Bill James Presents at Premiere of Wright Sites x PechaKucha

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Bill James, Lynda Waggoner, and Peter Bohlin at High Meadow at Fallingwater © Vanessa Quirk

Bill James, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, shares about his experience of collaborating with two Wright sites, Fallingwater and the Westcott House, first as an architecture student, and later as a professional designer. This presentation was part of an inaugural Wright Sites x PechaKucha Live event on June 8th, 2020, honoring Frank Lloyd Wright’s 153rd Birthday. Curators from Frank Lloyd Wright’s public & private buildings offered unique insights with “20 x 20” talks. Below is a summary of his presentation. A video recording of the presentation is viewable here, courtesy of Pecha Kucha.

Reflections on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Influence

I first came to a Frank Lloyd Wright site, specifically Fallingwater, when my father took me when I was 13 years old. Being an engineer, he took me to see it while the cantilevers were being stabilized. That cemented my interest not only in Wright, but in architecture.

I found myself a few years later at Miami University studying architecture. There I met John Reynolds, a professor, who had led a studio where his students designed and built furniture for the servant’s sitting room at Fallingwater. By my junior year, I had enrolled in one of his studios myself. We built Froebel gift sets by hand (educational tools that Wright himself used in his youth) and then used these blocks to analyze the underlying organizational principles onsite at both Fallingwater and the Westcott House. We also did Warp and Wood studies, analyzing how the architecture weaves into the landscape. This work culminated in the site master planning for a visitor center, education center, and tea house at the Westcott House, as well as a proposal for student housing for those studying at Fallingwater.

As my professional career began after my schooling, I came to Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. I was attracted to them because of their humane modernism, and many of the same principles that undergirded Wright’s work were present in theirs. I continued my relationship with both of these Wright sites through interactive studio courses held during the summer, as well as virtual critiques.

Marta Wojcik, Westcott House’s Executive Director, was so kind to ask Peter Bohlin, our firm’s founder and myself, to help envision an education and visitor center for their own site. The site master planning drawings that we did were greatly informed by the work that I did there as a student. I was also able to continue to work with some of John’s students at Fallingwater itself. They were designing a screening element to shield from view the staff’s vehicles for those entering Fallingwater as a visitor.

Peter and I were later asked ­­­if we would come and look at some of John’s students’ work. They were again exploring the student housing at Fallingwater. After our visit, the Conservancy asked if we (Bohlin Cywinski Jackson) would be willing to design actual residences at Fallingwater. The residences are now known as High Meadow dwellings and Studio which are situated on a hill above Fallingwater and nestled at the edge between field and forest. One enters this project through the woods, an addition to an existing split-level home. You rise up from the forest floor and enter into the space; it elevates you over the meadow on a series of nimble columns.

As I was studying this, even as a student, I was looking at and exploring what architecture looks like when it touches the ground and what is the relationship between earth and sky. Part of that expression is how the roof of this communal porch area at the Fallingwater High Meadow residences opens up to the sky and the views beyond of the Western Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands. It’s­ a great place for students to congregate in the evening, as well as places for mealtimes. Units themselves are quite modest, really focusing on framing the view and creating connections to the outside world. The shrouds themselves capture cool morning breezes and shield from the heat of the midday sun.

The companion project to this was the Studio component — an addition to an existing garage. The Studio provides students and resident artists the ability to study in a studio environment onsite while connected to nature, also providing them with great fabrication capabilities in the woodshop. As artists and architects are prone to do, we burn the midnight oil, so the Studio serves as a lantern within the forest — guiding the way for students to come and work even late into the evening.

One of the great privileges of being able to work on these incredible sights, both the Westcott House and Fallingwater, has been the ability to continue the mission of Wright Sites, many of whom have a mission of education. I’ve been blessed to learn and grow and blessed by the wonderful relationships that we’ve been able to form. It is a great reminder that we can learn from Wright and continue to grow in that tradition.

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Designing buildings that inspire connection and wonder in every person who experiences them.

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