Living and learning at Fallingwater

You have been at Fallingwater for five days. You've looked at the house from a dozen angles, heard its history, discovered its quirks. Now you have an opportunity to contribute to the experience...."

So begin the instructions for the final project of this summer's Fallingwater High School Residency program. Standing on the gravel path to what many consider architect Frank Lloyd Wright's masterwork, a dozen 17- and 18-year-old aspiring architects receive their charge resolutely.

For almost a week, they have been studying the legendary house with a river - actually, stream - running through it. With the help of architecture, art history, and education professionals, the students, from as far away as North Carolina and Toronto, are getting to know Fallingwater much better than the 130,000 tourists who swarm through the house and grounds every year. And they're loving it.

"I mean, just to swim in the pool here," says high-schooler Colin Simmer, "how many people get to do that?"

"Or chillin' on the couches?" says Dave DeAngelo, "Just sitting there, like, 'Yeah.' "

"Have you ever watched [the MTV show] 'The Real World?' " Adam Koogler jumps in. "I call this, like, the 'Real World' of architecture."

It's unusual for a world-famous museum to let teenagers hang out on its furniture. But Linda Waggoner, Fallingwater's director and co-founder of the high school program, insists that's what Edgar Kaufman Jr., the house's donor, wanted for it.

Ms. Waggoner started working at Fallingwater as a tour guide when she was still in high school herself - in 1965, the year after it opened to the public. There she got to know Kaufmann, the son of the department-store magnate who commissioned Wright to build the weekend cottage for his family in 1935. When he donated the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Kaufmann wanted to see it used as a springboard for ideas." He once wrote to Waggoner: "I don't care if we break 10 objects a year in that house from people bumping into them, as long as people can walk through those rooms and experience that building."

Of course, she makes clear, they try not to break anything. But the spirit of Kaufmann's wish has guided the high school program since its inception in 1988, and helped in the founding of a similar retreat for teachers. "I feel very strongly that young people should be able to have that immediate experience of Fallingwater," Waggoner says. "Probably because it was so important for me: As a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, it was my window onto the world."

You're on your own

It could hardly get more immediate than this: The students now have 24 hours to design and build a model of a structure that could stand on the path where they're standing now. It has to be obvious enough to point visitors the final hundred yards to the house, but subtle enough not to steal its thunder. "The point is not to make your own Fallingwater," Aron Temkin, director of the residency program, says in parting, "Be inspired by the building, but don't re-create the building."

The kids fan out along the path, some sketching, some taking polaroids, some heading up the bluff for a better view of the site. Mr. Temkin makes the rounds, offering advice. A professor of architecture at Florida Atlantic University, he's been teaching this program - with the help of graduate students - for three summers.

He says he particularly likes teaching at Fallingwater because "being in a place with good architecture goes a long way toward understanding architecture. Being here, working with students who are ready to learn, it's almost too easy."

But Frank Lloyd Wright himself might have felt differently - about teaching, anyway. Despite the two college- and graduate-level programs he founded - Taliesin, in his hometown of Spring Green, Wis., and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz. - Wright once admonished an interviewer: "Teacher! I'm no teacher!"

"He felt that you can't teach art," explains Sarah Beyer, Fallingwater's curator of education, "you can only, as he said, 'inculcate it' - you can encourage it along, and I suppose teach by example."

She says the Fallingwater educational program - for which students apply with essays, drawings, and recommendations, and pay $550 - was designed to be friendlier and less stifling than Wright reportedly was with his students. But the program's "idea of learning from a master or learning from a masterwork on an individual level" also characterized Wright's philosophy.

Thinking like architects

Though they've been here for less than a week, the teen residents are already thinking like designers. At lunch, after a hot morning scoping out the building site, Nick Chelko and Adam talk over how the group could play Twister without a game board - using paper plates, a pencil, and the walls of the house they're staying in on the Fallingwater grounds.

After lunch, on the way to cool off in a local river, Adam and Dave practice combining the last names of kids in the group to sound like swanky architecture firms. "I know!" Adam shouts, after some near misses, "Koogler and Temkin!"

"That's optimistic," Temkin teases.

While the group is playing in the river, Rose Tse breaks her flip-flop. When a fellow student urges her to put it on anyway, she flatly refuses. "I can't wear that. Look at the dynamics of that shoe!"

Though these students are more design-minded than most teens, the Fallingwater program doesn't take all of the credit. Hallie Terzopolos, who is going into her senior year of high school "almost definite" that she wants to become an architect, confesses: "My favorite magazine is Better Homes and Gardens. Ok, I'm a nerd. But it is [a favorite] for a bunch of people here. We started talking about it, and we're like, 'You too?' "

In the late afternoon, they return to their makeshift studio - a former garage on the Fallingwater property - to start their models. Before long, cardboard and hot glue cover every surface, the radio's blasting, and students are calling back and forth over the music.

"Hey!" says Nick, fitting a balsa-wood beam onto his model, "We should have like a Fallingwater 2001 firm [someday]."

"F-dub 01?" suggests Dave.

"F-dub? How 'bout F.W.?" says Nick.

"I would if I wasn't a gangsta," Dave jokes, "If I wasn't keepin' it true."

"Word," agrees Nick. Then, after a minute: "Hey, look at this glue-gun technique! Backhand."

Genius is prickly

If Wright were around, he might be missing the fun in these antics. The architect was, by many accounts, a difficult character, both personally and professionally.

"He was nasty to some of his clients, and he did go way over his budgets for things," Temkin says. "When I first studied architecture as an undergrad, I was pretty anti-Wright. But then I actually went and visited some of his buildings, and everything turned around. Because when you experience the architecture ... suddenly all the other stuff becomes much less significant."

A number of the high-schoolers take a similar view. Adam read a lot about Wright and his work before coming to Fallingwater. "As an architect, he was pretty much just a genius. Unsurpassable," he says. "As a man, though, I don't have much respect for him. He kind of needed the attention of society at his time - he was a lot like Andy Warhol, in his need to be in the public eye."

But Ms. Beyer isn't so sure. "I think that there was a Frank Lloyd Wright that not too many people really knew. I mean, to build 400 buildings, most of them houses, [he] had to have been able to communicate well with clients. I think the work stands as testament that this fellow wasn't the arrogant power-freak we tend to call him. I'm sure he was difficult to be around, but what artist isn't?"

On-the-spot remodeling

The students stay at the studio till after 4 in the morning, putting the finishing touches on their models. So it's a bleary-eyed crew that gathers the next morning to present projects for a peer review.

Temkin has ideas to improve every design. Nick's, he says, has a great circular element, but needs to pull visitors along more. Malayna Butler's has a cool glass roof, but it's oriented the wrong way on the path. Dave's is based on a great idea, but has weird little wings poking out of the sides. Temkin asks a pained-looking Dave to tear them off. In the end, he commends the students for their hard work. They've come a long way in a week, he says.

Nick agrees. "I notice things totally different now. We were at the river the other day, and I was looking at it and looking at the landscape, and I realized how massive it was. You never even think about it, but what if you actually put a river to scale [here]? It'd be completely massive."

Hallie says she's developed a new appreciation for her surroundings, too. "Like the other day, walking up [some outside] stairs, I was actually thinking, 'Who designed this stair? And is it always a typical kind of thing, or can you make it different?' The funny thing is, I'm gonna go home and try to tell my friends about this, and they're gonna look at me like I'm an idiot.' "

"I'm not even gonna try, I don't think," Nick says. "I'll just say, 'Yeah, it was awesome. Cool. You know....' "

E-mail wiltenburgm@csmonitor.com.

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