Nathan Gluck, 1918 – 2008

In memory of our kind, gentle and creative friend who died over the weekend in San Diego – We’ll miss his visits by train, his concern about our well-being, his holiday phone calls, presence and presents; his drawings, paintings and collages, which arrived in the mail without fail for every New Year, birth and anniversary. . . We’ll miss his kindness, his wisdom, his worldliness.

Nathan was one of the last of an era. G’luck, Nathan Gluck! – GF + TA + family

Falling for Fallingwater

Fallingwater: the famous view

I used to tell people that I didn't love Frank Lloyd Wright houses. But when I did, it was with an air of authority that I hadn't earned, considering I'd never actually been in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. What I meant instead was that I didn't love the handful of Wright-style houses built by his disciples that I had been in. I'm not sure why -- maybe they were too dark inside, or maybe all the built-in furniture was too authoritarian, as if the architect knew better where to put a chair and table than the people living there.

Last week I finally visited Fallingwater, near Pittsburgh, and although I'm not about to make any sweeping generalizations I will say this: I don't love the one Frank Lloyd Wright house I've been in. It was spectacular, yes. But as a house, it was more of a showpiece than a home (this observation based, of course, on the hour-and-a-half I spent being herded through as part of a tour group). Here's an analogy: You go to a museum, admire a terrific modern painting, and then think to yourself that a museum is a good place for it because you really wouldn't want to have it in your house. The same with Fallingwater: I admired it for a lot of reasons, and it might be fun to stay there for a long visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. I'm not saying, by the way, that this "I wouldn't want to live there" standard should be anybody else's standard for architecture criticism, nor that it would even be my standard if I visited Monticello or Kykuit or one of the great houses on the Hudson. But since I live in an area with a lot of modern houses, and live in a modern house myself, it's the gut-reaction standard I'm most comfortable with.

I was in Pittsburgh for the annual conference of the Land Trust Alliance (I'm the acting executive director of Westchester Land Trust, in New York). Each year the conference organizers offer different field trips, to show off their regions and to get people out of the hermetically-sealed conference centers. I chose an excursion that combined a morning visit to Fallingwater with an afternoon bike ride along eight miles of former railroad bed bordering the Youghiogheny River, which is pronounced Yock-agheny, like Allegheny, and is a tributary of the Monongahela, one of Pittsburgh's three rivers.

Fallingwater is a destination, and visiting it is like visiting a major historical site, with its big parking lot, varied license plates, buses, visitors pavilion, and people in windbreakers carrying cameras wandering around asking where are the restrooms. Fallingwater is in the foggy, cool Alleghenies, maybe an hour and a half southeast of Pittsburgh; 140,000 people a year visit the place.

About 45 people were on our bus and although we arrived shortly after 9, our tour of the house was set for 10:15. We were given a tour of the woods around it instead, which turned out to be a good introduction. We circled the house, saw it from different distances, and learned some of its history and the history of the landscape from our tour guide.

The first thing you notice about Fallingwater is that it's in the woods – no lawn, no landscaping, nothing but forest. In fact it is owned by a land trust -- the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which has protected about 20,000 acres (including the 1,500-acre Bear Run Nature Reserve, which surrounds Fallingwater) and which was the host of the tour and one of the hosts of the conference. Our first glimpse of the house came from a ridge, looking down on it through the tree trunks. I was surprised at the yellowish, almost adobe color of the exterior, and at how massive and dominant the cantilevered terraces are.

kaufmann's dept store (now macy's)

Fallingwater was commissioned in the 1930s by Edgar Kauffman, the owner of Kauffman's department store (above -- it's now Macy's), which was tremendously successful in the days when Pittsburgh was a tremendously successful industrial city. The steel and coke factories made it an extremely dirty and polluted city (salesmen at Kauffman's had to bring a couple of changes of shirts to work because their clothes got so dirty while working inside), and so Kauffman and his wife bought a cabin and a fair amount of land (the site of an old Masonic camp) in the Alleghenies. But ultimately the cabin was too modest and close to the road to suit them, so they brought Wright in, showed him the land and the river (the Bear Run -- creeks there are called "runs," similar to the way we in New York still use the work "kill" for a creek or small river), and commissioned him to design a house there.

