When Aaron Betsky started his deanship at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, the historic school was in a difficult spot. Under new requirements by the Higher Learning Commission, if it didn’t raise $2 million to become a separate institution from its funding organization, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, it would lose accreditation and have to shut down. By late December of 2015, less than a year into his deanship and just under the fundraising deadline, Betsky helped the school reach its goal.
Known for its distinctive MArch program that combines a Learning by Doing philosophy, communal living and self-built student shelters, the school alternates between two campuses, both originally designed by Wright as his home: Taliesin, in Spring Green, WI, and Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, AZ. Taliesin West is the main campus—where students spend the majority of their education, sometimes living inside student-built desert shelters (without running water or electricity), with faculty and staff also on site. During the summer, operations switch over to Wisconsin.
The priority Taliesin places on students living, working and learning together as a community has distinguished it since it began in the early 1930s. In the near-century since, the priorities of architecture education elsewhere have drastically changed, making Taliesin a remarkable anomaly not only for maintaining its lifestyle approach to learning, but for its role in preserving Wright’s intellectual traditions—especially in the light of increasingly commodified educational institutions. It is also one of the smallest accredited and degree-granting architecture program in the U.S., enrolling around two dozen students per term.The priority Taliesin places on students living, working and learning together as a community has distinguished it since it began in the early 1930s.
Betsky comes vetted by his leadership positions at the SFMOMA, the Netherlands Architecture Institute and the Cincinnati Art Museum, and is a prolific writer on contemporary architectural issues. I spoke with him for the Deans List about the state of architectural education these days and continuing Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy into the new millennium.
When you first started as director, you had to kick into fundraising gear in order for the school to become independent from its sponsor organization, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Can you tell me what the mood at Taliesin was like at that time?
I knew coming into this that I would have to raise $2 million within the first six or seven months of my being there. I also knew that I had to reorganize some of the both academic and organizational structures of the school. I knew I had to clarify the school’s mission and figure out how it could have a role for itself within the larger ecosystem of both architectural education and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and various other foundations concerned with Frank Lloyd Wright. So that was not a surprise to me and I just set about getting all of that done.
Was there any nervousness, or frustration, going on at the school around that need to quickly fundraise that significant sum of money?
It’s been a long and tortured history and I was lucky enough to arrive when most of that history was, in fact, history. So whatever bad feelings there might have been have not been my concern. We are now even further along because there is a new CEO at the foundation. I’ve only been here for about a year. So we have all agreed that we are not so much interested in fighting yesterday’s battles as we are figuring out how the school can both be the best experimental architecture school in the country, and can honor Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy of buildings and thoughts, and do that within the context of the two campuses we inhabit at Taliesin and Taliesin West. That’s what we are focused on.
One of Taliesin’s founding principles is Learning by Doing, the interpretation of which has no doubt evolved since its first year operating in 1932. Can you briefly outline the updates and transitions to that pedagogy since?
Absolutely. We certainly have looked at our curriculum, which obviously is designed to meet NAAB requirements as well as Higher Learning Commission requirements, so that we in fact are providing our students with a degree that is accredited. We were just reaccredited for eight years last year, and are doing so at the very highest level. However, what’s also important to us is that in fact we are a school that has a very particular history and a very particular way of doing things. We’ve rededicated ourselves to being a school where we altogether learn how to make the design environment more sustainable, more open or socially just and more beautiful, building the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings and thoughts and doing so at a graduate architecture education level.
We’ve put a strong emphasis on some of those traditions, like building with the land or organic architecture and certainly also Learning by Doing. The students here, as you probably know, when they are in Taliesin West (which is for seven months a year) inhabit desert shelters that were designed and built by students themselves. No electricity, no running water. What we as a faculty did was to redirect that curriculum so that it is a full three-year program leading to a Masters in Architecture. The last couple of semesters of that program, the student is asked to produce a thesis in which they try to explore how one might be at home in the modern world and at the core of that thesis, as a proof of concept if you will, is the designing, building and inhabiting of one’s own shelter. You have to live there for at least two months. The reality of our situation is that we no longer allow students to go out into the desert and build a new shelter site.You have to be a student who is willing to spend seven months a year living in a desert shelter with no electricity and hot water or running water, and that kind of selects a lot of people.
They have to use one of the roughly 63 existing pads as we call them, concrete pads in the desert, and so there is a strong emphasis on the reuse of existing structures as well as, of course, some of the used materials, and then in addition to that, we have put a strong emphasis on reengaging the communities we inhabit. So we have pledged to do four years worth of design/build projects with two mining communities about an hour East of here, called Globe and Miami, where we have for the last semester been doing a lot of research both in terms of getting to know people, and in terms of data collection and documentation.
