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.