Wright visited just once. The common wisdom was that Wright, at 68 years old, was washed up. The Kauffman's Depression-era budget was about $75,000. According to the tale the tour guides tell, Wright took the commission and then produced nothing until, sometime afterwards, Kauffman told him he was traveling to Wisconsin for a meeting to see how the plans were going. When Kauffman was two hours away -- again, according to the tour guides' tale -- Wright began to put his plans on paper and had the house finished by the time Kauffman arrived, greeting him with, "Mr. Kauffman, we’ve been waiting for you!" Once construction started, Kaufman and Wright used local workers, paying laborers 25 cents an hour and skilled workers 80 cents an hour. The house ended up costing $155,000 to build. (In his 2003 book Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kauffman and America’s Most Extraordinary House, which is considered definitive, Franklin Toker says the story that Wright designed the house in two hours is a myth. I haven’t read it yet and I can’t say how much else that we were told by the Fallingwater tour guide that I'm repeating here is also myth.)

After about an hour, we returned to the visitors pavilion and then walked back down to the house, where we were met by our guide for house tour, an odd little man from West Virginia who reminded me of Tennessee Williams.

footbath of door of Fallingwater

The entrance to the house is around back. It's a low, cave-like passageway that passes a foot bath (above) with water spilling from a spout and a bar of soap on a chain, and leads to a heavy glass-and-red-steel door into the first floor.

Fallingwater is a big house, and there were numerous tour groups going through it in stages, in front of us and behind, and so there was little time to linger and get the feel of the place. But here’s what I saw, and what I thought and felt about it:

The living room is modestly-sized with surprisingly low ceilings. A glass door opens to one of the cantilevered terraces overlooking the Bear Run falls. A wide stone staircase in the living room leads down from the floor to the river, with retractable glass panels in red steel frames above the stairs. All of the stone in the house -- and there was a lot of it, including the floor, which was polished with Johnson's Wax -- was Pottsville sandstone quarried just up the path (the bedrock that forms the falls in the Bear Run is Pottsville sandstone aswell). As we were standing near the hearth and dining table, the tour guide referred to the open plan, which he said was unique at the time. "That was something you just didn't find in the 1930s, an open plan .... It was unheard of in the 1930s.” That’s not true of course and when I questioned him about it later, out of earshot of the others, he used the word “unusual” rather than “unique.”

The guest room had varnished walnut blinds, walnut cabinets, a portrait by Diego Rivera on the wall (the guide mentioned that Frida Kahlo, who “was very crude,” stayed at Fallingwater and that Kaufmann was the first American to buy one of her paintings, which Edgar Kauffman Jr. later sold to Madonna), and a rotating chrome fan on the floor. In Liliane Kauffman's bedroom there’s a Picasso etching, a sizable (maybe three-feet tall) Madonna and Child from the 15th century on a sandstone ledge that Wright designed for it, and a framed page from a Bach score that I didn't ask about. Kauffman was a benefactor of the Museum of Modern Art, and there is another Picasso and a Rivera elsewhere in Fallingwater, and six originals from Audubon’s Birds of America, as well as other paintings, sculptures and artifacts, some interesting, others less so, and none of which I recognized or felt compelled to ask about.

We walked through the master bedroom and the studies upstairs, and I found that the higher we went in the house, the more comfortable I became, maybe because I was getting used to the place. Each room, or so it seemed, had its own terrace above the Bear Run, and two of the upstairs rooms had panelled corner windows that swung out individually at right angles so that the entire corner could open to the view of the woods and the sound of the falls. These were stunning, and the guide said that another Wright house was small enough so that Wright was able to design the entire corner of a room like that. The guest wing (as opposed to the guest room in the main house), which you reached by way of a gracefully cuving, canopied walkway, was a beautiful, compact home on its own, with an unusual, U-shaped, above-ground concrete swimming pool on the hill above the main house.

So by the time the we were done with the house, I was softening. Going back to my parochial standard, I'd live in the guest house immediately. But while Fallingwater as a whole was stunning, I can’t say I loved it. Nor can I say I loved the tour. The house is a bit too much of a showpiece and the tour a bit too rushed (and, I suspect, propelled by misinformation).

Kauffman, who lived in Pittsburgh in what the tour guide told me was a Tudor-style house (he didn’t seem particularly confident when he told me that), went on to commission Richard Neutra to design a vacation house for him in Palm Springs – the famous, threatened Kauffman House. He died in 1959, several years after his wife. Edgar Jr., who was a curator at MOMA and a professor of architecture at Columbia University, inherited Fallingwater and interred his parents' remains in a crypt on the property that has doors sculpted by Giacometti (the crypt is off-limits except on rare occasions). Junior donated the house and the property in 1962 to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He died in 1989.-- ta

Happy 1st day of Autumn! But I’m not ready to close the doors yet. . .

Planhaus is an Austrian architecture firm which, according to my online translator, focuses “on the development of house types in system-building . . . in the area of the ecological low energy houses”. (I'm pretty sure 'system-building' means prefab.)

Next to their Haus kr35 is an outbuilding, or summer house, which does that total opening up thing I'm so crazy about these days.

