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1.7: Modern Architecture

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    1.7 Modern Architecture

    Frank Lloyd Wright,  Fallingwater (aka Kaufmann Residence), Bear Run, Pennsylvania (photo: Carol M. Highsmith archive, Library of Congress #LC-DIG-highsm-04261)

    Image 1.31 Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater (aka Kaufmann Residence), Bear Run, Pennsylvania (photo: Carol M. Highsmith archive, Library of Congress #LC-DIG-highsm-04261). CC0.


    Perched above a mountain cataract on a rocky hillside deep in the rugged forest of Southwestern Pennsylvania, some 90 minutes from Pittsburgh, is America’s most famous house. The commission for Fallingwater was a personal milestone for the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, since it clearly marked a turning point in his career. After this late-career triumph, the sixty-seven year old would go on to create a series of highly original designs that would validate his claim as “The world’s greatest architect of the nineteenth-century.”

    The mid-1930s were among the darkest years for architecture and architects in American history; the country’s financial system had collapsed with the failure of hundreds of banks. Almost no private homes were built. Many of the architectural projects started during the boom of the late 1920s were halted for lack of funds. Now in his sixties, Wright and his new wife Olgivanna were struggling to keep Taliesin, his Wisconsin home and studio, out of foreclosure. Worse still, his peers were beginning to regard Wright as an irrelevant anachronism whose time had passed.

    In 1932 Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson opened the "Modern Architecture: International Exhibition" at the newly founded Museum of Modern Art in New York and simultaneously published the book International Style. This was, perhaps, the most influential architectural exhibit ever mounted in the United States and the book became a manifesto for modern architecture and would profoundly affect almost every major architectural project worldwide for the next 30 years. It focused on the work of four great “European functionalists”" Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and J.J.P. Oud. Wright was largely snubbed.

    Hitchcock had praise for his early work, for its “many innovations," but he condemned Wright for a “[l]ack of continuity in his development and his unwillingness to absorb the innovations of his contemporaries and his juniors in Europe.” Hitchcock insulted Wright further by characterizing him as “a rebel by temperament… [who] refused even the discipline of his own theories.” The catalogue calls Wright a “half-modern” throwback, one of the “last representatives of Romanticism.” Wright responded by denigrating European Modernism as an “evil crusade,” a manifestation of “totalitarianism.”


    The Wrights devised an architectural apprenticeship program that came to be known as the “fellowship.” And among the first candidates was Edgar Kaufmann Jr. who became enamored with Wright after reading his biography. Kaufmann was the son of Pittsburgh department store tycoon Edgar Kaufmann Sr.; whose thirteen story downtown Pittsburgh emporium was reported to be the largest in the world. Kaufmann senior was no stranger to architectural pursuits—he was involved in numerous public projects and built several stores and homes. Kaufmann let Wright know that he had several civic architectural projects in mind for him. He and his wife Liliane were invited to Taliesin and were duly impressed.

    There are varying accounts regarding the circumstances that brought Kaufmann to offer Wright a chance to design a “weekend home” in the country; but we know that Wright made his first trip to the site on Bear Run, Pennsylvania in December, 1934. Wright’s apprentice Donald Hoppen has spoken of Wright’s “uncanny sense of...genius loci” (Latin for "spirit of the place") and from the very beginning, the architect rejected a site that presented a conventional view of the waterfall; instead, he audaciously offered to make the house part of it, stating that the “visit to the waterfall in the woods stays with me and a domicile takes shape in my mind to the music of the stream.” The South-southeast orientation gives the illusion that the stream flows, not alongside the house, but through it.

    A floorplan of Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright home.

    Image 1.32 Fallingwater Floorplan (Arsenalbubs: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication),


    Image 1.33 Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater, steps to stream (aka Kaufmann Residence), Bear Run, Pennsylvania (photo: Daderot, CC0 1.0)


    Perhaps the most famous tale to come out of the lore of Fallingwater is the improbable story that Wright, after receiving the commission procrastinated for nine months until he was forced to draw up the complete plans while his patron was driving the 140 miles from Milwaukee to Taliesin. However, the essential story is validated by several witnesses. Apprentice Edgar Taffel recalled that after talking with Kaufmann on the phone, Wright “briskly emerged from his office...sat down at the table set with the plot plan and started to draw…The design just poured out of him. 'Liliane and E.J. will have tea on the balcony…they’ll cross the bridge to walk in the woods…' Pencils being used up as fast as we could sharpen them....Erasures, overdrawing, modifying. Flipping sheets back and forth. Then, the bold title across the bottom ‘Fallingwater.’ A house has to have a name.” There seems to be agreement that the whole process took about two hours.

    Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater (Edgar J. Kaufmann House), Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 1935, Color pencil on tracing paper, 15-3/8 x 27-1/4 inches, , © The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

    Image 1.34 Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater (Edgar J. Kaufmann House), Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 1935, Color pencil on tracing paper, 15-3/8 x 27-1/4 inches, , © The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation CC0.


