Shelter From The Storm

Fathers and sons, architecture as refuge, and a family’s great loss
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For certain fans, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater represents a kind of Lourdes, and going there is a pilgrimage to the heart of Wright and the mystic deism that surrounds him. Wright’s genius, his relentless and often unsuccessful public claims to that genius, his principles, audacity, wiles, and professional demons are all contained in Fallingwater. The house was an attempt to perfect an architecture that expressed the American soul, which in 1934 — the year Fallingwater was commissioned — still had a rural aspect. As a student at mit in the 1950s, my father heard Wright speak in Boston, and he had visited many of Wright’s buildings and held to many of his principles throughout his own career as an architect and professor. But he had never been to Fallingwater, and for his seventy-fifth birthday I suggested we go together.

We flew into Pittsburgh, only to find that Fallingwater was closed due to an unseasonal snowstorm that had felled trees and knocked out power lines, and our trip, which had assumed Lourdian proportions, was rendered quixotic before we even left the airport. We booked a hotel downtown, ate lunch, then walked across the Andy Warhol Bridge and wandered the almost deserted Andy Warhol Museum, which dedicated several floors to that industrious and bloodless Pittsburgh native. With Fallingwater closed, my father turned his interest to whatever the city had to offer: the local history, the urban landscape, the young black man who collapsed on the sidewalk in front of us, Philip Johnson’s enormously idiosyncratic, mirrored neo-Gothic ppg Place. But I was deflated.

The father-son outing has a delicacy to it. Those formal and informal moments carry the weight of expectation, and, in their earliest versions, something approaching destiny, a sense that the relationship will come to be defined by this football game or that fishing trip. When I turned thirteen, my father took me to Hy’s Steakhouse for my birthday dinner, just the two of us, a rite of passage. I was dressed in a corduroy blazer and tie, a freckled hormonal volcano. As we were leaving, my ten-year-old brother, David, picked up my birthday cake and pretended to throw it in my face, a Three Stooges joke, but as he held it cocked, his eyes wide in vaudevillian glee, it slid off the cardboard base and crumpled onto the floor. My name, written in festive icing at Jeanne’s Bakery, disintegrated, and my brother burst into tears. We left my mother to deal with the situation, and went to Hy’s, a restaurant filled with dark wood, cigarette smoke, and salesmen’s laughter. I was thrilled.

In Pittsburgh, my father and I talked about David, and my father recounted how he had lost every argument with him, failing to make much of a dent in his pot smoking or steer him toward university despite repeated efforts. David was a prodigiously talented musician but for a while had been adrift, though he had just got a job as the manager of a bookstore, and my mother was enormously relieved.

He was living in the Yukon, in Whitehorse, and he had become one of those northern converts who are evangelical about the mysterious allure of the North. He could play a dozen instruments with flair, and played in a series of country, bluegrass, and vaguely jazzy bands. His house was crammed with musical instruments, tapes, vinyl, CDs, and his laughter, which was often punctuated by a smoker’s cough that bordered on the tubercular. Each night, he ventured out to the bars, playing until late, familiar to everyone. He was most at home and in control onstage, not uncommon for performers.

After his gigs, he would return home to his instruments, and to the succession of girlfriends and wives who gave him motherly lectures on smoking and his famously bad diet, which saw its first vegetable somewhere in the ’90s. “I’m eating iceberg lettuce now,” he told me with little irony during a phone conversation. When the family got together every few years or so, my sister and I would remark that David seemed to have wandered outside the fragile borders of the middle class. On those occasions, he would sit at the Steinway piano in the family room and revel in the flow of his effortless talent.

Frank Lloyd Wright was at a low point when he got the commission to design Fallingwater. He was sixty-seven years old and hadn’t done a building in several years. His reputation was on the wane in America, and he had become, in the glare of European Modernism, a nineteenth-century figure. So when Edgar Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department store owner, commissioned a weekend house in the Pennsylvania outback, Wright invested a great deal in it. He saw Fallingwater as a battleground that pitted him against European Modernism, which he felt had stolen concepts from him. Plus, he needed the money.

Kaufmann was a celebrated philanderer, a handsome, virile Jewish businessman who wasn’t close to his son, Edgar Jr., and his marriage, like so many among his peers, was a quiet ruin. Perhaps Wright’s design reflects this: Kaufmann’s wife, Liliane, has a separate bedroom, and her balcony is larger than her husband’s, facing south while Edgar’s looks west. Edgar Jr. has a small retreat on the third floor, isolated from his parents, accessible by a narrow staircase. As in most of Wright’s houses, the bedrooms are tiny, just serviceable, and the central living space is the focus of the house, spacious, detailed, and magnificent. Had Wright designed Fallingwater for the Kaufmann family as it existed, he might have made three large bedrooms and a tiny communal area. But he tried to shape their world, if not perfect it.

With Fallingwater closed, my father and I drove to Kentuck Knob, one of Wright’s last houses, completed in 1956, three years before he died. Only a few kilometres from Fallingwater, it contains many of his signature ideas, including what he called “client-proof furniture” (a built-in couch runs the length of one wall). We bought postcards from the gift shop, and I noticed that one of the interior shots had a different configuration of the custom furniture Wright had designed. “Someone moved the furniture,” I said to my father.

“That’s probably what caused the storm,” he said laconically.

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2 comment(s)

Francesco SinibaldiJuly 12, 2008 13:14 EST

A song in your life.

The shining light
of a twisted
road gives an
attention to that
fine blackbird, living
this present and
the beautiful vision
of a luminous
love: a song in
your life, a delicate
sadness in a vigorous
care.

Francesco Sinibaldi

Francesco SinibaldiJuly 26, 2008 12:42 EST

In the natural field.

A flash of
light falls in the
bedroom with
an evident strength,
and I search, in
my childhood, the
sound of a blackbird,
a beautiful noise
and the love for
a dream.

Francesco Sinibaldi thanks Canada.

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