Architecture stands at the awkward crossroads between art and construction. Whilst it has the endless aesthetic ambitions of the former, ultimately a building is judged by its ability to be used more than its beauty.
The Roman architect Vitruvius stated that buildings should be strong, be useful, and be beautiful, a triumvirate of traits known as the Vitruvian Triad. Whilst architects often are very good at designing beautiful buildings, they need strong construction materials and pragmatic builders to make them a reality.
Perhaps the ultimate case in point for this was the story of Fallingwater, a beautiful house built beside a waterfall in Pennsylvania and designed by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The design was intended to be “organic” in the sense that its look, flowing design and ambitious cantilever sections harmonised with the waterfall it was constructed above. However, both the contractor and the client, Edgar Kaufmann, were concerned by Mr Wright’s designs.
Mr Wright was not overly familiar with reinforced concrete, which is an incredibly strong and robust material but is not ideally suited to cantilever construction due to the lack of support and thus the extra tensile forces put on the material.
Mr Kaufmann along with contractor Walter Hall, both expressed concerns about the design and the former requested a report by a team of consulting engineers to see if the clearly beautiful design would actually survive.
This set the tone for the relationship between client, contractor and architect that caused many delays, arguments and the project to repeatedly stare cancellation in the face.
The report made for grim reading, as it suggested that the design would not be structurally sound. Mr Wright was furious upon reading it, taking personal offence to the idea that his design was fundamentally flawed.
So angered was he that he demanded all of the technical drawings from the project back and announced he was withdrawing. Eventually, Mr Kaufmann conceded to that wish, and it appeared as if disaster was inevitable.
However, Mr Hall, himself also a structural engineer, became a somewhat pragmatic mediator between the two. He argued that the design could work and calculated that with some extra reinforcing steel, it would not have the problems that had been feared.
Whilst rumoured for decades, a 1995 restoration of Fallingwater would ultimately confirm that double the amount of reinforcing steel specified by Mr Wright had been fitted to the concrete, although it is uncertain exactly how and why.
The two main theories are that Mr Hall secretly added the steel feeling it would not hold otherwise, or the consulting engineers suggested the amount and Mr Hall acted as facilitator.
In either case, it proved to be enough to avoid disaster, although the 1995 restoration also highlighted that it wasn’t enough to avoid the risk of imminent failure. Later post-tensioning of the concrete would solve the problem once and for all in 2002.
Despite these issues, Fallingwater is considered to be amongst the most important works of architecture ever constructed, but behind the adulation for Mr Wright is the contractor that made sure it did not fall apart.