Fred A. Bernstein

Dust-Up In the Desert

Trouble at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture

Published in The New York Times, January 31, 2002

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- At the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, learning by doing is taken to extremes. After drafting until the wee hours, students are expected for breakfast at 6:30 -- except those doing the cooking for an extended family of 40, including faculty members and guests, who might just as well stay up all night. Eric Lloyd Wright, the master's grandson, who studied at the school 50 years ago but is not above channeling his grandfather when asked, said Wright believed that "to learn how to design a kitchen, you have to work in a kitchen."

First-year students know to bring recipes as well as sleeping bags and formal wear: they bunk in primitive shepherds' tents (10-foot-square canvas pyramids) in the desert, yet dress in black tie for Saturday night dinners. Building social poise is one goal at the school, commonly called Taliesin. So is learning to hobnob with potential clients.

The conversation at meals is likely to be about the great Wright, an egoist who would be delighted to know that 43 years after his death, his pithy pronouncements are treated as gospel. The students refer to him as "Mr. Wright." "When you hear 'Mr.' you know to tread lightly," said the architectural historian Thomas Hines.

And yet the design studio is littered with books by architects whose names are not Wright, a sign that the school is building bridges. Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, a Colorado architect and one of Wright's 10 grandchildren, said, "I've noticed that they are beginning to talk about the work of other architects, which is essential."

There is other visible evidence of the push and pull at this school between the past and future: a neighborhood of student-built shelters in the desert near the landmark Wright buildings.

The first shelters, built in the 1930's, were canvas-topped huts with walls of wood or "desert masonry" -- local stone and rough concrete favored by Wright. But in the mid-1990's, students began building bigger shelters, using materials that do not biodegrade and that require cranes to position. The results were exciting, a secret garden of architectural experimentation but not necessarily a fitting symbol of Wright's "organic architecture" -- a philosophy that calls for buildings that appear to grow naturally out of their sites.

Last year a student went too far, proposing to build a shelter out of 850 green plastic milk crates that would tower over the saguaro cactuses. "The thing would have been 17 feet high," said Arnold Roy, vice president for facilities here at Taliesin West. (The school's other campus is in Spring Green, Wis.) Mr. Roy, a kind of one-man zoning board with jurisdiction over 500 stunning desert acres, rejected the design. The student, he says, "got his degree and left." (Building a shelter, while recommended, is not a requirement for receiving either a bachelor's or master's degree at the school.)

Under Mr. Roy's new guidelines, shelters should be built close to the ground, on the foundations of earlier student shelters, and use materials that are easy to move in -- and out.

But not everyone agrees with these rules. Two years ago, Chad Cornette built a solar-powered shelter on steel girders. It spans a desert wash so seductively that when he showed it to the Tucson architect Rick Joy, Mr. Joy offered him a job. The shelter probably would not be permitted now, in part because the steel required heavy construction equipment and the glass glares in the sun.

Mr. Cornette, who now works in northern Wisconsin, says the restrictions are "just wrong." He thinks the school should encourage more and bigger shelters -- as long as they are environmentally sensitive, to set an example for Arizona developers.

The debate over the shelters is only the most visible manifestation of a larger debate about the future of the school. Founded in the 1930's, when the Depression left Wright with little work, the school developed a reputation as an ingrown community of Wright acolytes, and not as a serious player in architecture education. In the early days, said Robert Twombly, an architecture historian at the City University of New York, critics speculated that Wright was "assembling young people gullible enough to pay for the privilege of growing his food and repairing his estate."

Now it is 27 "senior fellows," most of them former apprentices, and some in their 70's and 80's, who run the school. They have continued many of Wright's traditions, including the formal dinners, where the students cook, serve and entertain in Wright-designed theaters. But none of the fellows are very well-known architects, and so the master-apprentice system continues without a master worthy of the title.

Still, apprentices -- which is how the students are known -- report that graduation leads to multiple job offers, a prospect that students at most other architecture schools can only dream of.

"I have met some really exciting young people at Taliesin," said Ms. Ingraham, Wright's granddaughter, who as a "rebellious teenager" studied architecture with Mies van der Rohe. Now in her 70's and the president of the Colorado chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Ms. Ingraham said: "Coming out from under the shadow of greatness is not an easy task. The people who have worked to hold the place together should be congratulated, but what's to come will be in the hands of a different group of people."

Five months ago, the school appointed John Wyatt, a longtime University of Chicago classicist, as academic dean. "This can't just be a shrine," Mr. Wyatt said. "That's gone. The place has the ability to renew itself, and the apprentices are the key to making that happen."

The students (currently 23 of them; the school has a limit of 35) pay $10,200 a year in tuition, room and board. Their shelters are a trek of a quarter mile from the architecture studio, which was designed by Wright with a light-filtering roof. As the sun comes up over the desert, some of them are doing chores, including taking out the garbage.

