Comparing and Contrasting Architecture:
Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water”
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s “Farnsworth House”
Professor Nancy Jean Coco
July 24th, 2014
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, architecture is “the art or science of designing and creating buildings.” 1 Covering the entire process from inception to completion, it is an integrative art that reflects current environment, culture, and advancements. The mastermind behind architecture is the architect. Two renowned architects in modern history are Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Both known for blazing new trails in architectural thought, and inspiring generations both present and future, they created new schools of design for their craft which brought about techniques that are still used today. These architects were both fascinated with exploring the relationships of form and function, reflecting their current time through design, and creating structures that were both aesthetically pleasing as well as beneficial.
Completed in 1936, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a beautiful home aptly named Falling Water (Fig. 2). It was a project for Edgar J. Kaufmann, a business man, who wanted a residential home for his family in the woods of Pennsylvania. It was considered by countless critics to be Wright’s most imaginative work, as it incorporated the waterfalls over which it was built. Using the sources around it, this home was built from quarried sandstone and local craftsman assisted Wright. Wanting to create compatibility between construction and nature, he modeled this home off Japanese styled architecture that inspired him. To this day, he “looms large as the last of the pioneers whose super-abundance of creative energies fostered and fed the early modern movement.”2
Created in Plano, Illinois, Farnsworth House (Fig. 7), was a prized masterpiece of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Crafted for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, this 1950’s project was meant to be a refuge from the city life. Strategically placed by a river, Rohe built the home above ground level to use as a precaution for flooding. This reflects Rohe’s belief that “structure is form, but form determines structure.”3 Rohe was careful to make sure that the house was perfectly integrated into nature, almost as if it was meant to be there in the first place. Being primarily made from glass, Farnsworth was a new wonder of its time that opened the door to other revolutionary structures, such as Philip Johnson’s Glass House.
A key element of any form of art is focal point. This point can be described as the core of the project, or the area most emphasized to draw a viewer’s attention. In architecture, focal point is crucial as it sets the tone for the entire body of work. Without this important concept, it can cause disorganization and distraction in a piece. For Wright’s Falling Water, a main focal point would be that of the fireplace (Fig. 3). Drawing attention in both the interior and exterior, the chimney of the hearth is the highest and most set apart point of the home. Looking inside, the hearth itself is set back behind slightly
raised, jagged rocks that vary in size and shape. Not relying on symmetry, Wright chose to have the rock walls on either side of the fireplace at different lengths. This draws attention from other areas of the room due to its contrasting lack of symmetry.
In the Farnsworth House, the interior immediately commands attention as one can see directly inside, peering through the massive windows that have replaced walls. As there is little to no division in the house between rooms, but attention is still lured in, it could be said that the focal point of Farnsworth is the sense of transparency. Being able to view most of the house from any angle proposes a challenge to the standard idea of focal point, and brings the senses into the debate. From a distance, the vivid, white stairs could also be a perceived focal point, as they define the beginning and entry way to the elusive, see-through home.
Light and color are directly connected to one another and both play a significant part in many forms of art; architecture is no exception. It is important that they meet many different postulations, while encompassing human experience as well as economic and practical issues. Light is crucial for defining depth and contour. Color is key for establishing relation of objects in space. According to the project’s website, for Falling Water “only two colors were used throughout: a light ochre for the concrete and his signature Cherokee red for the steel.”4 Wright used these colors to blend in with the encompassing nature that the project was to be nestled in. From the outside, the surrounding trees create a shadow over Falling Water, creating added depth and illusion. Inside however, the light seems to pour in through use of excessive windows, adding depth and variations to the two dueling colors residing within.
At a glance, Farnsworth House might appear to be void of color. But this is an intended effect, as Rohe insisted “Nature, too, shall live its own life. We must beware not to disrupt it with the color of our houses and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together into a higher unity. If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed from outside. That way more is said about nature–it becomes a part of a larger whole.”5
The white of the house contrasts the surrounding green and browns from nature, and makes it a hidden gem in the woods. Light is also capable of aptly reflecting off the white tone of the house, filling it with natural light from walls made of glass.
