August 26, 2022

The Building on the Water, Huai’An City, Jiangsu Province, China, by Alvaro Siza and Carlos Castanheira (photo WZWX)

Throughout architecture, the element of water has played an impactful role—whether as a lead actor or the backdrop. Of the many ways water has been employed in design, five come to mind.

Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, by Jørn Utzon, (photo by Scott Chin, Pixabay)

With some projects, water is the venue, the scenery. Such watery backgrounds are so significant, that one can’t imagine these projects without their liquid surroundings—as if a fish out of its water. Picture if you will the Sydney Opera House set within a desert or perhaps, the streets of New York City (here and here).

Casa Malaparte, Capri, Italy, by Adalberto Libera (photo from issimoissimo.com)

Water is most often thought of as physical, as moisture we touch. But upon my pilgrimage to the famed Fallingwater, a home built over a waterfall, I learned of water not as wetness, but rather as sound. All the famous photographs of this structure did not prepare me for how loud, even deafening, the rush of aquatic was. Other such varied places, such as the tranquil fountains at Alhambra or the aggressive splashing at Embarcadero Plaza, the resonance of water in motion becomes the aural aspect of architecture.

Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, by Frank Lloyd Wright (photo by Venti Views, Unsplash)
Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain, by Pavel Notbeck and José Contreras (photo by Tomasz Hanarz, Pixabay)
Vaillancourt Fountain, Embarcadero Plaza, San Francisco, California, by Armand Vaillancourt (photo by Peter Hartlaub)
Venice, Italy (photo by Ekaterina Zagorska, Unsplash)

Akin to wood, stone, steel, or glass, water can also be employed as part of the physical palette of materials. The Blur Building uses water to be an “architecture of atmosphere,” stated the designers. Or what would Venice be if all the waterways were generically concrete and asphalt? At the Therme Baths, the water may be necessary for the functioning of this spa, but this element offers equal strength and boldness to the stone walls of local Valser Quartzite.

Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (photo by Beat Widmer)
Therme Baths, Vals, Switzerland, by Peter Zumthor (photo from premiumswitzerland.com)

Water can provide a mirror-like surface, one of introspection, intrigue, and/or investigation. Architects have taken advantage of this quality to provide dramatic effects, whether furthering civic identify in Washington D.C., offering the perfect postcard of the Taj Mahal, or creating bizarre appeal in Spain. But the reflecting surface of water is not only fragile but sometimes temporary—shattered by a mere gust of wind or a ripple-causing pebble.

Washington Monument, Washington, D.C., by Robert Mills (photo by David Mark, Pixabay)
Taj Mahal, Agra, India, by Ustad Ahmad Lahori (photo by Olena Tur / Shutterstock)
City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia, Spain, by Santiago Calatrava (photo from designsdelis.blogspot.com)

Lastly, the mere use of water can transport a project to otherworldliness, transcending the design beyond that of a mere building. Water can offer a spirituality that approaches the sublime. Akin to poetry, the impact of water here is immeasurable and intangible, but long lasting.

Garden Hotspot Restaurant, Sansheng Township, Chengdu, China, by MUDA-Architects (photo by Arch-Exist)
San Cristóbal stables, Mexico City, Mexico, by Luis Barragán (photo from guilfoilandwulfson.com)
The Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, by Jean Nouvel (photo by Juliana Malta, Unsplash)

I conclude with one of Bruce Lee’s most profound quote, “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless—like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”


December 23, 2016

Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 1938

I recently had the joy of visiting two homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright: a modest design and his most ambitious.

The cozy Pope-Leighey House in Virginia totals a mere 1,200 square feet. In stark contrast, the visionary estate known as Fallingwater in Pennsylvania has a 2,900 square foot residence, 2,500 square feet of terraces, and a guest house of 1,700 square feet. Surrounded by 5,000 acres of the Bear Run Nature Reserve, this house cantilevers over a waterfall.

