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Fallingwater
Every year I attend the ICMA conference I experience the same arc of thoughts from “I wouldn’t mind traveling more for business” to “Oh, God, I can’t wait to get home” and “I couldn’t deal with this on a regular basis.” No doubt the swelling ranks of travelers and the increasingly dysfunctional airline system (not to mention the distinct lack of room for those of us in the ‘big and tall’ category) have something to do with that. But, as much as I enjoy getting my head out of the community I serve for a few days to see and hear what’s going on elsewhere, I think I like being home more.

This year’s conference in Pittsburgh was no exception, an outcome guaranteed by arriving at my hotel only nine hours late.  But there were many high points – the opening session with Bill Strickland about his work with (and creating) the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and Bidwell Training Center in Pittsburgh, the closing session with Doris Kearns Goodwin on leadership and Abraham Lincoln (based on her best-selling book Team of Rivals), visiting the Cathedral of St. Paul and its pipe organ (see previous post) and, of course, making the pilgrimage to see Fallingwater.

The photo, above, is one I took during the tour on Tuesday.  No photos were allowed during the actual tour of the house, but you could take all the pictures you wanted of the exterior afterward.  Fallingwater was much smaller than I expected based on the photos I had seen (see “Steel City Countdown“).  But it occurred to me that all of the photos I had seen had no people in them to provide a sense of scale.  Given the swarms of people crawling all over the place the other day, this was not a problem in my photo.

Seeing Fallingwater in person I was also better able to appreciate that this is, despite being preserved as an architectural masterpiece, a work of art you can live in, still an old house prone to many of the problems of other old houses.  In Fallingwater’s case, as my friend Brian remarked recently, it was also affected by inadequate engineering of the cantilevered floors that create so much of the building’s visual drama.  Up close you can still see some sagging, though extensive renovation corrected much of it.  As fresh and modern as it still seems today, and as common as some of the techniques, materials, and design characteristics have become, I think it’s hard to appreciate just how “outside the box” Fallingwater was when it was built in 1936.  I also found Fallingwater oddly claustrophobic:  The guide attributed this to Wright’s dislike of hallways and using narrow interior passages and lowering ceiling heights toward the perimeter of room to create a sense of compression and expansion, drawing your attention outside to the natural surroundings.

The tour included a second Wright house, Kentuck Knob, built about twenty years after Fallingwater.  It’s located only a few miles away from Fallingwater and was designed for a couple who knew the Kaufmanns (Fallingwater’s original owners).  The prevailing sentiment is that Kentuck Knob is a much more livable house than Fallingwater, and I would have to agree.  It has the advantage of being twenty years newer (along with the improvements in building technology along the way) and, as one of Wright’s Usonian designs, was actually intended to be lived in day-to-day.  Still, seeing Fallingwater in person and being able to walk around in a visually arresting modern work of art would have been worth the trip all by itself.

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