Texture and pattern, which are key components of art, can set the tone for an architectural piece. Texture in regards
to architecture is the art’s ability to create tangible perceptions. Pattern, on the other hand, is the repetition of an artistic element to create continuity. In Wright’s Falling Water, he created the house’s terraces to echo the pattern of the rock ledges below. He was also careful to replicate the texture of the surrounding nature, to make the home seem like a natural element of the habitat. The pattern is the same inside in the home as the outside, as he alternates smooth and rocky texture to create balance. This is meant to reflect the variations of nature.
Rohe’s Farnsworth House also strove to be one with nature, but it didn’t necessarily integrate actual elements of the wilderness into the construction. Rohe chose to maintain a smooth and sheer texture, setting it apart from its habitat from a textural perspective. This home was all about pattern, however, as it used equally sized pieces to create repetition around the interior and exterior of the home. The color itself is repetitive too, creating a common pattern of white. The smooth texture of Farnsworth interacts with lighting to maneuver with architectural shadows, which create substantive effects and added depth.
Sticking to his international style, Rohe designed several projects reminiscent of the Farnsworth House, one of them being the 50×50 house (Fig. 6). Consisting of a square space enclosed with glass, it features horizontal symmetry and smooth surfaces. It also reflects Rohe’s minimalist style of interior space without division, and minimum detachment from the outside. Enamored with glass designs, Rohe had also constructed the Barcelona Pavilion (Fig. 1), which reflected modernistic tendencies due to its elegant and sleek design. This building, although being modern, mimics the natural surroundings by adding smooth stone in addition to the glass. Known for designing the very items that furnished his houses, Rohe stuck with pure and modern furniture designs. As most of the home could be viewed from the exterior through the glass, his furniture was a main attraction on the inside. He often chose to give his crafted projects a two-dimensional feel, and pieces that displayed an inerrant sense of balance. Essentially, Rohe stuck to his simplistic nature with all of his architecture, holding true to his skin and bones theory.
Wright was also known for many works of architecture, a fundamental project being the Hickox House (Fig. 4). This house was a child of the prairie style, which held a strong influence in much of Wright’s work. Like others of its genre, Hickox House was “characterized by a long, low form closely connected to the earth from which they rose, with overhanging roof lines further compressing the sense of space from the buildings’ exterior views.”6 Much like Falling Water, he created the design to complement the surrounding landscape of the location. Constructed in Oregon, Wight’s Gordon House (Fig. 5), which was usonian in nature, was meant to create a harmony between house and habitat. Usonian
architecture was Wright’s definition for the architecture style developing in North America.7 This house also carried the characteristics of minimal ornamentation and wise use of space. The opposite of the international style, homes of this variety were to reflect a current America of that time. Wright was also an architect of small home furnishings, and often built all the establishments within a given home. His assorted house settings produced earthy and natural awareness, and thoroughly reflected the organic style of architecture.
Occupying the same period in architectural history, both Wright and Rohe had their similarities and differences when it came to design. They had a similar sense of spatial relationships, and an underlying need to have the home fit naturally with its surroundings. They were also both found of intended use of line, and often incorporated heavy horizontal connections. Finally, Wright and Rohe were fascinated with glass and were leaders of this concept. The variations in their designs date back to their original influences as “Mies like[d] to refer to the structural poetry of the Gothic tradition; and Wright was the eternal anarchist, the defender of absolute freedom, the heir to the ideal of the America of the Revolution.”8 Although both wanting to blend into nature, Wright had a more natural and earthly approach. Focusing on mimicking local surroundings, he would often duplicate textures, color and lighting of the setting. Down to his furniture, he created timeless pieces that echoed the world the were conceived in. Rohe also had natural inclinations, but had a more modernistic approach to his work. He also strove to echo the world of his time, but did not mimic the surroundings nearly as much as Wright. Rohe was more concerned with little ornamentation and only the essentials to a project. Not overly concerned with intricacies, Rohe cared more about the practicality of the project and its use in the modern world. Where as Wright wanted his architecture to belong with its setting, Rohe wanted his to stand out.
Wright and Rohe both practiced their architecture from the mid to late 1800’s to the early to mid 1900’s. It was during this period that America looked beyond the practicality of architecture, and began to create aesthetically pleasing works. Skyscrapers and other large buildings were created in this time, due to the rapid growth and development of large cities. During this time several new forms inspired Wright and Rohe, including the Prairie School, International Style, and Organic Architecture.