When historians speak of Wright’s homes as being intimately scaled, was this because Wright had a unique interpretation of domestic life, or was it because he was petite? Only 5′ – 7”.

Pope-Leighey House, Alexandria, Virginia, 1941 (photo from woodlawnpopeleighey.org)
Pope-Leighey House, Alexandria, Virginia, 1941 (photo from woodlawnpopeleighey.org)

For both houses, Wright utilizes two of his most classic moves. The first connects the interiors to the exterior surroundings, suggesting that a house might be a home with no walls—that only Mother Nature limits the boundaries of the structure.

Fallingwater living room in winter (photo from fallimgwater.org)
Fallingwater living room in winter (photo from fallimgwater.org)

Another very Wrightian theme: compression and release. Small spaces are manipulated to be even smaller, so that the large spaces feel larger. The transition is no mere door threshold, but a cramped, dark hallway theatrically stepping into a tall room with expansive glass. Through spatial contrast, the architect bestows drama.

Fallingwater composition: horizontal cantilevered terraces, vertical stone walls, and signature Cherokee red windows (photo by Anthony Poon)
Fallingwater composition: horizontal cantilevered terraces, vertical stone walls, and signature Cherokee red windows (photo by Anthony Poon)

Unless you don’t have the Internet or have been trapped under a fallen rock, Fallingwater is universally agreed upon as one of the best homes in the world. The design has offered over 4.5 million tourists a glimpse into genius. Here, I only have two comments to make.

One, Wright explored a crazy idea: a shower out of cork. Really? Sure, it creates a comfy environment, but why use a porous material that will be constantly pounded on by water. What’s next: a toilet made of a sponge?

Fallingwater drawing, by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935
Fallingwater drawing, by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935

Two, the beauty of noise. We have all seen thousands of pictures of Fallingwater. What is missing in even the best of photographs is the sound of the waterfall. The beautiful score of racing waters surrounds the estate, reverberating through the walls, reminding the visitors that they are in a house not just called Fallingwater, but literally built over a waterfall.

Fallingwater living room stair down to creek (photo by Daderot)
Fallingwater living room stair down to creek (photo by Daderot)
Pope-Leighey kitchen (photo by Ronal Hilton)
Pope-Leighey kitchen (photo by Ronal Hilton)

In both homes, the kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms do not impress. But then again, during this period, they weren’t supposed to.

Current California homebuyers obsess over enormous kitchens with 20-foot long islands and commercial-quality appliances, spa bathrooms with luxurious two-person water-jetted showers, and massive bedroom suites with sitting rooms and an espresso/smoothie bar. Such American dreams surpass the excessive and the ridiculous, when seeing how comfortable one can live at the Pope-Leighey House.

Pope-Leighey carport and front entrance (photo by Anthony Poon)
Pope-Leighey carport and front entrance (photo by Anthony Poon)

This precious home is small, but does not suffer from being miniature. Quite the opposite, the taut composition feels grand and generous, never trivial. When critics say a design is a jewel-of-a-project, it is not in reference to glass and reflectivity. Rather, it is a design of brilliance and clarity. Such is Pope-Leighey, and “Good things comes in small packages.”

Pope-Leighey living and dining room (photo by Paul Burk)
Pope-Leighey living and dining room (photo by Paul Burk)
Pope-Leighey writing studio (photo from funinfairfaxva.com)
Pope-Leighey writing studio (photo from funinfairfaxva.com)

This nicely edited creation wastes no energy. All the aspects of a perfect home present themselves in rigorous form. With Fallingwater, I wonder what I would do with these enormous terraces that seem to be sized for a party of 500. Pope-Leighey squanders not even a square inch. I felt more at home in this living room, than the one in Fallingwater sprawling at ten times the size.

Often called one of architecture’s geniuses, Frank Lloyd Wright demonstrates virtuosity when either flexing his muscles and being unshackled, or relaxing and offering restraint and modesty.

© Poon Design Inc.