(Almost) Living and (Definitely) Learning at Fallingwater
One afternoon, Kyra Tucker, director of interior architecture programs, walked into Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic architectural masterpiece Fallingwater to find her students sitting on the floor with their shoes off.
I said ‘What are you guys doing?’” she recalls, laughing. “‘[Chatham has] a reputation to protect here!’”
But Tucker was joking, and the high level of comfort was entirely appropriate for the situation, a weeklong residency for students in the Bachelor of Interior Architecture (BIA) program, also offered for students in the Master of Interior Architecture program. While students don’t sleep at Fallingwater – they stay in new residential facilities nearby – they spend plenty of time in Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture – for instruction, to work on projects, or just to absorb their surroundings.
“We had hours and hours in Fallingwater to sketch and take photographs. We could explore whatever we wanted,” says Mark Shorthouse ’17. “It’s not like we were lounging on the beds, but we were in there barefoot. We were going down to the private swimming pond,” a sheltered spot directly underneath the house.
Most of the roughly 200,000 people who visit Fallingwater each year go on one of the regularly scheduled tours that move through the building like clockwork. Tours last about an hour, and shoes are required. Visitors typically take a few photos, browse in the gift shop, and hop back in their cars to go home.
Chatham students have a much longer and more intensive interaction with the house and site. Says Hallie Dufour ’18, “It was really amazing that we got to experience it more deeply than everybody else.”
Fallingwater has had programs for visiting students and educators for about twenty years. Made of ad hoc groups of individuals from different locations, these have been available “for anyone who wants to register,” explains Fallingwater Curator of Education Ashley Andrykovich. In contrast, Chatham’s program is solely for its own students and is tailored specifically to the University mission and program curriculum.
Says Tucker: “One of our University initiatives is sustainability. Fallingwater, we decided, would be a sustainability mission course. It is really based around Frank Lloyd Wright being the original ‘organic architect.’” It is also an official part of the Maymester schedule, and BIA students are required to attend in their first year.
Chatham’s program was unique at Fallingwater this year. But even if other universities follow Chatham’s lead, it will remain a rare experience. “We only have the capacity to do programs with two or three universities each year,” says Andrykovich.
The student experience at Fallingwater begins with a silent hike that starts at High Meadow. Students are required to turn off their phones, which don’t get much reception out there anyway. “We ask the students to unplug and be silent. We actually collect their cell phones for this part,” says Andrykovich. The approach places an emphasis on contemplation and observation. “We hike through the meadow down to Bear Run, and the landscape changes in ways that are observable three or four different ways during that hike.” Students are encouraged to sketch on the hike, as they will be encouraged throughout the week.
Graduate student Heidi Tabor, MIA ’17 found the phone-free approach “a little intimidating at first.” But it was one of several things “that pushed you outside of your comfort zone. I think I grew that way.”
The residency week blends contemplative study with industrious instruction and studio work. Andrykovich explains that students do “a combination of sustained looking, sketching, and experiencing the house, combined with exercises that are designed to push them to think about the design themes that are at play in Fallingwater.”
For the undergraduates, one of the first design exercises, described in written assignments as a “sculpture light intervention,” is otherwise known as a lantern or lamp. It was an opportunity to consider “different types of lighting, how it can be manipulated, colors of light, textures,” says Dufour.
Shorthouse adds, “Our projects needed to be implemented in Fallingwater itself...to look as if they were originally built there.” Students would photograph their model light fixtures in place in Fallingwater for use in their portfolios.
“They came up with some really innovative, extremely cool things,” says Tucker.
A second exercise was to design a screen or scrim to be placed somewhere in the house to frame a particular view. “The lantern had them focusing inward, and the screen helped them connect the inside with the outside,” Tucker explains. “Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! I just love this.”
While enhanced design skills are important, Tucker also finds success in developing a studio culture in which students work together successfully.
“What I am finding they get from it is a very close experience with each other, so we are building a studio culture, not just relationships with friends through social media. We need that, because that’s how it is in the workforce. That is how great things are accomplished. Together.”
Dufour agrees. “It brought me and the other students together, especially students I had not known before,” she says.
The program uses the rare experience of a unique building to teach lessons about interior architecture that are applicable to all aspects of future careers in professional practice. The student response to the Fallingwater program is categorically enthusiastic.
“It’s a super intensive, immersive, creative studio experience,” says Shorthouse. “I felt that I had really grown as a designer in a way I had not felt up to that point. It gave me more confidence that I am a creative person and I could create designs.”
“It opened my eyes more to the world and what I was seeing,” says Tabor.