The Prairie School of architecture emerged in the late nineteenth century and was defined as being “ no longer based on classic examples, but founded on new design and engineering principles.”9 With its origin in the city of Chicago, Illinois, this style was predominant in the American Midwest during this time frame. A founder of the Prairie School movement of architecture, Wright formulated the construction of the Usonian home style in the early 1900’s, which was the
seed of inspiration for future urban architecture in the United States. This style heavily incorporated the surrounding landscapes, and emphasized horizontal lines to match the local prairies. Solid construction, craftsmanship, and lack of decoration were also trends of this style. Falling Water by Wright is a product and example of this school of architecture.
International style architecture originated in Europe and finished developing in America. Preferred in commercial and office building, this geometric style was also used for homes of the wealthy. Having moved to America around the 1930’s, Rohe was a key leader of this style and designed many skyscrapers. Features of this style included, lack of ornamentation, flat roofs, skyscrapers or tall buildings, and stone, steel and glass mediums. This type of design conveyed rationalism and minimalism, and set a new standard to business construction. Reflecting these concepts, Farnsworth is minimal and simple, but the strictness of the form with unnecessary cut out yields magnificent results.
Organic architecture was also a favorite of Wright’s, and a term he fathered to describe his architectural style. Essentially, organic architects believe in form follows function, maintaining the idea that the design of a project is based on its intended use. Wright took it a step further, stating “form and function are one”10. Like the prairie school style, organic architecture incorporates the environment that the project is to be built in by echoing the location and layout. Falling Water is a wonderful representation
of this style, as its form is a mirror to the environment it rests upon. This style also forms a marriage with nature, as it strives to make the setting and building symbiont beings.
Both architects spent a fair portion of their lives building projects in the United States, and were inspired by the new schools of thought at time; specifically the few mentioned in the previous paragraphs. Originally from Germany, Rohe started out with basic architecture and projects that reflected the local styles. Eventually branching out to his own school of thought, the international style, back at home “he was named director of the Bauhaus, the renowned German school of experimental art and design, which he led until 1933 when he closed the school under pressure from the Nazi Regime.”11 Wanting to reflect eras, such as the Gothic, with his own modern day twist, a goal of Rohe’s was to reflect his industrial influences as his predecessors had done in the past with their current time.
Wright’s prairie school spawned from his interactions with other architects in the city of Chicago. The idea was to break away from the old form of architecture and make something aesthetically pleasing as well as practical. His coined term organic architecture branched off from this school of thought, as Wright sought to achieve balance with nature through architecture. It was challenging at times, as according to an article he claimed“’The struggle for and with Nature thrilled me
and inspired my work,’ he wrote, a sentiment often contradicted by his actions. For all his association with the word ‘organic,’ the “decentralization and architectural reintegration” he envisioned could only occur on the ever spreading fringes.”12
In architecture, there are two ways of approaching a project, and architects tend to sway one way or the other. The first belief is form follows function. This way of thinking requires the architect to have a designated function for a project, and then to build the actual form of the building accordingly. The second system is function follows form. Just as it sounds, this approach is the opposite of the prior, and followers of this system build for aesthetic pleasure, or form, and then make the intended use accordingly. As previously mentioned, Wright came from the origins of form follows function, and eventually came up with his own alternative suggesting that form and function are equally important and essentially the same thing. Wright crafted all of his projects accordingly, always making them useful and visually stimulating in a way that complemented the function. Rohe also held to the belief that form ultimately follows function, and prided himself in his architectural concept that less is more. This is evident in all of his works, as they show clearly planned out designs utilizing every bit of space. Because Rohe used form follows function, he was able to create illusion of space within seemingly small quarters.
For architecture to stand the test of time it must be universal and provide insight. Both Falling Water and Farnsworth House are universal pieces in the sense that they are both practical and aesthetically pleasing. Falling Water is specifically universal in its connection with nature, utilizing the surroundings to create organic synthesis. It has and will continue to stand the test of time, as the marriage of architecture and nature is not an easy accomplishment, and the time, effort and detail put into the work makes it rise above the rest. It provides insight to mankind by creating a harmony between humans an wildlife, show that both can live in unison. Although modernistic, Farnsworth House exemplifies the fact that architecture can be both simultaneously simple and extravagant. It it universal to enjoy something that is not only useful, but visually stimulating. This project provides insight into the school of thought that less is more, and encourages people not to overuse resources. Both houses sought to break free from the norms of that time, and therefor define new paths and styles of architecture, as well as touch the souls of mankind.
