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A Weekend of Genius

I was privileged to spend this last weekend in the company of two geniuses. Both dead, unfortunately, so my time was spent with them indirectly, I suppose. On Thursday, I drove to Pennsylvania to visit Fallingwater, the Kaufman departments store family’s weekend home. It was about a nine hour drive, so I spent the round trip listening to “Twilight of the Gods,” the fourth installment of the operatic Ring Cycle. The two geniuses being, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Wagner.

In addition to Fallingwater, I spent some time at the Hagan home, also known as Kentuck Knob. Both homes were designed by the greatest architect America, and probably the world, has ever seen. And on this trip, his genius was evident in two different ways. At Fallingwater, which the American Institute of Architecture has named the greatest work of American architecture, Wright showed what a man could do when he was free from the constraints of money and society. Spending thirty times the cost of an average home at the time, Wright created a home that was at once inside and outside. He built a home that functioned as more than a residence; it was a structure that acted as an intermediary between man and nature, bringing both together in a new and exciting way. They didn’t call it “green” building in the 30’s, but Wright did it all back then. Southern exposures, thermal mass, no air conditioning. And all while bringing the river inside, and making the house part of the hill, and not just a decoration plunked on top of it.

At the Hagan house, Wright showed off the other end of his genius. The Hagan house is one of his Usonian designs, homes designed to be affordable by the average family. The Hagan home was expensive, but that was due to the fixtures and materials. Wright designed a home that was adaptable to different budgets, and different families, while never losing sight of his theories of organic design and plasticity of materials. The Usonian home, which perhaps reached its apex here, became the foundation of the ubiquitous ranch style home. And like copies of the greatest works of art, it falls short of the master’s vision. The Hagan home and Fallingwater are beautiful testaments to a man’s mastery of his art.

The driving portion of the trip was made bearable by a great recording of the “Götterdammerung,” which is translated as “Twilight of the Gods,” by Wagner. The end of an operatic epic that begins with “Das Rheingold” and continues with “Die Walkure” then “Siegfried,” Twilight is to my mind the greatest of all operas. And not just because it contains the longest aria in operatic history. It is because in the cycle, which took Wagner 24 years to write, Wagner destroyed the typical concept of an opera, and substituted a creature that required a new vocabulary, a new way of thinking, and even new instruments. Wagner did for opera what Wright did for architecture. Both men demanded a re-evaluation of the status quo, and in its place gave us new paradigms by which to measure both music and architecture.

It’s rare enough to meet genius, rarer still to spend any significant time with it. I’m fortunate in that I had the opportunity to spend a weekend with two of the world’s great men.

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