SFIA students at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West.
SFIA invites architecture students to study the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin near Spring Green, Wisconsin and at Taliesin West near Scottsdale Arizona. We are extremely privileged to be permitted this extended access to Taliesin and Taliesin West. This access is not granted to any other school and we are honored by the generosity of our hosts.
The primary purpose of the SFIA studio workshop at Taliesin is to give students the opportunity to experience what Frank Lloyd Wright really said and did in architecture and cut through the mythology and misinterpretations that dominate almost everything written and said about him. The mythology is so pervasive that most people don’t know what he actually did in architecture nor do they understand the exact meaning of what he called “Organic”. This is an enormous loss for architecture students everywhere.
Frank Lloyd Wright learned and enunciated principles and techniques of design that show how to create extraordinary buildings – buildings that serve their users, the landscape, and human consciousness in ways only few buildings in the world ever have. The mythology surrounding Mr. Wright tends to cloud the nature of his work and what we can learn from it.
Students attending SFIA’s workshops at Talieson and Taliesin West have the opportunity to learn from the work of others who studied with Mr. Wright and have been inspired by him.
The basics of Ecological Design are also part of this program, as Mr. Wright was the first who might be called an environmentalist or an ecological architect. It’s an event filled with surprises and revelations. It’s not a history study, but a search for design principles that can be applied to today’s most crucial architectural problems:
1. How to make ecological architecture the rule, not the exception
2. How to expand human imagination beyond common norms in problem solving and creative design.
Rethinking Design Education
Years ago, when I was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and planning a new school, The San Francisco Institute of Architecture, I did a national survey of problems in architectural education from the viewpoints of students, faculty, administrators, and alumni. Not surprisingly, I got a lot of negative feedback about the quality of technical and managerial education, which was almost nonexistent in many schools.
Most surprising were reports about intellectual repression that students were experiencing. Students who wanted to combine studies of architecture and ecology were often turned down. Students who wanted to explore the effects of interior landscaping, solar design, and alternative construction materials were frequently prevented from doing so.
Students complained that a “look” representative of Postmodern or Deconstructionist design was more important to success in many design studios than nonconforming creative design, ecological design, or technological innovation. After documenting the complaints, I started the new school in San Francisco with a basic list of 30 primary problems and goals in design education.
For example, one goal was to get students to better appreciate their own creative potential, liberate their imaginations, and apply far-reaching creativity to very practical problems. We’ve found that students had often spent a lifetime keeping their most important ideas under wraps for fear of criticism and ridicule.
So part of our job as educators was to find ways to allow students to be fully exploratory. We’ve had to allow that early, experimental work will be unfinished or amateurish and not penalize people as they work through this formative process. That’s the opposite of most schools where students have to choose between trying a risky experiment or going for a grade by imitating what they know their instructors will find acceptable.
In our San Francisco facility, we quickly proved that students thrive in a free environment. Then we wanted to extend the idea by creating an alternative environment that was both exceptionally stimulating and disengaged from the distractions and demands of day-to-day life.
Working at Taliesin
So we arranged with friends at Taliesin Architects and the Frank Lloyd Wright School to use facilities for a two-week workshop in the desert facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. Students would camp out in the desert, do a lot of nature study and architectural tours, sketch and practice creative visualization exercises, learn alternative design methods from guest speakers, and generally free up their imaginations while working on design projects and ideas of their choosing.
Early on we discovered that students from other schools hadn’t the slightest idea of the many design methods used by Frank Lloyd Wright. Apparently they had heard Wright jokes or anecdotes, but few actually knew how he went about designing buildings or had any notion of what “organic” or nature-based architecture was all about.
Often repeated myths about Wright — “all his roofs leaked,” “he designed low ceilings because he was short,” “he was arrogant toward his clients,” “he ran off with clients’wives” besides being groundless, prove to be a barrier to understanding who he really was and how he did his work. The fact is that Wright invented numerous innovations not only in building design and technology, but in the design process itself. His techniques are especially applicable to today’s concerns with ecological design.
So, what better place to document his concepts of design, going beyond the simplistic “bring the outdoors indoors”, than the beautiful desert compound of Taliesin West? This was Wright’s winter home and workshop built almost entirely by his students.
Here, the best aspects of site-sensitive design, creative construction technology, and modular organizing principles are not just seen but fully experienced as part of daily life. One student said last year: “I can’t get over it. The more you look at these buildings, the more you see. It doesn’t seem to end.”
Learning From the Desert
After adjusting to the exotic environment, the heat, and the realization that what used to be wilderness is now surrounded by tract housing development, the students get to work: First they’re introduced to the internal structures and geometries of the desert geology and botany. The desert has endless architectural lessons in climatic adaptation, water conservation, and economical structural systems.
Students hike, sketch from desert wildlife, take photos, create collages and abstract compositions. And they get deeply into the visual aspects of their surroundings. Students learn the methods of Frank Lloyd Wright, mind-mapping, “viz-think,” 3D visualization, and the history of nature-based architecture around the world. They learn the basics of on-site solar and micro climate analysis.
After the students take in all the data and visual stimulation, fresh architectural ideas literally pour out: Innovative building designs, ideas for new structural systems, new ideas for solar design, eco engineering, and alternative construction systems.
Students who had never experienced an uninhibited creative design process before find out the barriers were self imposed. It turns out creative design is as natural as breathing or walking, once students drop the fear that some schools impose and start applying their own liberated, independent judgment.
SFIA’s Taliesin workshops traditionally take place during the summer months. There are no enrollment requirements except a sincere interest in Frank Lloyd Wright and ecological design.