Object Lessons - by John Sealander

Falling Water

There are many who say that Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, the spectacular cantilevered residence he designed for the Kaufmann family during the 1930's, was his crowning achievement. I am inclined to agree. If I am anywhere within a hundred miles of this historic house, I will always try to schedule a visit. A trip to Fallingwater is good for the soul. Well, it's good for my soul anyway. I can spend a few hours wandering from room to room on a brisk Fall afternoon and my faith in objects is restored.

Fallingwater is an absolutely wonderful object. I wish I could say the same for its architect and the people it was designed for. Frank Lloyd Wright was an egotistical, petty tyrant. He had no tolerance for those who failed to share his view of the world. He fired his own brother from his firm. He routinely got in horrendous arguments with clients. He didn't believe that ordinary people could properly appreciate his creations without his watchful guidance. Wright often stipulated in his contracts that clients could not purchase new furniture or even paint without his consent.

If you've been inside many Frank Lloyd Wright houses, you'll quickly notice that the ceilngs are exceedingly low. Wright was a short man, but he firmly believed that his own height was the ideal human stature and designed his buildings accordingly. When Wright's taller brother accompanied him to Fallingwater, Wright asked him to remain seated while he was talking to the Kaufmanns because he was "spoiling the scale of the architecture."

Of course, the Kaufmanns were no saints themselves. They had all the usual vices of the extremely wealthy. Although the house was intended as a Summer residence for the family, local legend has it that the place saw widespread use as a hideaway for Edgar Kauffman Senior's trysts and affairs.

Wright and the Kaufmann family are all dead now. Their many eccentricities and character flaws seem trivial when compared to the building itself. The building lives on. It has become objectified. After fifty years of study by architecture students around the world, Fallingwater has become transformed into an icon for truth and beauty. The tour guides from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy revere Wright and the Kaufmanns as enlightened saints, never mentioning the debauchery and petty bickering that allegedly went on inside the building's thick flagstone walls. Today, busloads of well-scrubbed and well-meaning people come to worship at this altar of architectural significance. Although I can easily appreciate the irony of the situation, I too come to pay my respects.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an asshole. But still I love this remarkable object he created. I will be the first to admit that like many men, I often feel more comfortable around objects than people. When men gather together, the talk quickly turns to objects. Depending on age, socioeconomic status, education and political persuasion, men will talk for hours about the virtues of cars, guns, computers, furniture, model trains, cameras, record collections, hand-painted ties, titanium bicycles, power tools and Frank Lloyd Wright houses. Women friends will often ask me if a male acquaintance is married, has children or is happy in his relationship. Usually, I don't know the answer to these questions. The subject never comes up.

Men, of course, often talk about women. But you don't have to listen very long to realize that you could substitute the words "motorcycle" or "bass boat" for the word woman and the conversation would usually make just as much sense. When I graduated from architecture school, the majority of our senior class would have traded their current girlfriend for an Eames Chair, or in some cases even a nice looking lamp. We had spent six years drooling over these objects in Stendig and Knoll catalogs and it seemed perfectly logical to us that a good chair could provide the key to a better life. Over the years, Eames Chairs have diminished considerably in importance to me and I have developed many close friendships with women. I do not feel particularly enlightened however. Perplexed is probably a more accurate emotion. The more I began to enjoy women as genuine friends, the less interested I became in sex. I don't dwell on this though, because it's just too depressing.

There is a comfort in objects. If you buy a Ford, you know you won't go down to the garage the next morning and find it has transformed itself into a Chevrolet during the night. The right object can become a stable frame of reference that can mold and shape a person's life. I'm sure there are men who became social workers out of a genuine desire to improve the human condition. But there are many more men who became architects because Lincoln Logs were their favorite toys when they were children.

It is probably not politically correct to revere objects anymore. But I know most men still do. Even the sensitive new age guys I know: the ones who claim to reject materialism and its trappings, can get pretty excited by a new high-tech kayak or a lightweight 24-speed bicycle. I don't even try to pretend. I like all types of objects, but it is architecture that really does the trick for me.

I never designed my own house. I never even took my certification exams after I graduated from architecture school. But I still can appreciate a well-designed building. There is a permanence to architecture that makes what I am currently doing seem trivial by comparison. Advertising is not about objects. It's about politics and people: about influencing others to do what your client wishes. Advertising is a lot like prostitution. Some of my self-important art director friends think design annuals and award shows objectify their efforts, but they are wrong. You still wrap fish with advertising, while objects like split-window Corvettes, Frank Stella paintings and Fallingwater are worshipped as cultural icons.

This is the fourth time I've visited the Kaufmann family's spectacular retreat tucked away in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands. Every time I learn something new. I still love to hear how Wright wanted to cover the entire exterior of Fallingwater with gold leaf to blend with the Fall foliage. I'm amused to hear how he carefully hid all the steam radiators in the house because he thought they were ugly. Fifty years later, the fact that Wright only allowed the Kaufmanns to use the colors Cherokee Red and Gold within the house becomes less of a character flaw of Wright's and more of a way to enjoy the object itself. The fact that Wright insisted on polishing the fieldstone floors in the main living area with a solution of varnish and Johnsons Wax to resemble a wet stream bed is admittedly kind of silly, but the effect is actually quite stunning.

My life will never be as structured and orderly as Fallingwater. It will never have the precision of a Swiss Army Knife. It probably won't even have the glamour of a Philipe Starke juice squeezer. But it's nice to know that these objects exist.

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copyrightę1995. Contact John Sealander at: john@sealander.com 75216 readers since 3/9/96