The Guardian, December 15, 2011
Frank Lloyd Wright was coming towards me in his trademark pork-pie hat and opera-goer's cape, frosty eyebrows raised, when I woke up. As a rule I don't dream of world-famous architects – never, so far as I recall, have I dreamed of Frank Gehry or IM Pei – but there were extenuating factors. I'd nodded off over a biography of Wright, reading about how he'd arrive unannounced at a house of his design to see how its owners were treating it. And the house where I lay, the Duncan House, an hour south-east of Pittsburgh, was an actual FLW, one of only half a dozen where Wright-lovers can stay the night.
Left in sole possession, my wife and I struggled that first evening to make ourselves at home. To begin with, we tried going for a walk. The house is at the end of a mile-long private driveway, set amid a 125-acre wooded estate. In October the trees were in their autumn finery, spanning the spectrum from deep red to palest yellow. Climbing a hill, we looked out over the rolling Laurel Highlands, one of Pennsylvania's prettiest landscapes and a favourite getaway for Pittsburghers, before following a trail to a secluded pond. On our return leg, we looked in on the estate's two other houses, both designed by a pupil of Wright's and bearing his influence.
Back at home base, we tried walking around the single-storey house, considering it from every angle: the horizontal bands of bleached mahogany, the gutterless eaves, the stonework of the chimney, and the carport (Wright hated enclosed spaces like garages, attics and basements). Inside the house was a vintage 1950s American kitchen, like the set of Happy Days, but instead of cooking we made a picnic at the living room table. This was our favourite space, the heart of the house with its cathedral roof and fireplace, and the expansive windows that allowed us to sit warmly inside without missing the magnificent foliage. It wasn't until we were ready for bed that we noticed another typical FLW feature – no curtains or blinds on the windows.
So, up at first light, we made the 40-minute drive south through the Laurel Highlands to Fallingwater. Wright built Fallingwater in the 1930s, when he was pushing 70, and such was its impact that he never again lacked for commissions. People have been visiting, photographing and writing about the place ever since but it still has the power to startle at first sight. The family who commissioned Fallingwater, owners of a Pittsburgh department store, anticipated something more conventional: a weekend cabin with a view of the falls. What they got instead was a bravura exercise in modern architecture and engineering – the core of the house resting on boulders with terraces of reinforced concrete cantilevered out over the falls. To their credit, they were content to foot the bill, which, in true Wright style, never ceased to climb.
Seven miles from Fallingwater and now under the ownership of Lord Palumbo, Kentuck Knob is another FLW favourite. Crowning the brow of a hill and shrouded by trees, Kentuck Knob is built around a hexagonal kitchen and its angles just keep getting odder. Wright hated the dark, Victorian houses of his childhood, calling their rooms boxes within boxes; one of his abiding aims was to break down those boxes and blur the line between inside and out. Built for local ice-cream barons, Kentuck Knob achieves these aims with considerable charm. Adding to its appeal, the house and grounds are dotted with modern art – works by Claes Oldenburg, Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Serra – from Lord Palumbo's collection.
Having toured these two houses, we returned for a second night at the Duncan House and found ourselves looking on "our" FLW with fresh eyes. Now that we'd learned a little about Wright's methods and motives, certain things made more sense: the absence of decoration (Wright abhorred "inferior desecrators"); the narrow gallery leading to the bedrooms (a mere passing-through space, to be minimized as far as possible); the built-in shelving; and the division of the house between living areas (spacious and open) and private spaces (smaller and darker, places to sleep and take shelter rather than for living).
FLW houses try to teach their inhabitants how their paternalistic designer would like you to live: together, around the fireplace; in harmony with nature; simply and without clutter. If Americans have largely ignored his lessons, holding on to their garages and basements, preferring to live in bigger and bigger boxes on sub-divided estates, that isn't Wright's fault.
The Duncan House is no Fallingwater. In common with the other five Wright houses where you can stay the night (all in the Midwest), it's a Usonian. Usonians, designed and built in the last decades of Wright's life, were prefabricated houses that could be assembled according to one of a dozen blueprints. They were meant to be affordable, bringing good design within reach of middle-class America. (Though affordable was always a very relative term with Wright.)
The only way you'll ever get to experience Fallingwater is on a guided tour. Staying at Duncan House felt a bit like being able to take a Rembrandt home from the gallery – not a major work, a sketch, but a Rembrandt all the same.
We certainly got to like the place and were sorry to leave – perhaps, if we'd been allowed to stay, we'd have become better people! Lingering on our last morning, I took time to flick through the comments book. In the couple of years since the Duncan House opened, Wright aficionados from all over the world have stayed there, adding an extra, personal facet to their FLW tour. It's not cheap but very few were complaining. 'The dream of a lifetime' wrote more than one.
• The Duncan House, 187 Evergreen Lane, Acme (+1 877 833 7829) costs $425 per night (two night minimum); the house sleeps up to six – extra $50 per night for fourth, fifth and sixth guests. Fallingwater, 1491 Mill Run Road, Mill Run, (fallingwater.org; book tours several months in advance). Kentuck Knob, 723 Kentuck Road, Dunbar (kentuckknob.com; advance bookings recommended). Flights from London to Pittsburgh with various US airlines start at around £340, if booked via kayak.co.uk.