On the front lawn of the Miami University Art Museum’s Outdoor Sculpture Park rests Mark di Suvero’s 1995 sculpture, “For Keppler”-known to most students as “that big red thing.”
The public sculpture-a gift to the university-is painted red, coincidentally one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal favorite colors (his was Cherokee red). But thanks to Miami associate professor of architecture and interior design John Reynolds, the school’s ties to America’s most famous architect don’t end there.
Reynolds was the creator of the museum’s new exhibition, “Dialogue with Nature: New Conceptions of Organic Architecture,” which runs from Jan. 15 to May 10.
The exhibition mainly chronicles a five-year history of the department’s relationship with staff and administration at Wright’s world famous “Fallingwater” home in Bear Run, PA and its surrounding community members. Through his friendship with Fallingwater’s curator of education, Cara Armstrong, Reynolds created the Fallingwater Honors Studio in Spring 2004, taking a handful of Miami architecture majors to work at what he called “one of the most important modern architecture sites in the world.” As of now, there have been 53 Fallingwater design studio students.
At Fallingwater, students studied Wright’s concept of the importance of the landscape with its corresponding architecture. According to Reynolds, the honors studio’s goal was to develop new constructs of organic architecture, concentrating on environmental stewardship and sustainability as well as architecture’s capacity to advance social well-being and democratic values.
This isn’t the first time Miami’s 2004 Honors Studio panels have been displayed. Before Reynolds brought the panels back to Miami to use as part of the current exhibition, they were exhibited in the Fireplace Room in the Barn at Fallingwater.
“It is our intention to see this exhibit travel,” Reynolds said.
Institutions in Boston, Arkansas and Oklahoma interested in showing his students’ work have contacted him.
While much of the displayed work reflects Wright’s underlying principles, it’s not about the architect, nor does it trace the history of organic architecture. Instead, the show focuses on organic architecture in its current potential state.
“Frank Lloyd Wright is in the conversation, but he’s not the focus,” said curator of exhibitions Lena Vigna. “I like to think of it as more an exhibition of the creative process of architecture. You’re not going to come in and see 50 years of organic architecture.”
The exhibit features 13 panels of enlarged images of conceptual studies in organic architecture along with black and white photos of honors studio students at work at Fallingwater. Also displayed are several enlarged shots of the home, taken by reknowned German architectural photographer Christian Kandzia, who experienced the setting with students in 2004.
Besides the panels and photos is a single abstract painting done by Miami graduate Emily Fernambucq after returning from Fallingwater. In the same room hangs a large-scale communal work running the length of one of the gallery walls, drawn by students who worked collaboratively to create an abstract image of the house-to-site relationship.
To allow natural light into the main room, Vigna elected to keep a window shade up, simultaneously allowing viewers to see the relationship between interior and exterior.
“The content of the exhibition is a constant reinvigoration of the relationship between architecture and its surroundings,” Vigna said.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a Wright-inspired, laminated veneer plywood chair capable of holding up to 1,500 pounds. Created by Miami honors studio students, it is only part of their design for the entire sitting room furniture at Fallingwater, an unprecedented feat.
“(The students’ furniture) is the only design intervention in the house not designed by Wright or purchased by the Kaufmans (Fallingwater’s wealthy original owners),” Reynolds said.
While the Kaufmans lived at Fallingwater, the sitting room was an area reserved for the house’s servants. Now, thanks to Miami’s honors studio, volunteer tour guides use the furniture to relax when they’re not busy giving tours every six and a half minutes, six days a week, to 154,000 visitors per year.
For Fallingwater’s sitting room to be realized, three honors studio students committed themselves to the project for an additional three years before finally installing the furniture in 2007.
From there, the exhibit deviates from Fallingwater to explore a concurrent Miami architecture project: Wright’s “Westcott House,” in Springfield, Ohio, the state’s sole example of the architect’s prairie style.
After the house’s foundation contacted the honors studio in 2007, Miami architecture students traveled the 75 miles to explore the Froebel method-named after the man who created the modern kindergarten curriculum-at the Westcott House. As a child, Wright played with Froebel blocks, praising them for their geometric and three-dimensional qualities.
Students experimented with Froebel blocks, connecting them to nature through photography. To fully realize the Froebel system’s organic potential, students attempted to form their blocks into the shape of what they photographed and experienced in nature. The exhibit represents the students’ Westcott House experience with a variety of sketches, photos and master plan drawings for an international design conference center.
“The exhibition is 95 percent Fallingwater and 5 percent Westcott House,” Vigna said. “We interjected the Westcott House because that’s how the (architecture) courses themselves happened.”
Although the Westcott House is only a small part of the show, just like at Fallingwater, its restoration foundation is concerned with what they can do to involve the community.
After the Westcott House portion, the exhibit returns to Fallingwater. Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC)-the non-profit organization in charge of maintaining Wright’s residential architectural masterpiece-was so impressed by the sitting room furniture that in 2008 they asked Reynolds to return to help on projects for the surrounding community.
The final wall of the exhibit features work Miami students have completed for “Hickman Chapel” and “Bear Run School House,” two “revered sites in the Bear Run community at Fallingwater,” Reynolds said.
According to Vigna, while the two modest buildings may not be what draw tourists to Fallingwater, WPC and Miami are both interested in responding to the role these buildings play in the community and their meaning for Bear Run residents.