Falling Water beckons double-take at first glance, as a house atop a waterfall seems nearly impossible. Its awe-inspiring contrast of a modern world with original nature dares to reach beyond rudimentary thought. Conveying a unity and peace between two worlds, Wright dares viewers to imagine a world in perfect harmony, and provokes questions of balance and boundaries. Farnsworth House asks it viewers “why not?”, and challenges the balance of two worlds by combining the
two with little blending. Rohe goes on to show the minimalism is not necessarily bland, and that often times simple is best. He elicits his viewers to use resources wisely, and visually elaborates on the idea that things can fit together almost like a puzzle.
Although Falling Water and Farnsworth House have different approaches, origins, and final productions, they both provide deeper insights into the world. Expressing deep care for resources and nature, Wright and Rohe endeavored to unify the two in a way that was both timeless and insightful. Without excessive ornamentation and unnecessary design, they constructed only what was needed in a direct and useful matter. Through employing natural beauty and new found designs, the expressed their souls and the current time accurately through architecture. These projects teach viewers to appreciate the natural beauty of the world, think outside the box, and wisely use resources in a unique and harmonious approach with nature.
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Blake, Peter. The Master Builders. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1960.
Engel, Martin. “Frank Lloyd Wright and Cubism: A Study in Ambiguity.” American Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring, 1967): 24-38. Accessed June 26, 2014 url: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2711052
“Falling Water.” Fallingwater.org. Last Modified 2014. Accessed 4 July 2014. url: http://www.fallingwater.org/
Johnson, Philip C. “Mies van der Rohe” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Jun., 1951): 42- 344. Accessed June 26, 2014 url: http://www.jstor.org/stable/426521
Kay, Jane Holtz. “Architecture.” Nation 263, no. 17 (November 25, 1996): 33. Accessed June 27, 2014 url: https://web.a.ebscohost.com.libdb.ppcc.edu/ehost/detail?vid=9&sid=474e2b89-03f2-460c-9906-d39c53bc06ab %40sessionmgr4004&hid=4101&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=tth&AN=9611127675
“Mies van der Rohe Society.” miessociety,org. Last modified 2012. Accessed 5 July 2014. url: http://www.miessociety.org/legacy/
Neumeyer, Franz. “Philosophy as a Patron.” The Artless World: Mies van der Rohe Building Art. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991 : Excerpts from Chapter 2. Web. 5 June 2014. url: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/gsapp/BT/GATEWAY/FARNSWTH/neumeyer.html
Rose, Cynthia. American Decades Primary Sources: 1900-1909. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
Webster, Anthony. ” Probing Architecture’s Anatomy.” Progressive Architecture (November 1995): 58-59. Accessed June 27, 2014 url: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/gsapp/BT/PRESS/pa11-95.html
Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks. Frank Lloyd Wright: The Masterworks. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993.
2. Engel, Martin. “Frank Lloyd Wright and Cubism: A Study in Ambiguity.” American Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring, 1967), 24.
3. Johnson, Philip C. “Mies van der Rohe” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Jun., 1951), 343.
5. Neumeyer, Franz. “Philosophy as a Patron.” The Artless World: Mies van der Rohe Building Art. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991 : Excerpts from Chapter 2. Web. 5 June 2014.
6. Rose, Cynthia. American Decades Primary Sources: 1900-1909. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 1.
7. Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks. Frank Lloyd Wright: The Masterworks. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993. 134.
8. Blake, Peter. The Master Builders. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1960. xiv.
9. Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks. Frank Lloyd Wright: The Masterworks. (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993.), 35.
10. Ibid., 166.
11. “Mies van der Rohe Society” miessociety,org. Last modified 2012. Accessed 5 June 2014.
12. Kay, Jane Holtz. “Architecture.” Nation 263, no. 17 (November 25, 1996): 33. Accessed June 27, 2014. 34.