby.
As is widely known, Frank Lloyd Wright chose an unusual place for the construction of the house, right over a small waterfall, literally suspended above the running waters. It was a daring decision with spectacular results. That is why architects and art lovers regard it as one of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century, and why it attracts countless admiring tourists to this day.
One would think that the magnificent forest that surrounds Fallingwater is the perfect setting for such a gem. Wright turned this idea on its head. The house, perched on a steep slope, is like a theater balcony from which you can watch the real show—nature in all its native glory. All the rooms in the house face the hill across the stream through ample windows. The view is unimpeded by any window treatment.
There are a few sound ecological features that were probably quite novel at that time. The back of the house is literally embedded in the stone wall. This natural insulation cuts down the need for heating. The running water of the waterfall beneath the house creates gentle air currents that circulate through it during the summer. There are vents and other special features cleverly arranged to maximize this cooling process.
The garden is nature itself, with native oaks, hickories, tulip trees and rhododendrons, growing freely. Even the small lawn is planted with grasses which require little or no mowing or other care. It looks beautiful as well as natural. I would like to say that the grasses are native, but I would be lying. They are a blend of fescue grasses from a company called Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin, according to Ann Talarek, the horticulture specialist of Fallingwater. She calls this lawn fondly “floppy lawn”. Native or not, it is still preferable to all the high-maintenance lawns we are so familiar with.
When Edgar Kaufmann bought the land in the 1920s, it was far from pristine. Logging had been going on for a number of years. American chestnuts, which used to be a significant component of the plant community, had been ravaged by the chestnut blight. Nonetheless, nature healed itself as best it could, and the forest retained its beauty.
In his own way, Edgar Kaufmann was a conservationist. However, non-native plants were widely accepted in those days. Following the advice of Pennsylvania forester V. M. Bearer, he planted Norway spruce trees to replace the American chestnuts. The Kaufmanns also grew a number of non-natives in their garden. The native flavor of the place persisted; but the intruder species were to cause unintended trouble later on.
After the Kaufmanns passed away, their son, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., declared that Fallingwater belongs to all humanity, and in 1963, in a magnificent philanthropic gesture, he gave it to the American public. Quite fittingly, he did not donate it to a historic or artistic organization but to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. It is a nature treasure as much as an architectural one.
Nowadays, the Pennsylvania Conservancy strives to restore nature at its best. It is sad to say that some of the-non native plants require constant control. The only allowance to non-natives is a wisteria, a plant rich in symbolism in China and Japan. This vine, with its perfumed flowers, graces one of the terraces.
Despite these difficulties, Fallingwater remains a symbol of the harmony between architecture and nature. The Director of Fallingwater and Vice President of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Lynda Waggoner says: “What better place than Fallingwater, with its remarkable marriage of site and building, to demonstrate both a new ecological aesthetic and deeper ecological understanding.” Cara Armstrong, Fallingwater’s curator of buildings and collections, adds: “Native is beautiful. We don’t have to be reaching out for exotic plants for some excitement in our lives.”
I agree with them. Fallingwater should serve as an inspiration to many gardeners. My only regret is that I haven’t visited the place in the spring, when the rhododendrons put on their display.
© 2012, Beatriz Moisset. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us