Though I wrote this piece several years ago, I think the questions are still timely.
In an issue of the New York Times, Fred Bernstein wrote about structural problems with one of the most recognizable buildings in this country, a house called Fallingwater. Built in 1936 by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, this structure does indeed perch over a water fall. Surprisingly, both the house and water are enhanced by the placement, just as Wright intended. Cantilevers thrust the house into space echoing the water as it changes levels over the rocks. The effect is stunning. The effect may end soon.
The house is in danger of succumbing to gravity and tumbling down the cliff just as the water does because of the shortsightedness of one of this century’s great visionaries. Wright’s prickly personality was well known. He hated to be told what to do to the point of being a contrarian. As a result of this sort of hubris, his masterpiece is in danger of becoming a pile of broken concrete at the bottom of the cliff it now leans over. When the contractor who was building the house suggested that there was not enough steel in the structure to support the weight of the concrete, Wright had one of his artistic snits and threatened to quit. Wright eventually got his way, or so he thought. Now nature is having hers, even though when Wright wasn’t around, the contractor sneaked twice as much steel into the structure as Wright called for. Despite this secret shoring, the concrete, which usually stabilizes in a year, continues to bend. The cantilevers droop lower and lower. Without buttressing the layers of flying concrete will eventually no longer be able to support themselves.
It is a temptation to consider the possibility that it was Wright’s plan that art imitate nature to the ultimate degree at Fallingwater. That the structure would eventually follow the water as it seeks a lower level. Such thinking requires a stretch, a large stretch. A stretch which would have to account for other Wright design flaws like flat roofs that leak and furniture that is striking in situ, but horrible to sit upon.
As I read Bernstien’s article, I smirked at one comment a visitor made about Wright. He said, “It’s surprising that as good an architect as Wright screwed up.” I thought to myself, “Humph, this guy expects him to be perfect.” Yet, in thinking about Wright and composing this exercise, that’s exactly what I caught myself doing. While I’m interested in Wright and his work, it is the problems with Fallingwater which caught and held my attention.
Like all those we admire and label “Great” or “Genius”, when we strip away the cloak of their achievements, we very likely find the inconsistencies and paradoxes the rest of us labor under. Why then, do we expect perfection in all aspects of their lives? Why then do we gloat when we find their humanity? Perhaps the difference is that those whose achievements and lives rise above the rest, manage to disentangle themselves enough from the mundane to soar. Their genius is risk that succeeded.