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Fallingwater Cottages Competition: Blurring Boundary Between Building and Landscape

For Fallingwater’s 75th anniversary, an exhibition and lectures that follow in the footsteps of Frank Lloyd Wright

By Nalina Moses

In his 1932 autobiography, Frank Lloyd Wright declared, "No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other." That sentiment lies at the heart of a winning competition entry designed by Patkau Architects for six new cottages near Wright’s Fallingwater. Patkau Architects' design builds the new cottages, quite literally, within a hill about half a mile away from the iconic house. Hosted by Fallingwater and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the competition solicited cottage designs that would house individuals enrolled in Fallingwater’s educational programs. The competition is the subject of an exhibition and several lectures this fall, held in honor of Fallingwater’s 75th anniversary.

Fallingwater sits in Bear Run Nature Preserve, the largest property administered by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC), a land trust that governs reserves throughout the state. Since Edgar Kaufmann, jr. donated the house to the WPC in 1963, a board of directors has maintained the property. For years the Fallingwater board has wanted to provide more suitable housing for people enrolled in the house’s symposia and educational programming. After important structural repairs to Fallingwater were completed in 2002, they were able to turn more attention to this need.

From the beginning, both the WPC and the Fallingwater board were very clear about what type of architecture they were seeking. As Fallingwater director Lynda Waggoner describes it, they wanted the new structures to be in sympathy with Wright's principles but not to be "Wrightian-looking. The house is unique," she explains. "It is not a brand." In addition, the new cottages needed to be in sympathy with the core principles of the WPC, whose mission is to preserve undeveloped land.

Fallingwater began the design competition in 2009, and a committee pre-selected 30 North American architecture firms whose work was consistent with the intimately-scaled, ecologically-minded project. The RFP they issued in December 2009 called for six LEED Platinum cottages, each between 600 and 800 square feet, with a total design and construction budget of $1 million. It proposed three locations within the property, all visually remote, but within walking distance from the main house.

From the 20 applicants who responded with statements of interest, six finalists were selected and asked to develop their designs further in May 2010. These included the winner Patkau Architects from Vancouver, runner-up Wendell Burnette Architects from Phoenix, and second runner-up Olson Kundig Architects from Seattle.

The cottages

The six final designs all take a strikingly similar approach, setting the cottages unobtrusively within the existing landscape. It's a strategy that's in vivid contrast to Wright's design for Fallingwater, a highly sculptural building that soars above the ground and dramatizes the stream of water at Bear Run. The small cottages in each of the final designs are grounded delicately, and have a muted, inward-looking presence. Not one of them reaches for monumentality.

The runner-up entry from Wendell Burnette Architects proposes slender, solid timber cottages raised from the ground on piles and slid in between trees at the edge of an existing clearing, barely disturbing the landscape. The interiors, finished in dark wood, feature a living space with a large glass wall that can be lowered to the ground to open the room to the outdoors, where existing foliage provides natural camouflage and canopy.

The second runner-up entry from Olson Kundig Architects imagines the visitor cottages as retreats. They're located within an ecotone--a transitional geographical zone between existing forest and meadow. As principal Tom Kundig, FAIA, notes, "Located within the shelter of the eco-tone, our cabins provide refuge, and allow for prospects of the surrounding natural environment – both forest and field." An important element of the design is the walk from the cottages to the main house, a daily ritual that can bring guests to a heightened awareness of the surrounding landscape. The cabins are also built with non-native evergreen trees on the site that are scheduled for removal.

Of all the final entries, the winning entry from Patkau Architects has the gentlest presence in the site. While the design is a lucid expression of Wright's ideas about buildings and their landscape, it's also a provocative counterpoint to Wright's bold, Modern monument at Bear Run. The six cottages are tucked within slight, hill-like forms built into an existing meadow. The ground cover quiets their presence and offers unique insulating properties. Each cottage is connected to the outside through deep, sculpted window and door openings lined with naturally weathering steel plates. Daylight enters through them to reveal softly curving wood interiors.

For a person crossing the landscape, all that will be perceptible are the gentle sloping of the ground and the apertures within it. While the design, in its near-invisibility, seems at odds with the muscular cantilevers and materials of Fallingwater, Patkau Architects Principal John Patkau, AIA, emphasizes that both buildings are amplifications of the existing landscape. "Just as Fallingwater is an intensification of the rock outcroppings that characterize Bear Run, the cottages are an intensification of the swelling ground plane of the meadow, made from the soil and grasses of the meadow itself," he says. Visiting the site for the first time, Patkau was strongly impressed by the dynamic character of the ground, a quality that has been carried over into the design. He remembers, "Being in the meadow seemed almost like being at sea surrounded by 40-foot waves. It was the fluidity of the ground plane that was most remarkable."

God and nature

Now Patkau Architects are working to complete design development and secure the required administrative approvals. There was a bit of a commotion in October 2010 when heirs of the donor of the land where the cottages were originally sited expressed opposition to new construction. As Waggoner explains, "There was a conflict of culture and conservation." So an adjacent parcel of land to the south with a similarly hilly topography was selected. Then, because local building codes required residences to be built on independent lots, the six cottages were re-planned as a subdivision, each resting within a separate 1-acre lot.

It's a testimony to the strength of Patkau’s subtle, unconventional design that it's met these practical challenges with such assurance. The scheme proves that designers can honor Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy without simply mimicking his virtuosic, still-thrilling formal language. These striking but unassuming new cottages lying within the rolling fields near Bear Run will no doubt call to mind another of Wright's assertions about the power of landscape: "I believe in God, only I spell it Nature."


The cottages designed by Patkau Architects are nestled into small hills, with sculpted window and door openings lined with naturally weathering steel plates. Image courtesy of Patkau Architects, 2011.

The interiors of the Patkau design are bright and warm with wood finishes. Image courtesy of Patkau Architects, 2011.

The Wendell Burnette Architects entry is finish in dark wood and features a living space with a large glass wall that can be lowered to the ground to open the space to the outdoors. Image courtesy of Wendell Burnette Architects, 2010.

The Wendell Burnette Architects runner-up design proposes slender, solid timber cottages raised from the ground on piles and slid in between trees at the edge of an existing clearing. Image courtesy of Wendell Burnette Architects, 2010.

Olson Kundig Architects’ entry is built from non-native evergreen trees on the site that are scheduled for removal. Image courtesy of Olson Kundig Architects, 2010.

An interior rendering of the Olson Kundig Architects entry. Image courtesy of Olson Kundig Architects, 2010.


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