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Wild, Free, and Accredited: The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin
One hundred years after Taliesin was built--and nearly 80 years since the first apprentices arrived to study with its master architect--students are refining the core principles of Wright’s architecture while expanding its aesthetics and style
By Sara Fernández Cendón
Stories of how some of the Taliesin Fellowship’s earliest apprentices joined the school are classic pieces of Frank Lloyd Wright lore, but they don’t read anything like today’s typical college decision-making process. These stories usually start with an intimidating (but magnetizing) encounter with America’s greatest architect, more or less ambiguous conversations about a school he was running out of his studio in Spring Green, Wis., and then at some point a vague invitation to join for an indeterminate amount of time–more of a spiritual pilgrimage and lifestyle choice than a scholarly decision. That’s a far cry from today’s admission process to Taliesin (called the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture since it became accredited in 1987), which involves the typical slew of deadlines, prerequisites, and applications.
Nonetheless, today’s program is in a direct line of succession to the original Fellowship. The continuities are many, but perhaps the most obvious is the all-encompassing nature of the school. The original fellowship started as a residential community with members traveling from around the world for the opportunity to work (and live) with Wright. It was a community founded on the design philosophy of one architect with singular, definitive ideas about how the world and its architecture should function. Today, the school continues to be organized as an intense community experience. Students and much of the faculty live on site, share daily meals, work together, and every year--just like with Wright--they migrate between Taliesin and the school’s main campus at Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Ariz.
But as the buildings of Taliesin celebrate 100 years of history this year, the school is showing more signs of change. Liberated from the aesthetic hallmarks that surrounded Wright’s designs and structured as a formalized and contemporary architecture school, Taliesin is retaining the core design philosophy of Wright’s “Organic Architecture,” while encouraging students’ unique design languages to flourish.
The shelter program, for example, allows students to design and build simple desert shelters, a tradition that dates back to Wright. “We built that directly into the infrastructure of our program,” says Victor Sidy, AIA, dean of the school. Sidy says those who choose to live in the desert become especially attuned to the subtleties of the environment–the sounds, the climate, the wildlife, the spirit of the place.
The shelters started out as utilitarian, simple dwellings for apprentices. After the program became accredited, students started staying longer to earn degrees, and the shelters became more sophisticated explorations of architectural form–an unintended continuation of Wright’s “learn-by-doing” approach.
The shelters make for Spartan accommodations. Dakotah Apostolou, a first-year master’s student who has been living in a shelter for three years, says he likes the simplicity. “Living with so little, you begin to understand what is really necessary,” he says.
“One of the things that this organization was saddled with for many years with this notion that it was perpetuating the stylistic output of Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Sidy, “. . .that the work by students and faculty was basically a low-grade mimicry of what Wright did during his fascinating career.” Moving beyond Wright’s aesthetic reputation (which Sidy calls something of a “ballast”) means that students study the work of architects since Wright, but still study the principles he developed at Taliesin.
Apostolou says the principles behind Wright’s architecture have to do with creating buildings that respond to place, not with creating a particular style. Wright emphasized the relationship between the built environment and the natural environment. “Organic Architecture,” Wright’s term for his own approach, is the idea that a building should be utterly of the land, and that the relationship between its parts and the whole should also be harmonious and integrated, much like the relationship between a whole organism and its parts. There’s nothing there about having to use flat roofs or horizontal, terraced forms, and students are free to experiment in any material and aesthetic they choose.
“There’s no dogma about having [Wright’s] style in your architecture,” Apostolou says.
Nick Mancusi, a recent graduate and current AIAS president, says the program focuses on what students need to know for the rest of their lives, instead of on what they need to know for a standardized test. In his words, “Taliesin is an all-inclusive lifestyle.” And it is a unique lifestyle; a combination of humility and genius, simplicity and exuberance. It’s a place where students are well-advised to bring both a sleeping bag and a tuxedo. “You learn how to live out in shelters and tents, but also how to sit at a formal table, and how to wine and dine, because that’s how you sell yourself and what you do to a client,” Mancusi says.
About three years ago, Taliesin finalized at its current curriculum, which is certainly more formalized than anything Wright ever intended. Evaluation criteria are more rigorous and carefully defined. Michael Whaley, the school’s writing and criticism instructor, helped shape curricular changes, and recognizes the tension between the ground-breaking tradition of Taliesin and the need for structure. “You need stages of development that are carefully thought through, and a curriculum that supports that development,” he says. “My heart says, ‘Let this place be wild and free.’ My bones tell me, ‘We need a program to compete against all others.’”
Sidy says the process of changing the culture at Taliesin has been rigorous, and key to it was building a faculty culture. In the past five years, the school has brought in a new generation of faculty with no prior connection to Wright to create a richer, more diverse experience for students.
The Hanging Tent desert shelter, designed by Fatma Elmalimpinar. Image courtesy Pranav Naik.
The Brittlebush desert shelter, designed by Simon de Aguero. Image courtesy of Simon De Aguero.
The Hook desert shelter, designed by Luis Salazar. Image courtesy of Victor Sidy.
Olympic Museum in Athens designed by Maxim Borshchevskiy and Pranav Naik. Image courtesy of Pranav Naik and Max Borshchevskiy.
American Consulate in Wassenaar, Netherlands, designed by Chelsea Clark. Image courtesy of Chelsea Clark.
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