One of the pleasures of being dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture is, as I have written, that I get to live here. But the students also live here, in shelters without electricity or running water, and the construction of these desert abodes offers clues both to the basics of building and how we could occupy the fringes of our urban settlements. Two new shelters, recently completed, show how students have learned from their site and their history, and what we can learn from their experiments.
The shelters face each other in three-quarter view, opening up to the valley below and answering to the hills behind them. At the narrowest point between them, a ledge acts as a desk where I can imagine someone drawing the desert at dusk. She or he can then take that work down a few steps to a tented concrete pad, anchored by a stone and concrete fireplace, where a triangular table can occupy the space or fold into a corner. You can share your drawings, or maybe just a little conversation, before you retire to your canvas-and-wood retreat.
These shelters are the latest in a seven-decade-long history here at Taliesin West of students making their own nests while they attend the school. These new structures are different, however: First, there are two of them, offering an alternative to the isolation the tents and lean-tos built on concrete pads around the main campus usually provide; second, they are the result of a class, “Little Maps,” in which visiting fellow David Tapies asked students to research the history and nature of the shelters. They are collective efforts and meta-shelters.
Taliesin West started as a campsite on the mesa overlooking Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Valley of the Sun and, while the main campus quickly turned into permanent structures, the students kept living in shelters they created themselves. In time, they became part of the curriculum: When you arrive, you choose one of the shelters previous students have left behind, but over the course of your stay here, you have to design and construct your own, using one of the available pads, and live in it for at least two months.
Tapies, an architect based in Barcelona, and his students looked at the many forms students have created, ranging from the pyramidal tents that were the first structures, all the way to enclosures that are so elaborate they resemble small homes. They also researched the washes that ramble down the sloping site, the flora and fauna, the petroglyphs the Native Americans left behind, the wind, the rocks, and the patterns in which the existing shelters exist. They even found that Wright had tried—and failed—to promote an ordered relationship between the disparate sites and shapes by drawing up a master plan based on triangular groupings, which students quickly ignored.
The shelters the students produced reference the basic forms of Taliesin’s main buildings—angled beams supporting canvas stretched flat—but made them more vertical, anchoring them in wood slat constructions containing a raised bed (to keep the sleeper away from critters crawling on the desert floor) and shaded by corrugated metal roofs. They added a few frills I felt were unnecessary, such as triangular flanges recalling a decorative motif common at Taliesin West and wood slats that break up the plane of the base, but have no real purpose. They also made the structures flexible and kinetic with a system of pulleys with which inhabitants can open the shelters up to wind or views while shading themselves when necessary.
Placing the two shelters in relationship to each other, and developing an existing pad slightly below the one they used for the huts as a communal space, also pointed the way to how shelters could move beyond their solitary ways to create a sharing of resources, space, and conversation.
The Taliesin West shelter program is at the core of our approach to how you learn architecture by doing. It also offers ways students can come to know that most basic element of architecture, the place where we create a space that is our own, in relation to nature and to others. Suggesting that this little bit of desert sprawl could develop into nodes, and that such nodes could pick up on history, geography, and a basic sense of place, makes these shelters all the more valuable as building blocks for future architecture here and elsewhere.