Imagine designing and living in your own designed residences at your college campuses. And how it would prepare for the practical arena in the actual practice after school! That’s how the School of Architecture at Taliesin (SOAT) was a different type of architectural school. The students camped out in the Arizona desert in the shelters—which they had to design, make, and live in as one of their first projects. Here, students designed more than just buildings; and developed mindset and practices to change the world.
At the time of the Great Depression, founded by one of the greatest architects of all time, Frank Lloyd Wright, The School of Architecture at Taliesin (SOAT) was closed at the end of June 2020. This news of the closure of the school after 88 years that carried the legacy of FLW came as a shock to the entire architectural community across the globe. In the words of Dan Schweiker (Chairperson of the Board of Governors for the School of Architecture at Taliesin): “Wright’s legacy was not just building. It was a school to promulgate the lessons for all future generations.”
Some questions might be arising in your mind or you might be wondering, why this closure is so much of a big deal? Is it merely what seems on the surface? What could be the reasons behind this closure? Why could no agreement be made to continue school? Let’s first understand the back-story and find answers to these questions as we continue further!
Established in 1932, the accredited private school offered a three-year master’s program under Wright’s philosophy of “organic architecture.” Spanning across a 600-acre land, the desert home and studio in Arizona, the Taliesin West was a desert retreat for Wright and his students (to escape the harsh winters of the American Midwest), and served as one of the two other campuses for his architecture school. The other one was Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Both retreats are now recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Wright used to teach the Taliesin Fellowship – where 50 to 60 students got to study under the architect. The alumni had also worked with Wright on his renowned projects such as Falling Water and Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Education at SOAT
The “learning by doing” motto-carrying school was the testament and bearer of Wright’s visionary architecture. It has carved and shaped top architectural students from all across the world. This innovative school produced more than 1200 graduates, consisting of renowned masters of organic architecture like John Lautner and Fay Jones. It had up to 30 M.arch students living and working at the school campus.
The education at SOAT was unique in terms of teaching by hands-on experimentation and the real making of things, thus providing holistic education. As described by one of the students at SOAT: “It was a really healthy, intense, 24/7 architectural education,” where students had a tradition of building their own shelters on the 600-acre campus plot in the desert.
For over eight decades, students also planned and entertained guests at formal dinner parties, first commenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife Olgivanna. At the school, students and apprentices would also cook meals, put on, and attend artistic, performing arts events as part of those dinners.
Accreditation issue—the building up of the storm
Considered as two of his greatest institutional legacies by Frank Lloyd Wright in his last will were the two bodies— the Taliesin Fellowship (founded in 1932) and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (founded in 1940). The fellowship played the role of carrying F.L Wright’s organic architecture. On the other hand, the foundation was supposed to be an extension of the fellowship, to promote and encourage the fine arts by the education of teaching of the art of architecture and related crafts.
Originally called the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, renamed in 2017, the School of Architecture at Taliesin was abruptly closed at the end of June 2020. The closure might seem to be sudden, but it was in the making since the split between the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation—an organization assigned to preserve its namesake’s legacy (also funded the school before the split)—and the School Board.
The accreditation issue came up after the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the agency that accredits US architecture schools, announced that to renew its accreditation, the institution required to be a financially independent entity. After the fundraising spin, the school’s independent status and new name were announced in 2017.
Earlier in 2010, HLC declared that accredited schools could not be financially dependent upon a non-academic institution. SOAT was accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, the National Architectural Accrediting Board, and the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education.
In a press release, the reason for the closure is said to be unable to “reach an agreement” with the foundation, which has the ownership of its premises. While the Foundation claimed that the school did not have a sustainable business model to maintain the operations of the school as an accredited programme.
Are Wright’s two legacy-carrying endeavors—against each other?
The two endeavors of Wright were assigned to continue the teachings, visions, and understanding of the futuristic vision that Wright wanted. The fissure might seem to be superficial but deep down, both the organizations had different visions of their own, instead of a unified one. Their relationship as partners had transformed into that of the competition and lack of trust consisting of pedagogy, power, funding, and preservation (as discussed above, both the school campuses were declared as UNESCO World Heritage sites), which further deteriorated their relationship.
The rifts surfaced time and again, evident for this turmoil. Starting from the 1980s when the school first received accreditation from multiple boards—to ease out the licensure procedure for its students; then in the early 2000s, the Foundation’s branching out from Taliesin community members to a traditional nonprofit. Subsequently, in 2012, the Foundation and the school were forced to become separate entities due to HLC’s conditions for accreditation. Later, in 2017, HLC implemented the policy for academic institutions leading to the official split of the school and the Foundation.
The stage was set resulting in the final move, i.e., the closure. It was as if the architect’s two legacies were fighting for the same piece of land. The relationship speculated as shifted from being a parent organization and partner to being a mere landlord and tenant. Graff, the foundation’s president, acknowledged that he thought the two organizations were competing for the resources: “As they continue to use our campuses, it’s starting to impinge on our source of revenue.”
It is also quite surprising that no third-party mediator was approached to resolve the issues and differences. Architect Aranda (who runs his New York and Tucson-based design studio Aranda/Lasch with Chris Lasch, and currently the Dean of Academic Affairs of the school) expressed his thoughts saying, it is indeed a very sad day for architectural education. He continued that ironically, both the school and the foundation were founded to protect the tradition.
The Blame Game
The closure of the school has sparked controversy. Both the organizations—the foundation and the school Boards—have their own points to justify their actions. The foundation claimed the top reason to close the school due to a lack of a sustainable business model. Other reasons were consistently failing to meet projections for enrollment, philanthropy, and earned revenues. The school conceded that it was struggling with the revenues, but was actively seeking out for new revenue sources.
The school also said that Foundation gave them only options that involved dropping accreditation. It would ultimately limit the practice for future graduates—without accreditation—and the school would be unable to attract students or resources for its survival. Therefore, the school rejected this and voted to terminate operations.
Further, the foundation’s president, Stuart Graff, said that they were disappointed that the plan was not approved by the school’s full board. On the other hand, Aaron Betsky, the school’s president responded that they came up with a sustainable and blamed the foundation for unreasonable financial demands.
Now, since the school is closed; the current batch has approx. 30 students enrolled in the school’s programme. The school is now in talks with The Design School at Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts for transferring credits and completing their degrees.
The foundation has now future plans to reinvent the programme with other partners like universities and architecture practice. The school campuses are closed at both the Taliesin and Taliesin West but will be open for events and visitors tours.
Although a proper education plan is not yet prepared, but it will be made soon, according to the foundation. Foundation is now planning to increase educational programmes consisting of K-12 teaching, adult education with programmes for architects, preservation specialists, and professionals, to advance Wright’s legacy and vision.
Meanwhile, among all this chaos, one can reflect what it means by the closure—for architectural education and the profession. This great tradition and community were uprooted due to the internal rifts; which both the parties can continue to accuse each other. Here, it is the loss of the education that Wright set the vision for, while setting up this institution.
Advancing Wright’s legacy by the actions and plans of the foundation is nothing wrong. But the Founder of the school intended to train architects for practice— and its closure’s consequences might be greater than what the foundation expects.