February 13, 2017
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater Has a New Neighbor
In modernizing the student residences at Fallingwater, the key was architecture firm Bohlin Cywinski Jacson’s sensitive touch.
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s High Meadow dwellings are distinctly attuned to the path of the sun, the directions of the winds, and the flow of the watershed.
Courtesy Nic Lehoux
Sitting in the offices of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) in Pittsburgh, Bill James pulls out a drawing of a site about an hour and a half’s drive south of the city. The building, the young architect explains, embraces its edge condition. At the front sits the forest of the Bear Run Nature Reserve; at the back, a meadow. The four dwelling units, encased in cedar-stained shale-gray, rest on nimble steel posts, barely touching the sloping ground. Each is positioned to capture the breezes up the valley and the views back down.
James describes all this. But it does not prepare me for when I leave the car and enter the cool autumn-colored forest. To hear the crunch of leaf-strewn gravel. To be confronted with sweeping views of the valley. To see warm light filter through the windows, which come alive with the buzzing of wasps and ladybugs. To feel those cool breezes brush my skin.
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The High Meadow residences at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, designed by James and BCJ cofounder Peter Bohlin, sit a few miles from their iconic neighbor, perhaps the greatest standing example of 20th-century American architecture. That the dwellings do not compete but rather lightly co-exist with Fallingwater is a testament to the architects who designed them.
The lasting legacy of Bohlin—who will celebrate his 80th birthday this year—may very well be as the designer of iconic Apple stores, such as New York’s Fifth Avenue cube. However, within the architectural community, BCJ signifies something much more profound than a clean retail aesthetic.
Bohlin has sustained a long career crafting Modernist homes that are warm, inviting, and at their best, completely at one with their surroundings. Considering the architect’s personality (during our tour of the site, he waded headlong into the meadow, happily thwacking back brush with his walking stick), it’s perhaps unsurprising to learn the extent to which BCJ’s buildings commune with nature.
Indeed, it was this sensitivity that landed the architects the commission in the first place. For more than 20 years, young architects and designers have come to High Meadow to partake in the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy Fallingwater Institute’s residency programs (James participated in one of the programs as a college student). The small split-level used to house participants had, over the years, become inadequate for the needs of the institute, which now serves more than 120 students annually. In 2010, Fallingwater hosted a design competition for an extension—but the winning proposal was hopelessly over budget.
Then, in 2013, a group of visiting students from Miami University in Ohio were asked to imagine how they would expand the humdrum building. Lynda Waggoner, the director of Fallingwater, asked Bohlin and James to act as judges. The student proposals, Waggoner recalled, were exactly what you might expect: ambitious, imaginative, and completely outside the realm of possibility. The architects’ critiques, however, were music to Waggoner’s ears. “Peter was talking about how ‘it needs to be light on the land,’ ‘it needs to not be a big statement,’” she says. “I knew right then I had the architect that I needed for this project.”
“American Modernists [like the Eameses], they believed in doing things for people, making design accessible and affordable,” Bohlin said to a small crowd sitting in the porched living room, the nexus point of the residences. “If I had to choose a belief that one should aspire to, it’s that.”
Rather than eliminating the existing house, the addition, constructed from simple, affordable plywood, hugs the original structure. A breezeway connects the new screened-in living area to the bedroom units. The breezeway’s siding, arguably the building’s only self-consciously “architectural” touch, varies carefully. At their densest, the planks (made from Norway spruce, a nonlocal, invasive species the Bear Run Nature Reserve has been trying to eradicate for years) provide a sense of shelter and privacy. At their sparsest, the planks offer spectacular views of the surrounding landscape.
The rooms, though small and spartan, have the feel of a sophisticated summer camp cabin: plywood walls and ceilings, cork floors, two single beds, one desk. The bathroom features dark slate, mined from a local quarry. A small rectangular window near each bedroom door serves as an additional breeze-catcher, when desired. And although light fills each cranny of the space during the day, LED cove lighting, which sits unobtrusively along the wooden ceilings, offers a soft glow at night.
The building is also designed to maximize energy efficiency and minimize the impact on the land. The units are naturally ventilated in summer and warmed by radiant floor heating in the spring and fall. Wastewater is treated on-site so as not to affect the protected watershed. The roof distributes rainwater evenly, while a gravel bed allows it to flow into the adjacent meadow.
The effect, however, is far from high-tech or cold; the residences, with their exquisite responsiveness to context, human scale, and humility of spirit, resonate at every turn on a basic sensory level. “This business of relating to the natural world, which has to do with the sun and breezes,” Bohlin explains, “it’s not just intellectual, it’s a very emotional thing.”