    Edgar Kaufmann Jr. pointed out that Wright’s famous concept of “Organic Architecture” stems from his Transcendentalist background. The belief that human life is part of nature. Wright even incorporated a rock outcropping that projected above the living room floor into his massive central hearth, further uniting the house with the earth. “Can you say” Wright challenged his apprentices “when your building is complete, that the landscape is more beautiful than it was before?”

    In his book, Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America's Most Extraordinary House, Franklin Toker wrote that, ”this delicate synthesis of nature and the built environment probably counts as the main reason why Fallingwater is such a well-loved work. The contouring of the house into cantilevered ledges responds so sympathetically to the rock strata of the stream banks that it does make Bear Run a more wondrous landscape than it had been before.”

    Photo of Frank Lloyd Wright Fallingwater home taken from inside living room. Looks outside of window to the trees in the woods.

    Image 1.35 Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater (Edgar Kauffmann House), Bear Run, Pennsylvannia, 1937 (photo: Lykantrop) CC0.

    Wright further emphasizes the connection with nature by liberal use of glass; the house has no walls facing the falls, only a central stone core for the fireplaces and stone columns. This provides elongated vistas leading the eye out to the horizon and the woods. Vincent Scully has pointed out that this reflects “an image of Modern man caught up in constant change and flow, holding on…to whatever seems solid but no longer regarding himself as the center of the world.” The architect’s creative use of “corner turning windows” without mullions causes corners to vanish. Wright even bows to nature by bending a trellis beam to accommodate a pre-existing tree.

    A tree going through the roof of a home.

    Image 1.36 Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater, detail with tree (Edgar J. Kaufmann House), 1937 (photo: Daderot, CC0 1.0)


    Although he denied it, Wright was influenced by every conceivable architectural style, but Fallingwater owes little to his previous designs (the only exceptions being perhaps the use of irregular stones that are also found on Taliesin and his interest in strong horizontal lines). At Fallingwater, he appears to be more concerned with responding to the European Modernist design that he had in part inspired—but that had since eclipsed him. In effect, he set out to beat the Europeans at their own game, using elements of their idiom.

    Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, competition entry for the Chicago Tribune Tower, 1922, perspective drawing, 22.5 x 13.3cm, gelatin silver print sheet (Harvard Art Museums)

    Image 1.37 Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, competition entry for the Chicago Tribune Tower, 1922, perspective drawing, 22.5 x 13.3cm, gelatin silver print sheet (Harvard Art Museums)

    We see, for example, inspiration drawn from the balconies of Gropius’ design for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition, though instead of the stark white of the International Style, he paints his balconies a warmer, earthen tone in deference to nature and perhaps the Adobe dwellings of the American Southwest.


    The Kaufmanns loved Wright’s radical proposal to literally suspend the house over the waterfall. But Edgar Kaufmann Sr., ever the pragmatic business man (who had also studied engineering for a year at Yale) prudently sent a copy of Wright’s blueprints to his engineer; who found the ground unstable and did not recommend that he proceed with the house. Wright was not happy with his client’s lack of faith, but permitted an increase in the number and diameter of the structure's steel reinforcements—Kaufmann agreed to proceed. Its worth noting that the engineer’s warnings later proved valid, an issue that “haunted” Wright for the rest of his life.

    Historic American Buildings Survey Cervin Robinson, Photographer, 18 August 1963 EXTERIOR FROM SOUTHWEST - Frederick C. Robie House, 5757 Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, IL 5 x 7 inches (Library of Congress HABS ILL,16-CHIG,33--3)

    Image 1.38 Historic American Buildings Survey Cervin Robinson, Photographer, 18 August 1963 EXTERIOR FROM SOUTHWEST - Frederick C. Robie House, 5757 Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, IL 5 x 7 inches (Library of Congress HABS ILL,16-CHIG,33--3) CC0.

    Wright is famous for pushing the architectural envelope for dramatic effect. We see this is in the vast cantilevered wooden roof of Robie House in Chicago. In Fallingwater he chose ferro-concrete for his cantilevers, this use of reinforced concrete for the long suspended balconies was revolutionary. He boldly extended the balcony of the second floor master bedroom soaring six feet beyond the living room below.

    Full page photograph of Fallingwater. A home built into a waterfall surrounded by trees.

    Image 1.39 Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater, steps to stream (Edgar J. Kaufmann House), Bear Run, Pennsylvania (photo: Daderot, CC0 1.0)

    However, due to the lack of proper support, cracks began appearing in the balcony floors soon after they were poured. Over the years since, cracks have been repeatedly repaired as the cantilevers continued to sag. By 2001 some of the 15 foot cantilevers had fallen more than 7 inches. To avoid a complete collapse, an ingenious system was devised using tensioned cables to correct the problem and stabilize Wright’s masterwork.

    Almost from the day of its completion, Fallingwater was celebrated around the world. The house and its architect were featured in major publications including the cover of Time Magazine. Over the years its fame has only increased. According to Franklin Toker, Fallingwater’s most important contribution to Modern Architecture is surely the "acceptance of Modern architecture itself."

    Frank Lloyd Wright is regarded by many as the greatest American architect. In his effort to develop an American style of architecture, he designed over 1,100 buildings. Wright is most noted for developing the distinctive Prairie School style of architecture.

