Derek Fell is the author of The Gardens of Frank Lloyd Wright (2009, Frances Lincoln, publisher). When I heard about the book, I immediately ordered a copy. It is a delicious treat for all who love Wright's architecture and all who love gardens. I highly recommend it!
Kit Knotts, Victoria-Adventure Editor

The Water Gardens of
by Derek Fell
Photos © Derek Fell

Click images to enlarge

Frank Lloyd Wright has been described by the American Institute of Architects as "the greatest architect that ever lived." His two homes – Taliesin, Wisconsin, and Taliesin West, Arizona – are visited by thousands each year, while his most important private commission, Fallingwater, in western Pennsylvania is probably the most recognizable residence in the world. With its living room and bedroom balconies cantilevered dramatically over a series of waterfalls in a pristine woodland setting, it is a spectacular naturalistic water garden that perfectly exemplifies his desire to make his buildings and the surrounding environment one organic whole. What is much less known is Wright's genius for landscape design, which began when he built his first home and studio at Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, on an acre lot that was previously a plant nursery surrounded by prairie. Here he raised six children with his first wife Kitty, and made friends with Chicago based landscape designer Jens Jensen, whose passion for native planting and natural looking water features Wright admired.

The Oak Park property has a conventional apron of lawn, a hedge of forsythia to screen the house entrance from the road, and some strategically placed flowering trees (like lilacs) to provide armloads of cut flowers for indoor arrangements. A large spreading ginkgo tree shades a courtyard at the rear of the property, and a semi circular patio off the living room provides a secluded place for relaxing. Numerous planters are used on pedestals to provide curtains of greenery that help to soften the architectural lines, and the entrance to his studio features some outdoor sculpture.

Wright acquired the Taliesin property after his separation from Kitty. A four hour drive from Oak Park, it is much more spacious, occupying an entire valley that at one time encompassed 3,000 acres, and it is here – on a hill at a bend in the Wisconsin River – where Wright was able to give free reign to his landscaping dreams.

Wright's "water garden" at Taliesin
Eventually everything within his view – all the way to the horizon – he altered to satisfy his desire for a bucolic landscape. He even planted forests of trees that are mere silhouettes in the distance, and made a free form lake where none existed. He situated the house in the brow of the hill, giving it a low, stepped profile reminiscent of Tuscan villas which he saw on a visit to Italy. 

Taliesin's waterfall
In his writing and lecturing Wright explained his ten rules for landscaping a property. One of them was to site the house so it provides a view of water, and where a view of water does not exist, to create one. This he did at Taliesin by damming a small stream that marked the lowest level of the valley so it backs up water to create the lake. This he called his water garden, planting the edges with weeping willow, and designing a spillway that makes a beautiful waterfall.  

The living quarters and Wright's drafting room form an L shape, with a series of Japanese style courtyards within the L. Two have water features as focal points. The one outside Wright's bedroom is a rectangular plunge pool that also serves as a reflecting pool. It allowed him to cool off during the heat of summer by submerging himself up to his neck. A bronze Buddha sits at one end of the reflecting pool to introduce the oriental flavor. Since his death the depth has been adjusted to allow pots of waterlilies to flower in summer.  

A second courtyard leads off from this first one and also includes a rectangular reflecting pool, This features a fountain titled Jonah and the Whale, presented to him by a friend. The pool is raised above the flagstone floor so a group of people can sit around it and converse.

A knuckle of rock projects above the rooflines of the living quarters, surrounded by lawn and a wide perennial border with a retaining wall that faces south. The view from this high elevation provides a panorama of sloping meadows that lead down to the lake, and beyond the lake to a slope of cultivated fields. The hilltops above the cultivated fields are crowned with woodland. Strategically placed before and beyond the lakes are majestic native bur oaks that reminded Wright of Welsh oaks from the countryside of Wales, his ancestral home. There is no sign of human habitation from any of the rooms or terraces at Taliesin even though at one time there were neighborhood farmhouses, a gas station and a diner. When these “nuisance” structures came up for sale he bought them and demolished them so they no longer interfered with his view.  

Eventually, with the encouragement of his third wife, Olga, Wright established a winter home near Scottsdale, Arizona, called Taliesin West. The site is 600 acres of raw desert that the real estate broker warned Wright was virtually worthless because it had no water. But Wright believed if he dug deep enough he would find water, and he was correct.

On a flat, boulder strewn mesa below the foothills of the MacDowell Mountains, he built a long drafting room for his apprentices, living quarters for his family, guest apartments, staff accommodation and eventually student accommodation, although initially his apprentices lived in canvas tents dotted about the surrounding desert. In the beginning he wanted the grounds planted only with indigenous desert plants like saguaro cactus, palo verde trees and teddy bear cholla to make the building an extension of the desert, but after visitors complained of injuries from the vicious spines, he replaced the worst culprits with exotics like bougainvillea vines and orchid trees. He also added a citrus orchard. The buildings even use desert stone and desert timber to help the property blend with the desert.

Wright felt comforted by the sight and sound of water and established a triangular shaped reflecting pool at the front of the main building to also serve as a swimming pool. The pool is part of a terrace that projects out into the desert like the prow of a ship, with views of Paradise Valley. Elsewhere on the property are several more water features. In the center of a courtyard next to Wright's indoor theater is a circular fountain with a metal dome that moves about and creates a ringing tone as it strikes against several floating metal balls. At the entrance to the visitor's center there is another Wright designed water feature in the form of a metal dish fountain, the dish raised high on a wall. This allows it to spill recirculated water over the rim into a basin to create a constant splashing sound. 

When I first visited Fallingwater, in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, the pristine setting seemed so natural I wondered what landscape innovation could be attributed to Wright. First, it became evident that situating the house over the waterfall – rather than facing it to get a stunning view – was a stroke of genius, for the high elevation of the balconies still provides a breathtaking view downstream, as though one is in a tree house. In spite of the natural appearance of the setting, a volunteer force of gardeners is still required to regularly patrol the property and prevent aggressive weeds from obscuring the falls, particularly brambles and poison ivy. The volunteers must even scramble up the cliffs and rock shelves to judiciously prune away aggressive growth. This keeps the moss and fern covered rocks from being suffocated. Wright introduced several special water features into his overall design, including a plunge pool in the bed rock accessible by a flight of stairs directly from the living room, and an elevated plunge pool adjacent to a guest cottage, beneath a canopy of native flowering dogwood and redbuds. 


Wright was an ardent conservationist, and deplored architecture that did not fit comfortably with its surroundings. Some of his blueprints were elaborate in showing where perennial beds, trees and water features should be situated, even naming the plants and their Latin names. At other times he would sit down with a client after completing their home and scribble rough landscape designs on notepaper for the client to implement. Only now – fifty years after his death – are we aware that he was not only the greatest architect that ever lived, but perhaps also the greatest landscape architect. 

Plunge pool at Fallingwater

Profile - Derek Fell
Also by Derek Fell -
The design philosophy behind Monet's Garden, Giverny in
WGI ONLINE Journal 4.3
Derek Fell's Dipping Pool in WGI ONLINE Journal 1.4

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