On January 26, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation announced that ARCHITECT contributor Aaron Betsky, who writes the "Beyond Buildings" column, would be taking over as dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Betsky is taking the position at a rocky time in the school’s history, which dates back to the establishment of the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932. Threatening the loss of its accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission, the school, which includes campuses at Taliesin West Scottsdale, Ariz., and Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., is currently fundraising to be able to support its independent incorporation and financial autonomy from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. ARCHITECT spoke with Betsky about his new position, goals, and the direction he hopes to take the school.
ARCHITECT: As dean, you have many responsibilities: you’ll be in charge of the academic programs, personnel and faculty, students, finances, and according to a January press release, you will also “play a role in the broader programs of the foundation.” What exactly does that role entail and how does that fit into the school’s plan to become separately incorporated?
Aaron Betsky: The school right now is still an integral part of the foundation and as such, I am part of the foundation’s senior management team. I report to its president [Sean Malone] and I have a role in the management and development of Taliesin. As the school becomes independent, I will switch over to having a direct responsibility for the school and I will report to an independent school board. Obviously, the school is an integral part of what makes Taliesin—why it was built in the first place—and the foundation board is fully committed to keeping the school as an integral part of the experience of Taliesin. It will always have a place there.
What are your overarching goals for this position, which requires you to wear many hats?
The goal is to make the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture into the best school for experimental architecture in the world. That means we have to take the traditions with which the school developed—which themselves came out of the American pragmatist and Arts and Crafts tradition defined by Frank Lloyd Wright—and advance a series of principles and ideas looking at some of the central problems that still confront us in our world of continual motion: What to do about the conditions of sprawl; how to build sustainable architecture and how to build with the land; how to think of architecture that opens—rather than closes us—to experiences, that breaks open the box, and that is democratic; how to create forms that come out of a clear relationship to our own standard of the human-made and natural world. Those are all principles that I look forward to developing at the school.
To do all of this, the school first has to achieve its independence, which it will do this year, and then work with students and faculty to develop the quality of the education and experience . We'll be engaging in a series of projects that I hope will turn the school outward to the community. There are already several faculty members who are working on projects that are direct collaborations with several communities in the Scottsdale and Phoenix area. That’s something I hope will continue and foster.
The past year saw the highest number of new students in the school’s history and a number of educators were added to the faculty. Is expanding the school a long-term goal of yours?
Yes. When Frank Lloyd Wright ran it, the ideal size that some still remember, was about 45 people. That does make a great deal of sense. It won't happen overnight, it will take a while to build up to there. We need to be able to accommodate those students through improvements in the infrastructure. The school will have to grow—not just because of the financial logic but also because we need a higher density of creative and inquiring minds to do the kind of intense work that I hope will happen at Taliesin.
What are the plans to update the Taliesin facilities?
There is a preservation master plan that is the foundation’s responsibility. There is a lot of work to be done in order to maintain and restore this complex of buildings. The school will have to make improvements to the facilities so we can accommodate more students. We have to do that in a matter that builds on and develops the traditions that are so evident in the built forms of Taliesin today.
How is the fundraising campaign going so far? The first deadline to raise an initial $1 million is coming up on March 27.
Yes, we believe we are on track. We have had generous donations primarily from the immediate Taliesin community, from fellows, alumni, and close friends of the community. We’re now at the phase where we're reaching out beyond that and obviously continuing to look to the support from our best friends but also looking at broader forms of support. I have made a plan and I'm looking to hire a development director and hoping to be able to pursue those goals this year.
We have events planned both in L.A. and Chicago in May where we will introduce what we’re doing and ask people for their support. We will also in the future have events in other places. One of the great traditions of Taliesin itself is to have these evenings that are enlivened by all kinds of arts and that bring people together in the community. That is certainly something I want to continue.
This past summer and fall the school and foundation leadership were divided as to where the school should be heading. Do you see those issues present? How do you plan to work with these groups to ensure unity in the future?
I think the school board and foundation board are united now. They've always been committed and united to the idea there should be a school at Taliesin. It’s just the question of how to do that that has caused some differences of opinion in the past. The school, as far as I can tell, seems to be united and enthusiastic. There have been no “bah-humbug” people who have approached me. Everyone seems of good will and good faith that we’re going to work towards and achieve a situation in which the school will have its proper and independent place in Taliesin.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.