That will then build up to a series of projects and proposals and interventions that we will make over the next couple of years, and we certainly have the hope that the students will be doing some of that actual work as well. We are also part of a design team that is designing a Desert Discovery Center right near here and we have applied for various other projects where we would like to have the students work on both the design and construction of community-based projects.
How did you go about choosing Globe and Miami in particular to initiate these design/build projects in?
That was sort of serendipity of two of our visiting fellows. Christina Murphy and Andrea Bertassi were motorcycling up there and found these mining communities and were quite fascinated by them, and started talking to people. They came back to me and then I worked with them and with our development director, who has a background in community action and politics, to see if there was anything that we could do collectively. As soon as you go up to these places, you find them to be fascinating. It’s an incredible landscape that of course has been scarred through almost a century of mining. It also has incredible industrial archeology. It has wonderful buildings left over from the various doom periods as well as Big Box Retail and some other problematic areas. It is about to see a major reinvestment in several mines, just as another mine is closing. The social problems are intense but we think that the potential there is immense and everyone there is very, very enthusiastic about working with us. So you really just get a high every time you go up there.
How would you describe the relationship with the school and the city government there?
Oh it’s been terrific. We have unanimous resolutions in favor of all these projects from both of the city councils and from various other agencies. We also have raised well over $700,000 from various community groups in the mines and other supporters, both corporate and individuals up there. So they have made their support for what we are doing very, very clearly.
What kind of student do you feel would flourish in Taliesin?
You have to be a student who is willing to spend seven months a year living in a desert shelter with no electricity and hot water or running water, and that kind of selects a lot of people. In fact, we do have some people who are very enthusiastic about coming here or they come to the campus and they are completely wowed, as just about everyone is by the beauty of the campus, and then they realize that they’d really have to live with these shelters and they think better of it. So that is an issue. It does mean that the students we do get are very self-directed, they are very articulate which is also a tradition we have here where we ask students to be whole citizens and to be part of a fairly active social and intellectual discourse with the wider community.
I organized a lot of lectures this year—with everyone from Frank Gehry to Thom Mayne to Hubert Klumpner to Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to Julie Eizenberg to Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, all of them. Everyone came, except for, unfortunately of course, Zaha Hadid who passed away just a few weeks before she was supposed to be here. And the students don’t just listen to talks. The whole point is that they engage in a very active discussion. I mean Winy Maas was up with them until 1 o’clock in the morning with several bottles of wine going over discussion after a two-hour lecture.If you want to learn how to change the world through architecture, then we would hope that Taliesen would be the place for you.
So there is a very active culture in that way, and students also have to be willing to be part of that community. You know we all take turns doing the dishes and helping the chef cook. So it takes very particular students and then on top of all of that, I have very much emphasized that we are here all to learn from the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright but we are not here to imitate this work. The question is not what should I do that’s like Frank Lloyd Wright but what would Frank Lloyd Wright do today. We also have put a strong emphasis on experimental architecture and on making a more sustainable, open and beautiful environment.
So if you want to learn how to make pretty boxes, learn that as quickly as possible and get a job upon graduation that pays as much money as possible, then there are plenty of good schools for you. If you want to learn how to change the world through architecture, then we would hope that Taliesen would be the place for you.
Do you think the self-selecting quality of students limits the inherent diversity of the school’s population?
It is an issue. It is definitely an issue. In terms of racial balance, we are no better or worse than most graduate architecture programs which is no badge of honor to say the very least. It’s disgraceful as I’ve said many times and we are working hard to figure out how to change that. We have a special problem with women. Frank Lloyd Wright always attracted strong women even before women were admitted to many graduate programs and we have some terrific women as our students right now but the gender balance is just way out of whack and so that’s something that we are working on very actively.
What are the biggest professional challenges that your students are facing and anticipating?
Getting a job. That’s always the most difficult thing when you graduate and we – because it’s been a fairly tight network in the past, we have relied I think too much on the existing Taliesin network. I am trying to broaden it. I am using my own networks obviously to broaden up. One of our strongest students last year, I was able to place with one of my classmates in Japan, Noriko Dong. He is very happy there and I am working on some other students trying to give them place with good firms. That’s certainly a concern. One of the things that I emphasize is that you should obtain in architecture education not just to become a licensed architect, but to gain a body of knowledge and skills that you can apply in any number of ways.
