Fallingwater Turns 75. How Is It Still Standing?!

Frank Lloyd Wright’s career masterpiece is three quarters of a century old. The American Institute of Architects pays tribute with a comprehensive microsite that includes an interactive feature on Fallingwater’s (many) structural repairs.

Fallingwater has turned 75. Which is pretty amazing considering that the thing probably should’ve keeled over ages ago. Frank Lloyd Wright’s photogenic masterpiece was a structural catastrophe. Even before the client, Pittsburgh businessman Edgar Kaufmann, had a chance to move in, the famed cantilevered concrete balconies betrayed evidence of deflection. By the 1990s, the place had aged so badly, its sagging terraces were sorely obvious and cracks veined the parapet beams. Tests showed that the concrete was stressed to 95% of its failure strength.

All of which the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the society of professional architects, documents dutifully in a concise interactive graphic on the (many) structural repairs at Fallingwater. The graphic is part of a larger package honoring the house on its 75th birthday. It includes photographs, an interview with Fallingwater’s director, and glowing anecdotes from architects on what Fallingwater means to them.

In many ways, though, it’s the structural failures that tell us more about Wright—and the phenomenal boundlessness of his ego—than any doxology ever could. We learn, for instance, that Kaufmann had doubts about the building’s structural stability at the outset, so he tapped consulting engineers to vet Wright’s plans. Sure enough, they determined that the concrete and steel in the main floor girders needed at least double the proposed reinforcement. Wright balked mightily at the suggestion that his plans fell short; Kaufmann backed down. Years later, after Kaufmann’s son donated the house to a conservation society, preservationists had to sink millions of dollars into fixing what Wright refused to address early on.

First, to temporarily halt the deflection, a single line of steel shoring was installed, which required construction workers to divert the stream and drill anchor bolts into the waterway’s bedrock. Then to strengthen the cantilevers, entire swaths of the building had to be deconstructed. That gave workers ample room to pour concrete and install post-tensioning cables that are hydraulically tightened from the exterior, effectively relieving stress on the old girders. In short, an entire secondary structural system had to be invented to ensure that Fallingwater achieves the most basic imperative of a building: that it stands up.

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  • Jim Hunt

    I am a very big fan of FLW and have been for many years.  I have visited many of his buildings.  Yes, he was an egomaniac and a seriously flawed human being (see Brandon Gill's "Many Masks, a Life of Frank LLoyd Wright").  But then, many other geniuses also have had many human failings.

    None of that detracts (for me at least) from appreciating the man's unique and wonderful ability to form space and volumns in ways that most cannot define or replicate.  The majority of visitors to his buildings marvel at the way they make them feel as they walk through and around them.  He was a true master and visionary.

    Considering the amount of information that was available at the time of the design of Fallingwater regarding cantilevered concrete construction, it is truly amazing to me that this building even stood for five years.  The fact that it contains strucural flaws in no way decreases its beauty in form and proportion, both inside and out.

    I suggest we lay aside the negatives of the individual and structure and simply enjoy this masterpiece.

    We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Pennsylvania Conservancy for doing what was necessary to repair and preserve this wonderful building for future generations to experience and enjoy.

  • Isolabella

    Frank Lloyd Wright loved the land and tried to use the native elements in compositions and design to blend with nature by giving it 'pizzazz'. He was humble, allowing his clients liberal input to his designs.  How I wish to have been able to study with him.

  • Mlamp

    Frank Lloyd Wright was a true artist, designer and an architectual visionary in his time period (of which we all should be grateful.  Architects have been trying to out-do him ever since).  I do not think ego even came into play.  He was creating a master piece as an artist.

  • Eve Blossom

    One big reason Fallingwater is still standing is because of John Paul Hugeley. As As an engineer  student at UVA, he did his thesis on Fallingwater. When he did calculations of the building, he found that the building was structurally failing due to overstress on the first floor ( Then Robet Silman was called to confirm John Paul's findings and it was true...thank you John Paul!