Rochelle Pripstein, a Doylestown, Pa., architect who is an adjunct faculty member at the school, said that Taliesin's communal ways took some getting used to. "You may want to go for a walk in the desert, but someone has 1,000 envelopes to address," she said. "And so you sit down and start addressing."

Pamela Stefansson, Taliesin's director of admissions, is working to increase the school's enrollment, which means that more students will share the duty roster. At the Saturday dinners, those who aren't working can mingle with guests, who in the last two years have included Julie Harris, Jihan Sadat and Philip Johnson.

Ms. Pripstein said: "When our students graduate, they don't have to learn how to negotiate a contract, or how to talk to a client. They're complete."

They may have acquired social poise, but until the 1980's the students coming out of Taliesin did not acquire a diploma. Eric Wright, 72, said his grandfather "thought you didn't have to have a degree -- his letter of recommendation was enough."

Getting accreditation was a decade-long process, started by Frank Lloyd Wright's third wife, Olgivanna, and continued by the California architect Arthur Dyson, now the school's dean. "Academic work now takes time away from doing the construction work we used to do," Eric Wright said.

Today, students divide their time between lectures, independent study (Mr. Wyatt requires a language, and preferably one like Greek that requires students "to master a new symbol system") and time in the studio. There, they work on their own designs as well as those of Taliesin Architects, the firm run by former apprentices. But none of the firm's buildings can compete with Wright's, and some are mediocre. Mr. Twombly and other critics accuse Wright's acolytes of squandering his legacy with second-rate buildings.

"It's a difficulty to not have somebody who you really look up to as a great creative architect, but not impossible," Eric Wright said. "Actually, the architects there are very capable, and some of them do some good work."

The students' shelters are meant to be temporary; none have plumbing or electricity, except for Mr. Cornette's experiment in solar power and an occasional renegade extension cord. Students leave everything except a bed, perhaps a boombox, a few candles and an alarm clock in a locker room close to the architecture studio.

Eric Wright, who is based in Malibu, Calif., said: "Whatever that is that made my grandfather great, you have a chance to get at it if you study at Taliesin. At other architecture schools, it's just about putting boxes together."

Together, the shelters form what may be the hippest dormitory in the world. The tents were standard issue when Wright welcomed his first students to Arizona. (The Wisconsin campus of Taliesin has more conventional housing.) A couple of years ago, Fatma Elmalipinar and Fabian Mantel had the idea of hoisting a tent up on a metal suspension-bridge-like structure. Shikha Berry, a student from Bombay, inherited the hanging tent -- and though she notes that it shakes in the wind and leaks in the rain, she finds it exciting.

But the hanging tent, with tons of steel, wouldn't be permitted under the new guidelines. (Under a tacit understanding with the city of Scottsdale, Taliesin's shelters are not subject to any building codes, Mr. Roy said.)

A few hundred yards away, Haven Burkee, a student from Sedona, Ariz., adopted a plastic-walled shelter with an 80-square-foot lawn cantilevered over a desert wash. He tends the lawn, which is far more suitable to a desert ecology than the vast lawns of housing developments, with a watering can. "If you're going to have grass in Arizona, this is all you need," he said. The shelter was designed by Victor Sidy, and built with the help of Mr. Burkee, who is an experienced welder.

Not far away is Mr. Cornette's solar shelter, where Ben Knowles, its current tenant, made a geometric painting to hang on the wall, his way of responding to the shelter's angular architecture in two dimensions while personalizing his new home.

Most Saturday afternoons from December through April, the apprentices lead tours of the shelters; the money they raise helps pay for field trips. Student builders receive up to $500 from the school, but mostly they work with donated materials. And form follows philanthropy. Aaron Kadoch, who graduated last year, received a donation of glass blocks, which he then incorporated into his design. His father, who was attending architecture school in Rhode Island at the time, took time off to help build the shelter.

These structures, the first projects built by most of the school's graduates, remain significant to them. One recent Friday, Bill Schoettker, a developer of high-end houses in Scottsdale, visited the shelter he and his girlfriend built in the late 1980's. Subsequent occupants had added a post that he felt lessened the impact of his cantilevered roof. He promised Michael Heublein, a first-year student from Davis, Calif., who was just moving into the vacant building, that he would come back the following Saturday, with power tools, to help make modifications.

That is how many of the shelters evolve. Others go back to nature. Mr. Roy, who noted that at Taliesin "students still get to build their own homes in the desert -- and you don't get that at Harvard," says he built his own shelter in the late 1950's with concrete-block walls and a canvas roof "like an abstract butterfly."

Mr. Roy has walked the desert thousands of times since then, he says, and it makes him proud to know that not a trace of what he built remains. That's an attitude that would suit Wright's precepts, but not his ego.