Now that sounds great but I am sure that to many students, that also is rather vague. We certainly have one student who has about a year to go, who is very clear that she wants to get involved in community action in Detroit and hopes to use her knowledge to do that. We have one or two other students who are looking in similar directions, but trying to help them figure out a path that allows them to use the particular kind of knowledge and skills they’ve gained here while being able to pay back their student loans. That is I think a very, very tough challenge.
Most schools have this challenge, they are, if you will, value engineering themselves (I think) halfway to death by going into these tracks, where the students basically get ready to be licensed architects as quickly as possible. That removes the possibility for any kind of broad education and also takes the value proposition away from the university pretty soon. Students will just be collecting certificates and they won’t need a campus to do that. They won’t need all the kind of interaction, the kind of both intellectual and social discourse that is so essential to the American university and universities everywhere. So I think that is shortsighted.
What we have to offer here is what we call the immersive experience, the experience of being here at Taliesin and Taliesin West, living here, living here. Our slogan is, “Live a live architecture,” and that is something that I think we have to offer, that those universities that are becoming ever better at making students who can be licensed as quickly as possible [instead] have to offer.We don’t teach ethics as a separate class. What we teach is an architecture that aims to make the world more sustainable, more open and more beautiful
How would you characterize the school’s approach to advertising and marketing itself?
We are a very tiny institution. There are about five staff members. So we do everything altogether. So I am very involved with that. Also it’s obviously something I have done a fair amount of, and I can use my name and context there. On the other hand, I have a very good director of admissions, Jerry Kavalieratos who is much more expert at the ins and outs of recruitment and the places where one advertises. We do have a recruitment plan that we just revised and had into the HLC that foresees us spending a fair amount of time and money recruiting students that might be appropriate to us. Now that is the interesting question. We do all the same things that everyone does in terms of where we advertise (including with your funding institution), and going out to find students at the places where they might congregate, fairs etc., finding intermediaries—it’s all fairly standard.
What we are trying to figure out is how we address those students who might be specifically interested in us. There is an immediate tie-in with people who visit Frank Lloyd Wright sites, including these sites, or who in some other way have expressed an interest in Frank Lloyd Wright. We are also trying to get to those students who are interested in the design build aspect of what we are doing, and we are trying to identify those undergraduate programs not necessarily in architecture (because again we do not require undergraduate architecture degrees). That might be the kind of places that would provide very good students for us.
Just as an example, this year we had a very strong applicant from Berea College in Kentucky and when I saw that, I said, oh my goodness! Why aren’t we recruiting there? They are perfect for us. They have that Arts & Crafts tradition. They have Learning by Doing tradition. They don’t have an architecture school but they have the sense that you have to become a formed individual and be interested in changing the world. You have to work while you are learning. This is a place that we should be looking to in particular as a place that might produce the kind of graduates that would be appropriate for us.
Lastly, at Taliesin, how are students taught to create their own code of ethics for being a practicing architect?
Well it’s interesting. We have a series of strong professional practice courses, including one that is taught by a fantastic woman, Kim Hurtado, who is a lawyer who specializes in architecture, and so her client base is both architects and contractors and sometimes clients looking at these kinds of ethical issues and she teaches. It’s amazing. She is the kind of teacher that students actually love going to this professional practice class, which I think is the only professional practice class that I ever heard of where students are clamoring to take it. It’s really fantastic but of course her perspective is much more nitty-gritty level on day-to-day decisions and making sure that you know how to write a good contract and know what your obligations are when you are working with the contract.
These larger issues are something that we like to think of also in terms of the legacy that we have here, which isn’t all sweetness in life. Obviously Frank Lloyd Wright himself worked for some clients that one might question how appropriate it was for him to work on that, and having students understand that and look at those kind of situations and see what came out of them I think is part of the learning process here. We don’t teach ethics as a separate class. What we teach is an architecture that aims to make the world more sustainable, more open and more beautiful and that’s what should permeate every aspect of how we teach and learn here at Taliesin.
The Deans List is an interview series with the leaders of architecture schools, worldwide. The series profiles the school’s programming, as defined by the head honcho – giving an invaluable perspective into the institution’s unique curriculum, faculty and academic environment.
For this issue, we spoke with Aaron Betsky, Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Scottsdale, AZ and Spring Green, WI.
Former Managing Editor and Podcast Co-Producer for Archinect. I write, go to the movies, walk around and listen to the radio. My interests revolve around cognitive urban theory, psycholinguistics and food.Currently freelancing. Be in touch through firstname.lastname@example.org