I think it’s only fair that I illustrate this piece with a picture of Shostakovich–after all, I used not one, but two of my photos of Fallingwater to illustrate a piece a couple of days ago, on a book about Shostakovich. But it goes beyond that. It’s well known that Shostakovich did a significant amount of his work while staying at various retreats/country houses/resorts/dachas. This particular drawing, by artist/composer Arkady Mazayev, dates from 1943, when Shostakovich was working on the Eighth Symphony (I like to think it’s the fourth movement). He’s not a composer particularly associated with illustrating “nature” in his compositions (except maybe the semi-infamous Song of the Forests, one of those pieces he produced while he was under one of the periodic dark clouds of official sanction), although I’d argue that he paints as atmospheric a scene as you might wish in the Eleventh Symphony. But certainly he appears to have greatly valued the ability to get away from city life. Shostakovich said of the house in Ivanovo (depicted above): “The house was located on the bank of a tiny little river that dried out in the hot season. Around – wide fields, groves, and far away – large forests, to the end of which we never managed to reach. ” In 1943, it was more than just a retreat from the city–it was a retreat from the threats of the ongoing war.
The Kaufmanns, Edgar Sr. and Lilliane, also enjoyed getting away from gritty Pittsburgh in the 1930s. They had established a sort of camp for the workers of the department stores they owned in the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania, and had a favourite picnic spot nearby a waterfall on Bear Run. Edgar, Jr. had apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin, and introduced his parents to the architect. They asked him to design a summer house to be situated by this waterfall, and the result was perhaps the most acclaimed piece of domestic architecture of the 20th century–Fallingwater. But instead of placing the house opposite the waterfall, Wright put the house on the waterfall, and designed it to evoke its environs with the use of local materials and an innovative, cantilevered design.
It’s an iconic building, seen in thousands of photographs. It’s easy to think you know what it means by looking at these images, but you don’t. It’s not until you are there, and experience the feelings it evokes that you realize that it’s far greater than the sum of its parts. It is at once one with its surroundings and transcendent.
I first encountered Fallingwater in an early morning tour eleven years ago. A friend and I left Pennsic in the early morning hours to travel the 2+ hours down to the Mill Run locale of the house, southeast of Pittsburgh. We were early, pulling up to the gate in the quiet of the forest, greens and crystals and browns to await the opening. Behind-the-scenes tours happen early in the morning, before the masses of guests who tour the house every day begin to arrive around 10 am. These tours both allow photography and give the visitor more of a chance to linger in the rooms of the house.
Nothing prepares you for Fallingwater, and once you have been, you will never forget it. It has flooded my consciousness, altering my understanding completely about how a building made by humans can be an organic part of its surroundings. To enter the building, I travel down a footpath into a ravine, following the path as it curves. There is no great reveal from this perspective–the house shows itself shyly, nestling back in the trees, glimpses of stone indistinguishable from local hillsides, a flash or two of warm-coloured concrete, or a Cherokee Red door frame. I hear the water, but do not yet see it. I enter through a door in a compressed space in a recessed alcove, cool and dark. Past the pantry is the living room, low-ceilinged yet spacious, windows bringing in light, cool stone on the floors. By the hearth, made of local stone, an uneven, uplifted section of the floor reveals the stone of the ground on which the house is built. The rest of the house seems to grow out of this. Down the stairs, opening the gate, water, rushing. I could, were I one of the Kaufmanns or their guests, descend to sit in open air, on that same rock that erupts through the floor of the living room. Out on the balconies, I do not so much see the waterfall as realize I am part of it.
Up the stairs, running my hand along the stone, as if climbing up through the passageway in a cliff face. Into Edgar Kaufmann’s office, where the desk is built into the room. Along the corner of the room, long windows of glass–butted up against each other, so that no framing blocks the corner–can be opened to hear the sound of rushing water. Throughout the upper levels, books, Japanese prints, pieces of medieval and Eastern art, wood and stone combine visually with the sound of water and the subtle scents of water and earth to form a symphony for the senses. The rooms are like cool caves recessed into the cliff face. Light filters down through the leaves to glance off the water and the stone. I want to linger here, to allow this place to utterly pervade my consciousness into the far recesses of my mind–and I do. It has.
This is why I return–not just in my memories, but physically. I have lived this place, however briefly, four times, and will return in June for a fifth. This time, I will see it in the evening, once again empty other than for a small group, with time to linger, unpressed by the need to move through for the next group. Something magic happens to Frank Lloyd Wright houses as the shadows lengthen and the light turns golden. There is an inner glow, warm, alluring, that sings to me of fireflies and the approaching stars. I have seen it at Taliesin West, in the magic of desert twilight. I can think of no better place to spend a summer evening.
I expect I will compose something.