The scientific tourist #152 — Fallingwater

Today’s image brings you a story of architecture and engineering — from rural southwest Pennsylvania:


This is Fallingwater — built as a vacation home for the family of a local department store magnate, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture, but since it was built in the late 1930’s, turned out to be a bit ahead of its time. At least, it turned out to be about 60 years ahead of the development of the materials needed to properly build all of it.

The house’s striking feature is the use of reinforced concrete cantilevered balconies. While this provided some beautiful space (both the ground-floor living room, and 2nd floor exterior deck), it also provided the largest design challenge. Pronounced deflection of the cantilevers was seen as soon as the forms were removed from the concrete during construction, and the large flat horizontal surfaces proved to be the sources of numerous water leaks.

In 1963, Edgar Kaufmann Jr. (son of the original customers) donated the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy — it was opened to the public as a museum a year later. Some 25 years later, the Conservancy began an intensive restoration program for Fallingwater. This culminated in major structural repairs to the ground floor cantilever (it had sagged by as much as 7 inches in places, and would have fallen into the creek without intervention), as well as fixes for a variety of less-threatening issues. With that, the house re-opened to regular tours — should you be in the neighborhood, I’d highly recommend you make the drive out for a look yourself!

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