Guided Architectural Tours as Immersive Experiences at Fallingwater
Reading the Room
When Edgar Kaufmann, jr. [sic] entrusted Fallingwater to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963, he envisioned the house serving a greater, educational purpose as a museum. Fallingwater’s benefactor was a renowned scholar of art and architectural history—both a professor at Columbia University and director of MoMA’s Department of Industrial Design. Given his professional experience, it may be surprising to learn that Kaufmann’s vision for Fallingwater was as a sort of anti-house museum, offering architectural tours that break from the tradition of didactic, lecture-based museum interpretation.
Kaufmann knew that the educational value of Fallingwater was in the experience of the place.Therefore, he envisioned a guided tour that, first and foremost, acknowledged architecture and nature as universal reference points for all people. He recommended that “tours should not be dunked in expertise, but kept simple, human, and informal… for an immense variety of individuals to absorb and question, each in his or her own way.” 1
Today, Fallingwater seeks to honor Kaufmann’s vision through an approach to interpretation that’s unlike most other house museums and architectural sites, challenging those of us that lead the tours to provide an aesthetic interpretation of the house. This approach requires our educator team to step away from a lecture-based tour and embrace each group of visitors as collaborators in aesthetic meaning-making. Despite our knowledge about Fallingwater and Frank Lloyd Wright, educators keep in mind that facts only get us so far in understanding the house. Visitors benefit from constructing meaning together and insights can come from surprising sources. Near the end of a recent tour, a young child asked, “How did Wright see into the future?” The question made everyone in the group pause and consider how Wright’s influence is still felt today. There was eagerness to discuss the answer to this surprising yet relevant question.
Fallingwater’s Guided Architectural Tours are for small groups of people and often include a mixture of visitors from different parts of the world with various interests, experiences, and prior knowledge. Tours are led by Fallingwater educators who skillfully blend a curated selection of contextual information with strategies like observation-based discussion, open-ended questions, prompts for close-looking, and quiet moments for immersive experience. We approach each tour as an experiment and remain nimble, adjusting information and engagement strategies as needed, based on visitors’ interests, preferences, and modes of engagement.
Visitors’ questions might lead to group inquiry, especially questions rooted in aesthetics. During tours, a frequently asked question is “Why are the ceilings so low?” This kind of question can be opened up into a group discussion by restating and expanding the question: “The question is ‘Why are the ceilings so low?’ Why might Wright have designed them this way?” Using indefinites like “might” and “may” signals to the group that there are multiple possible answers which, in turn, establishes a more comfortable environment for participation by removing the pressure to guess the correct answer.2
Our efforts to create more immersive, participatory Fallingwater tours require ongoing research, practice, and experimentation. This means accepting that we might occasionally ask an ineffective question or feel awkward during a quiet moment. Recently, as we entered the master bedroom, I asked a group, “What do you think?” which resulted in about 30 seconds of silence. I realized the question was too open-ended for this group. Slightly more specific questions like, “How did you feel as you moved through the hallway to the master bedroom?” made it easier for this group to participate. I’ve learned quite a bit by asking ineffective, “bad” questions, which makes it worth the awkward moments. If we do our job well, visitors will barely remember us as educators or the methods we used (or any awkwardness) and, instead, remember the sensations of experiencing a truly great work of architecture. In this way, each tour brings us closer to achieving Kaufmann’s vision: “There are many places where…Frank Lloyd Wright’s work can be studied; there is nowhere else where his architecture can be felt so warmly, appreciated so intuitively.” 3
Ashley Andrykovitch is a senior director and curator of education at Fallingwater.
- Edgar Kaufmann, jr., Remarks on Fallingwater as administered by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (speech, March 1985). ↩︎
- This conversational strategy is adapted from Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine’s “Visual Thinking Strategies,” a framework for facilitating group discussions about works of art. ↩︎
- Edgar Kaufmann, jr., Remarks on Fallingwater. ↩︎