  • Ozymandias

    Interesting take.  I'm an architect, and when I finally made the obligatory pilgrimage, about 6 years ago, the explanation offered by the guide was that the "contractor" thought that the amount of steel reinforcing that FLW was asking for was ridiculous (and I can so relate to this).  Whichever 'take' is accurate, (I'm with Frank .. ) the design is, in my opinion, one of the 'milestones' of architecture. Love it, or hate it, it's seminal. Go FLW!

  • Doug G

    It's often the egomaniacs who leave the greatest design statements upon the world.  I've been in three FLW buildings and experience all of them as among the most beautiful spaces I've interacted with.  Flaws or not, his work inspired architecture like no other person.

    In our more modern-day world, one could look at Steve Jobs as an FLW equivalent (though he also has a superb engineering mind). Personally, I think it takes somebody with an extremely strong ego to have a vision and take it all the way to completion - without compromise.

    Sometimes it's a home run (the i-anything), sometimes it's "almost" there - but misses a key component  (Fallingwater and structural engineering), and sometimes it's a complete flop. 

    But at least they tried, and our world is better for it.

  • Evan

    It is unfortunate in society today, one has to be the inflammatory egomaniac that is so commonly accompanied with the words genius. 75 years later we're still exclaiming the emperor has no clothes.  I often wonder it this behavior is a way of coping with such immense adversity.  After all, if Wright wasn't so good at lying, we may not have ever known his work.  Perhaps it wasn't Wright who needed to change but us.  We did change after all.  Despite the tabloids of the day and with forgiveness for Led Zeppelin'esque morals, Wright defined North American architecture. I'm sure he would argue that most homes of the 21st century still fallowing traditional methods should be lucky to survive as long as his falling water. 

  • Suellen Crowley

    Ego - OK.  But we have to believe in our own work no matter what anyone else says. How many times have we been told this or that just couldn't be done? How long do we believe the crap that is being built today will last? I can just see all that finger-jointed trim crumbling from a million homes all at once as if it was Judgement Day! LOL Hey - we don't REALLY know the lifespan of sheetrock!

  • Judy Mikeska

    No comment on the "asshole," as many creative artists are percieved as such.   The beauty of his work will be remember far more, as is this example.

  • Lanny1oh

    Falling Water is truly an amazing experience to see, smell, and hear and a dream setting and concept, but flw lacked the integrity, because of his ego,  that is necessary to create a functional, honest work---to design is to organize, to relate and to control. How does that leave any room for ego?                                     

  • Design Philistine

    FLW was about as big an asshole as they come.  I find it incredible that Kaufmann put up with him for more than one conversation.

  • JohnR Howard

    Frank Lloyd Wright was truly a Visionary and by far one of the most creative and innovative Architects of his era and for the next Century. Too bad his ego with a capital E skewed his recognition for the utilization of a structural engineer that could have allowed him to realize the structural integrity of his Genus without taking anything away from his unique creativity. Thank goodness the Architectural  and Historical Pros came to the rescue and preserved this wonderful creation.  Thanks for caring . . . 

  • Rich

    I was fortunate to attend the Fallingwater 75th Anniversary Gala on
    September 17th.
    What a majestic event!
    The setting was so spectacular that I actually proposed to my lady friend right there, that evening!
    A life-changing experience.

  • Hans Philip

    I went from Sweden to the US just to see this building twice. That says it all I guess..........................

  • Theo

    who cares about the flaws.
    its 75 years old! Considering the limited resources an amazing achievement.
    What an amazing design.

  • Cynj

    This place was built in my father's mother's home town, outside of Spring
    green Wisconsin, I believe. FLW was just like my grandfather, stubborn and full of vision.

  • Sameer_chadha

    For all his visionary qualities, flw had some seriousLy flawed traits. He was a bit like shakespeares macbeth, brimming with unbridled ambition, that would scratch his otherwise stellar star credentials. Rare to see on flw constructive critique and some investigative journalism!