Imagine living in a waterfall, surrounded by soft sounds of rushing water streaming down, answering gravity’s infinite call, fresh energy vibrating from this essential life source.
This is, essentially, what the Kaufmann family had the privilege of experiencing when renowned Wisconsin-born architect Frank Lloyd Wright created a summer getaway for them, built directly on top of a natural waterfall. The building, aptly named Fallingwater, has since become one of the most famous architectural achievements in history, and is a classic example of the surprising beauty that is unearthed when we combine natural elements with man-made materials.
The lucky Kaufmann family spent their weekends in this fantastical place for 26 years, after which they donated the landmark structure to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Since then, Fallingwater has been made into a public museum for everyone to enjoy. When it was first finished in 1938, the building even made it onto the cover of Time magazine, solidifying its place in design history. Today, the summer home is still studied in architecture classes around the world, and with good reason: its timeless qualities are as inspiring in 2013 as they were back when it was first built 75 years ago.
Organic buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.
-Frank Lloyd Wright
It’s the little things that make the difference
As monumental an architectural accomplishment as Fallingwater is, it’s in the details where it really shines, and not just through the majestic waterfalls. Wright fastidiously ensured that each aspect of the design aligned with the structure’s overall sense of integrity, paying tribute to the delicate dance we enjoy as humans with nature and our organic environment. For example, even the paint used inside this innovative summer home is eco-friendly. Wright ensured this through a collaboration with a Pittsburgh-based paint company to create environmentally-friendly paint that was also capable of withstanding “the environmental challenges of the site.”
From a strictly aesthetic perspective, the pointed design choice of using only two colors—light ochre and Cherokee red—within the entire interior space effectively creates a feeling of serenity and oneness. The minimalism from the restrained color palate and simple spacial lines provide a sense of simplicity and openness that enhance, rather than detract from, the natural peacefulness of the surrounding falling water embedded within.
Incorporating water into our urban landscapes
There are many other structures that embody the merging of nature and man-made materials, though perhaps none as eloquent as Wright’s Fallingwater. In Texas, for instance, we can see water elements used in the Fort Worth Water Gardens as a way of coping with the scorching heat of Texan summers. This modern interpretation of urban waterfalls not only adds tranquility to the urban city landscape, it also serves a practical purpose in giving people a reprieve from the omnipresent rays of the Texan sun.
But weather need not be the motivating factor when combining organic and fabricated matter: the addition of natural elements, particularly water, almost always enhances structures by bringing us back to our natural roots. In Nek Chand’s stunning Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India, waterfalls are used as an integral part of this unique, eco-friendly park made from garbage. The water elements within the large outdoor space serve as visual and auditory links between the recycled man-made waste and the natural world. A colorful medley of flowing waterfalls and mosaics made from broken and discarded plates, bowls, and toilet fixtures creates a fresh, playful world where trash is treasure. In it, junk becomes beauty and nature extends its embrace among the moss-covered walls and man-made waste alike.
At the heart of all good art, design, and architecture lies intent. This underlying purpose is usually manifested through a variety of techniques including historical or conceptual references, ideologies, and symbolism.
Modern architecture saw the advent of using materials such as glass and steel to create buildings that were essentially transparent. This style, along with open-concept design, which favors wide areas of space unobstructed by walls or barriers, is still quite popular. One of the original intentions of this open, forthright aesthetic was to symbolize a more figurative sense of transparency, as the architects of the time were responding to the general public’s fatigue from constant manipulation by their governments. Our ability to now literally see through these new buildings, and into the goings-on inside, was intended to welcome in a new age of truth-telling.
Natural architecture is similar in that it is also filled with a yearning to create a new truth, but this time it’s about getting back to honoring our connection with nature. These structures that combine natural organic matter with man-made fabrications seek to inspire a new, more intimate relationship with our Mother Earth; a unity and oneness born from respect and tender care for our natural world. The strength of this architectural movement rests in its ability to merge the industrial with the natural in a harmonious blend of form and function.
When we incorporate waterfalls and water-based elements into our man-made structures, symbolism floats throughout each aquatic cascade and supple stream. We can feel the water’s elegant presence; we can hear its gentle flow, encouraging us to slow down and breathe. Water can mean new life, fresh beginnings, and re-birth.
In dreams, waterfalls also play a large role when it comes to symbolism and deciphering meanings. In the study of our dreams, waterfalls are sometimes said to represent a “linear flow of time.” They can also be an indication of letting go:
“To see a waterfall in your dream is symbolic of letting go. You are releasing all those pent up emotions and negative feelings. Alternatively, the dream represents your goals and desires. In particular, if the waterfall is clear, then it represents revitalization, regeneration and renewal.”
It is no wonder we feel a sense of peace, and possibly even catharsis, when we hear the powerful rush of water falling down from above. Waterfalls are naturally symbolic of feelings of freedom and letting go; of welcoming in newness, the beautiful flux of nature, and the flow of life itself.
Finding natural inspiration in our daily lives
There are so many ways that sustainable architecture and buildings with natural elements can help to guide us towards a more holistic lifestyle. What we can learn from Wright’s Fallingwater is that by focusing on merging fabricated materials with organic elements found in nature, we can create a world much more suited to our authentic humanity.
Unsurprisingly, our souls feel more connected and grounded to our earth when we surround ourselves with nature. It’s why we enjoy having plants and flowers inside our homes, or water features like ponds and fountains nearby. A sense of connection occurs with the presence of the natural elements of earth, air, fire, and water.
Taking a page from Wright’s book, there are many ways for us to incorporate more nature into our own environments that can evoke feelings similar to those generated by being near natural wonders like giant waterfalls. This can be achieved simply by adding a nature walk to our weekly routines, or a water feature to our homes. Even something as easy as getting a second-hand, clear vase from a flea market and filling it up with water and soft, colored sea-glass on the bottom can provide calmness, and a gentle reminder of the passionate sea. Our options truly are infinite when it comes to the myriad ways in which water and nature can merge seamlessly into our modern worlds.
An idea is salvation by imagination.
-Frank Lloyd Wright