In 2004, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, known as Taliesin, was unraveling. The dean resigned, faculty jumped ship, and student enrollment plummeted. When the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), an independent regional accrediting agency whose imprimatur is crucial to Taliesin's mission of training professional architects, warned the school in 2005 that its accreditation was in jeopardy, it was clear a super-injection of administrative adrenaline was needed.
In a public disclosure notice dated June 3, 2005, the HLC questioned the school's fulfillment of basic educational values, including “acquisition of a breadth of knowledge and skills and the exercise of intellectual inquiry.” It also described shortcomings in the school's governance, administration, and financial stability. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which operates the school, then found an optimistic leader in one of its own alumni, Victor Sidy. Heartened by changes within the foundation, Sidy agreed to leave his architecture practice in New York to become dean.
Since his August 2005 arrival at Taliesin West, the school's Scottsdale, Ariz., campus, Sidy has recruited new faculty, doubled enrollment, helped stabilize school finances, and overhauled the curriculum. “It was admittedly a low point,” he says, recalling the precarious situation he confronted nearly two years ago, “But we looked at it as a rebuilding challenge, almost as an architectural challenge.”
The first chapter of his tenure culminated March 5–7 in a highly anticipated visit from an HLC evaluation team, whose recommendations will determine the future of the school's accreditation status. The physical centerpiece for review was an exhibition of student work displayed in a student-designed pavilion.
The bachelor's program at Taliesin was first accredited in 1987. The master's program earned accreditation in 1992 from the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), the only agency in the United States certified to accredit professional architectural degree programs. In Arizona, NAAB accreditation is contingent on HLC accreditation. The HLC board of trustees will announce its decision on June 8.
Founded by Frank Lloyd Wright and his third wife, Olgivanna, in 1932, Taliesin keeps its curriculum rooted in a hands-on approach to learning, rapport with the landscape, and community involvement. The school still migrates twice a year, spending summers at the original Taliesin campus in Spring Green, Wis., and the rest of the year in Arizona. But today the school also channels ongoing debates in design theory, with myriad sources of inspiration that transcend any single tradition.
One example is the rotating architect- and scholar-in-residence program, initiated by Sidy in 2005. Javier Gomez of RoTo Architects and Phoenix-based Eddie Jones are among the seven architects who have participated so far. Eight others, including Stephen Cassell of Architectural Research Office, presented lectures during the past winter. “There is a lot of excitement about reinterpreting the core ideas that reside here,” says Sidy.
With 19 students and counting, Taliesin appears to be the smallest professionally accredited U.S. program. Its miniscule size may ensure plenty of individual attention for students, but it has also posed tricky logistical and financial challenges. Sidy and Phillip Allsopp, the new president and CEO of the foundation, intend to continue the school's gradual expansion over the next few years and to raise new funds through a capital campaign.
In the event of a positive verdict from the HLC, what's next for Taliesin? “Our challenge is to maintain currency and relevancy with the times,” says Sidy. “We're starting to develop a plan that will bring a fascinating legacy into the future in a contemporary way.”