Built in what looks to be a more suburban neighborhood is another summerhouse, more like a dining-house. I love the long built-in bench, but could do without the chandelier . . .

This city summer house sits atop a building in Vienna, and even has an outdoor shower.

Big windows, fa├žades that completely open up, and interiors of light, clear, sweet-smelling larch wood give the rooms a cabin-like feeling, but none of the 'closeness' of a rustic cabin from which you might get a case of cabin fever. – GF

Photos seem to be by Wolf Leeb, Vienna.

Farnsworth update

Here are photos and an update that arrived this morning in an email from Caroline Barker, Communications Coordinator, Communications & Marketing Department at the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

Two days after floodwaters inundated Mies van der Rohe’s architectural masterpiece, staff from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois are working feverishly to assess the damage and take initial steps toward cleaning it up. It’s a huge job when any house is flooded, but one that is also a National Historic Landmark carries additional considerations. Before major clean-up work can commence, for example, professional conservators must be consulted to ensure that lasting damage is minimized.

As the accompanying photos make clear, the damage to the house is significant, but the larger problem might be the landscape surrounding the house. The full extent of the damage to the landscape won’t be clear until the water around the house – still about a foot deep in most areas – clears out.

Help from the public is urgently needed. Please visit the web sites of Landmarks Illinois, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to learn how you can help save this iconic Modernist masterpiece.
Landmarks Illinois manages Farnsworth House on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns it. – GF

Mies's Farnsworth House is Underwater

All the flooding in the midwest has inundated Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, near Chicago. Check this out, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's blog. As of two days ago, the house had a foot of water in it:

... All the furniture was raised but there is nothing further that can be done, and in fact the house is pretty close to being unreachable, as the entire community is underwater and it is a very dire situation. Three bridges between the town and the house are now out. ... The house and tours are closed for the foreseeable future. Access to the house currently is only by boat, and this is not safe.

(In addition to being known around the world as a modernist masterpiece, the Farnsworth House also has the lesser but still interesting distinction of making architect John Black Lee's list of five great houses, here, the other's being the Philip Johnson's Glass House and Boissonnas House (both in New Canaan), Neutra's Kaufman House, in Palm Springs, and a house Lee himself designed in New Canaan.) -- ta

more of that inside / outside thing

I saw this little courtyard today at Trendir and Design Milk. A tiny bit of a thing, it serves to open up the whole living area by joining 2 "public" areas of the house by way of floor to ceiling sliding glass.

How beautiful it would be in winter to look out from the living room through a cool, blue, snowy pocket back into the warm glow of the dining area. But in the warm weather, I wonder if they suffer the occasional wildlife visitors like we do: birds fly in and poop all over, chipmunks and squirrels find their way in (mostly by way of a cat's jaws), and this year our under-deck tenant made his first indoor appearance.

The courtyard of the Szirtes House, created by Chenchow Little Architects in Australia, reminded me of this post from a while back. – GF

Inviting the outdoors in

The past couple of evenings, the temperature has been just cool enough that we have closed the double glass doors that open from our kitchen onto the lower deck, and we have sat down to dinner at the table inside instead of out. Even the bank of windows in the dining area were closed against the chill. As much as I love our house in winter, with a cheerful fire every night, I hate to say goodbye to outdoor living when Autumn forces us inside.

Almost without exception, everyone who visits us in the warmer months remarks on the airy, spacious feeling of our small house which is due, in large part (unless it's actively raining or too humid) to those double glass doors being open first thing in the morning until well past nightfall, when I start worrying about confused bats swooping through.

Our totally conventional, boring double doors (small photo, with butterfly chairs) are a poor substitute for what I REALLY want someday. . . Here are some pix that inspire me to keep dreaming. – GF

p.s.: I am totally frustrated not being able to control photo/text placement in posts like this – Blogger has really got to get with it! Sorry for the lousy layout.

1. moomoo Architects
2. Crosson Clarke Carnachan Architects
3. Guilherme Machado Vaz Arquitecto
4. Our back deck – good enough for now
5. Arthur Casas
6. Barton Myers Associates (photo Ciro Coelho)
7. Barton Myers Associates (photo Richard Powers)

I’ll take the elevator.

I’ve seen this new take on getting from one level in a house to the next, and wondered, “Why?”. The last photo shows what the stairs replaced, and the area they use: not much more than a ladder. Do they use less space than conventional stairs would use? How can that be? Maybe the pitch is extreme. This much I know, our town building inspector would NEVER give it a green light!

I imagine they’d take a lot of getting used to. Anyone out there tried them?

