The World's Most Beautiful House

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The World's Most Beautiful House

By Jonathan Glancey

Chicago, 16 October 1956. Frank Lloyd Wright, then the most famous living architect in the US, hosted a press conference at which he unveiled The Illinois, a mile-high skyscraper four times the height of the Empire State Building. Born 150 years ago this June, Wright was 89 at the time and, with the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum under construction on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, as radical and as provocative as he had ever been.

The Guggenheim project, however controversial the form of the building, had endeared him to New York’s media, with Wright appearing on the popular TV quiz show What’s My Line? in June 1956. The following September, he was twice the subject of the smoke-laced Mike Wallace Interview. You can watch these on YouTube today. Compelling viewing, the crinkle-eyed Wright comes across as smart as a whip. It does seem remarkable that you can tune in to see and hear a man born 150 years ago talking with such relevance for the 21st Century across a broad spectrum of political, ethical and, of course, architectural concerns.

Wright was certainly a master of the one-line quip. He told a client who phoned to complain of rain leaking from the roof of her new house onto the dining table where she was sitting to "move the chair". On seeing his lanky engineering assistant, William Wesley Peters, inside one of his latest and rather low-ceilinged houses, he said, “Sit down, Wes, you’re ruining the scale of my architecture”. And when asked for his occupation in a court of law, he stated, “The world’s greatest architect.” When his wife remonstrated with him, he turned to her saying, “I had no choice, Olgivanna. I was under oath.”

Wright’s fame, however high flying his imagination, was rooted to the ground and notably so in the design of hundreds of seductive, crafted, sometimes flawed but always coveted US homes. It was one such house, Fallingwater, that revived his career in the mid-1930s when it seemed that, along with the impact of the Great Depression on home building, Wright’s work was beginning to seem old fashioned to critics and a younger generation of architects as the spirit of clean-cut European Modernism – of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe – took root in the US.

An internationally recognised masterpiece, Fallingwater is as close to the ground and nature as architecturally possible. Built over a waterfall and with the bedrock it was anchored to rising up through the living room floor, it belongs inexorably to the Appalachian landscape it adorns. Since it was handed over to the care of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963 and reopened as a museum the following year, some five million visitors have driven out to this remote Pennsylvanian home at Bear Run, 65 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, to marvel at the building that re-ignited Wright’s career.

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