    Born in Wisconsin in 1867 to a teacher and a minister/musician, Wright grew up feeling a strong connection to nature. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study civil engineering but left school after two years to begin work as an architect. Early in his career, Wright had the chance to spend five years working for Louis Sullivan, who was highly regarded for his work designing skyscrapers. Sullivan’s belief that form follows function was highly influential on Wright as well as other architects.

    The Prairie School style developed by Wright focused on single-story homes made of local materials. Wood was an especially important element and was often left unpainted and natural. Key buildings designed by Wright included his own home and the Robie House in Chicago, Fallingwater near Pittsburgh, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Wright passed away at age 91 in 1959.


    Buildings for commerce have appeared over time. Early systems of trade and barter in some places eventually became formalized in ways that required marketplaces and commercial establishments with temporary or permanent housing. While open-air markets with vendor stalls continue to be used in many places, in others shops or full buildings evolved for commercial and service transactions. Our modern provisions for shopping centers and department stores were designed with different ideas about merchandising, sales, and consumerism but, as we have seen with the rapid rise of on-line shopping for durable and perishable goods, this scenario will likely be ever evolving. Indeed, grocery and department stores may become completely passé. But their development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries presented new possibilities for architectural design. An example is the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Store in Chicago, designed by Louis Sullivan (1856-1924, USA) and built in 1904. One of the early applications for steel frame, or “skeleton frame,” construction that made the development of skyscrapers possible, this sort of building also opened new possibilities for retail and office space. Here, the large ground-floor windows and corner entrance could provide a great deal of display space for attracting pedestrians while the expansive multistory interior offered shoppers a wide array of goods, especially compared to the sorts of small shops and markets that had been its predecessors. Not only the structure but also the decorative approach was innovative, as Sullivan combined Beaux Arts ideas with Art Nouveau motifs in the building’s surface design. The elaborate, curvilinear, plant-based motifs central to the Art Nouveau movement, c. 1890-1910, in cast metal relief panels above the doors and ground floor windows added to visual appeal for potential customers. New designs emerged for other commercial firms in this era as well. The Austrian Postal Savings Bank in Vienna, Austria, designed by architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918, Austria) has a huge multi-story façade covering a broad open interior space on the ground level; its sleek and modern aesthetic was startlingly new and different when it was completed in 1905.

    Photograph of the northwest entrance to the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company building.

    Image 1.40

    One of Wagner’s aims in the design was to create a sense of strength and solidity that engendered trust and a feeling of financial security in customers. The main banking customer area is filled with natural light. Wagner used marble, steel, and polished glass for the simplified decoration of the reinforced (Image 1.36) concrete building, turning away from the Art Nouveau aesthetic and replacing it with his sense of modernism.

    The use of steel and reinforced concrete that facilitated the advent of the skyscraper truly revolutionized architecture and began a contest for height that continues today. Wealthy entrepreneurs and ambitious developers from around the world have joined in the competition for buildings of modern distinction. One example is the Chrysler Building in New York City, designed by William van Alen (1883-1954, USA). (Image 1.38) Its décor in the Art Deco style (c. 1920-1940), including the ribbed, sunburst pattern made of stainless steel in the building’s terraced crown, celebrates American industrialism and the automobile. At 1,046 feet, the Chrysler Building was for eleven months after its completion in 1930 the tallest in the world. (It was surpassed in 1931 by the Empire State Building at 1,454 feet.) A more recent example is the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, designed by César Pelli (b. 1926, Argentina, lives USA). (Image 1.37)

    Photograph of the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia.

    Image 1.41

    Inaugurated in 1999, they were the tallest buildings for several years and remain the tallest twin towers to this day. The buildings’ design motifs are inspired by Islamic art and culture; for example, the shape of each tower is the Muslim symbol of Rub el Hizb, or two overlapping squares that form an eight-pointed star. Both structures house commercial and business concerns and symbolize the architecture of modern business. In the late twentieth century, architectural ingenuity, new materials, and the potential of computer design led some architects to develop radically innovative approaches to structures that might house any number of different types of needs. Among the most innovative in this regard is Frank Gehry (b. 1929, Canada, lives USA), who has designed buildings all over the world including museums, business towers, residences, and theaters. In Los Angeles, he created the Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in 2003. (Image 1.39)

    Photograph of the top of the Chrysler Building in New York City.

    Image 1.42

    Using titanium sheathing for multiform, swooping curvilinear forms and volumes, Figure 7.37 his buildings are sculptural in effect from a visual standpoint. Yet in each case, his buildings have proven effective and dynamic in creating spaces for the activities they house. The acoustics of the concert hall are widely praised as is the beauty of the architectural form in capturing the whimsical spirit of Walt Disney, the creator of so many American comics, cartoons, and movies.

    Photograph of the outside of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA.

    Image 1.43

    Remixed from:

    Ella Howard. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America. CC BY 3.0.

    Sachant, Pamela; Blood, Peggy; LeMieux, Jeffery; and Tekippe, Rita, "Introduction to Art: Design, Context, and Meaning" (2016). Fine Arts Open Textbooks. 3. CC BY SA.