These are by TAF Arkitektkontor, of Sweden. – GF

Old bones, fresh face

I love sparkling fresh spaces brought to life from old – even ancient – structures. Those who do it well respect the existing elements like arches, deep window sills, courtyards, stairs carved from bedrock foundation and other things designed by necessity more than to satisfy some aesthetic requirement.

Renovating a run-down, neglected space highlights those elements so you get the best of both worlds: bright, open-feeling, livable spaces within the venerable old bones, quirky proportions and age-old personality of a purpose-built space, like a mill or a barn. With modern and ancient coexisting you are reminded daily to honor the craftsman.
Here is a nice example by MGM Arquitectos found on Archidose, via Judit Bellostes.
– GF

In a Quiet Noyes House

I've written before that on the cold, windy day last November when Gina and I entered the house Eliot Noyes built for his family in New Canaan we both felt relieved, as if we were in a place that could be home, quiet and warm and comfortable. We're not the only ones who feel that way. Fred Noyes, Eliot's son, does too, and so does Skip Ploss, who writes the Embrace Modern blog, and who went to the Noyes house not long ago to do a Q&A with Fred. Here's an excerpt:

FN: ... The ones [i.e., the houses] where the architect has been able to touch into the emotional side we were talking about and the practical side, being able to understand that the design is centered more around how people live rather than making boxes and fitting people in to it. They become as warm as, or warmer than, some of the earlier houses which are constricted and feel tight. I think that this house is a perfect example of exactly that. You walk in to this space and you breathe out…

EM!: It’s amazing. It’s so tranquil and just a wonderful warm feeling sitting here.

FN: My father did another house in Vermont which we also still own and it’s similar in the sense that the “bookends” are stone. Very small, open stud construction because it’s just a ski house but in that house, when you walk in, you can hardly walk across the room before you kind of have to sit down its so relaxing. When I am under real pressure in my office, I go up there. I roll out the yellow trays on the dining room table and can be there for 15 hours without ever getting fidgety in any way, it’s such a relaxing space. It has a slightly sloped roof so it has some volumetrics to it. It comes down to our original point which is that sense of it being emotionally accessible in these things when they’re done right using the materials available to them.

Fred says a lot of interesting things, including an obvious one: just because it's modern, doesn't mean it's good. And, which is good news: Well, we are definitely going to protect the house in the sense that nobody will tear it down and then we’ll either sell it to someone who’s raising a family or understands what it is that they are buying and leaves it untouched. My hope of hopes would be to place it in the public eye and to do something similar to The Glass House but that’s a stretch because that means that you not only need the purchase price from us but endowment and that would be a lot of money.

I found the picture, by the way, by Googling Eliot Noyes and clocking on a Picasa page. It was taken the same day that Gina and I were there, during last year's New Canaan Historical Society's Modern House Day, by someone named Amanda, who I think is probably our friend Amanda Martocchio. -- ta

A Bit More on the Tour in New Canaan

The New Canaan League of Women Voters' Peggy Dannerman was nice enough to get back to me this morning with information about their upcoming modern house tour, the details of which were, in true League of Women Voters fashion, discussed democratically among league board members until a consensus was reached about what they could say publicly. Here's what she told me:

I spoke with our League of Women Voter's Board yesterday about your question, and they agreed that we could inform the public about the architects of the homes, but not the names of the home themselves, a policy we have followed in previous tours. Suffice it to say that we have two homes by Philip Johnson, one by Eliot Noyes and one by John Johansen. There are two fairly "grand" homes and two smaller homes.

I'm not sure I'd shell out a hundred bucks to see four modern houses unless I knew what the houses were, particularly since I've been on two New Canaan Historical Society modern house tours that included two Johnson's and a Noyes and I wouldn't necessarily want to pay to see them again. Offhand I don't know how many Noyes or Johansen houses there are in New Canaan, but there are six Johnson's -- the Glass House, the Alice Ball House and the Boissonas House, all of which have been on the historical society tours; the Hodgson House, which was going to be on last year's historical society tour, I think, but was being renovated; and the Wiley House and Wiley "spec" house, which I'm unfamiliar with.

A House Tour in New Canaan

Can you imagine holding a tour of modern houses in New Canaan as a fundraiser, putting a notice about it on your organization's blog, giving an email address to write to for more information, and then not responding when someone (me) who might want to go and definitely wants to publicize it writes for more information? Four houses are on the tours, and all I wanted to know was which four houses.

The New Canaan League of Women Voters blogged about it here, but I wrote to this address,, on Friday morning to ask which houses are on the tour and have gotten no response. Maybe I should have piced up the phone and called.

If anyone else has information, let me know.

I wonder, by the way, if the New Canaan Historical Society, which has organized three bg Modern House Days and symposiums in the last seven years feels a bit put-out and proprietary about all this. -- ta