The copy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography that sits on Lorraine Etchell’s bedside table is tattered from use, two or three dozen small green tabs marking favorite sections, page after page with sentences underlined or highlighted in yellow. Etchell first turned to Wright’s book when she was an undergraduate struggling with a sense that her education wasn’t all she’d hoped. She’d been intrigued by the architect since her childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she regularly passed Wright’s Marin County Civic Center. The ideas she found when she opened Wright’s life story changed her own and led her to the School of Architecture at Taliesin, from which she is scheduled to graduate this May. “I probably wouldn’t have gone to graduate school and gotten my master’s if it wasn’t for this school,” she says.
Unless something changes, that school, a school Wright considered central to his legacy, will be closing its doors at the end of the term this spring. The reason why remains in dispute, although several individuals familiar with its recent history place the blame largely on the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which owns and operates Taliesin near Spring Green, Wis., and Taliesin West, outside Scottsdale, Ariz.
Under the leadership of current President and CEO Stuart Graff, the board never really understood the school, critics say, considering it more of a burden than a critical part of Wright’s legacy. Graff refused repeated requests to talk to ARCHITECT. (Dan Schweiker, the school board chair, also declined to be interviewed.) But in published statements and earlier interviews, Graff said the school, which has been supported financially by the foundation, could not come up with a sustainable, long-term financial plan to support itself and refused the foundation’s offer to continue operations or another year or two.
What is certain is that, barring a last-minute change of heart, a small but unique institution, one in which students are taking the philosophy behind Wright’s organic architecture not as Holy Writ but as a springboard they can use to pursue their own developing ideas about design, is about to disappear. Whatever the school’s financial situation, this is an end that Wright, who never let fiscal propriety hold him back, almost certainly would have mourned.
A Place for Hands-On Learning
The School of Architecture at Taliesin has its origins in Wright’s apprentice/fellowship program, which he started in 1932. It was clearly dear to his heart. In his will, Wright left his entire estate to the program and the foundation, which was created in the 1940s to support the school and encourage the “teaching of the art of architecture and collateral crafts.”
Wright hoped the school would foster an education where students learned, in part, by getting their hands dirty: shoveling dirt, mixing concrete, putting up the walls and raising the rafters integral to their designs. He hoped to promote the ideas of organic architecture, but also described the program’s goal as developing a “creative human being with a wide horizon.”
More than 1,200 students have studied at Taliesin during its 88 years, including John Lautner and E. Fay Jones, who won the AIA Gold Medal in 1990. Currently, about 30 students are enrolled in the school; they move seasonally between Taliesin and Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home. In the 1980s, with the support of Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, the school received formal accreditation as a graduate program in architecture. It is probably best known for the shelters the students build to live in—the embodiment of that hands-on approach.
On a bright winter day, Etchell showed me around the shelters at Taliesin West. For environmental reasons, the students are no longer allowed to strike out into virgin desert and must build on existing sites. Etchell is working on the remains of a site that includes a couple of cinder block walls. Originally, she was thinking of tearing down and starting fresh. But then she “looked harder and started to see the relationship between the existing structure and what was out there,” she says, gesturing toward the desert. Etchell’s shelter project, central to each student’s master’s thesis, evolved into an exploration of “this illusion of separation between past and future—the new coming out of the old and making you aware that they’re not separate.”
Etchell’s design may or may not fall under a strict definition of organic architecture, but standing in the old shelter with the tumbled and sun-washed desert landscape all around us, she told me that she saw it as true to Wright’s approach—what she described as a commitment to a kind of intense seeing, a focus on the relationships that animate a place, and the freedom to build on that to create something uniquely your own.
Etchell took me on a tour of other dwellings, including Brittlebush, a dramatic combination of swooped and peaking fabric roofs and concrete that incorporates an open-air sleeping platform above a fireplace and a shaded patio. Simon De Aguero, Assoc. AIA, who designed Brittlebush in 2010, now works for Atkin Olshin Schade Architects in Santa Fe, N.M. The shelter program, he says, played a big role in bringing him to the school. “I really wanted to build something,” he remembers, “and I knew that was going to be part of the process of being there.”
Etchell and De Aguero emphasized that, under recent leadership, the school hasn’t tried to turn out Wright clones. “We weren’t forced to stylistically emulate Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. You could choose to, and some students did, and that was fine,” says De Aguero. “But what we all did do, was we got to live and work in masterpieces of architecture [by Wright] and every day deal with its pitfalls and its strengths and its beauty.” He also remembers the power of living “with nature, especially in Taliesin West,” and spending time in the Wright archives. In the end, he says, “It just rubs off on you, no matter what.”
Reed Kroloff, dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology College of Architecture in Chicago, served on both the Taliesin school and foundation board within the last decade. “What is lost is the last place where his particular philosophy, his particular way of seeing the world, is under active consideration and discussion,” he says. “The critical thing we lose is an important and interesting conversation, and one that has yielded over its life substantial change in the way all of us live.”
Like many of those with a past or present association with the school, Kroloff feels strongly the loss did not have to happen.
A Long-Simmering Debate
On Jan. 27, a Monday, the students at the School of Architecture at Taliesin received an email that there would be an all-school meeting the next morning. “We all met in the atrium,” Etchell remembers. “Aaron [Betsky, the school's president and an ARCHITECT contributor] took an hour. … He told us the school would be closing.
The stunning announcement marked the public end to a private struggle between the school board and the foundation board over how the school might continue operations. In the subsequent fallout, both sides presented very different versions of those negotiations.
The background is fairly straightforward. In 2017, to meet the requirements of an accrediting organization, the school and foundation split into separate entities. At that time, a memorandum of understanding—which expires this summer—was signed to govern their relationship. Schweiker, the school board’s chair, has said the school presented a proposal to the foundation to extend the memorandum for two years while it explored options to improve its financial viability. He acknowledges the school needed to broaden its support, but said it had enough money and donors that its immediate future was not in doubt.
The foundation, he said in a statement, countered with only two options: One was to close this summer. The other was to stay open for the 2020–2021 academic year but immediately terminate its accreditation. The foundation also wanted the school to help create a new, non-accredited education program run by the foundation. Since the loss of accreditation would have almost certainly led to a mass exit of students and donors, Schweiker said the school board felt it had no choice but to close the school at the end of this term.
An interview Graff gave to Architectural Digest seems to back up part of those claims. Graff said the foundation offered a proposal in which the school would have dropped accreditation to stay open through the following summer. But in a later release intended to clear up “misinformation,” Graff said the foundation thought it had an agreement with the school that would have allowed second- and third-year students to complete their accredited degrees at the school and first-year students to take an accelerated program that would have accomplished the same. He placed the blame for the closing squarely on the school board and administration, saying they had never come up with a viable road map to financial self-sufficiency. He said the foundation, which maintains and operates both Taliesin and Taliesin West, does not have large cash reserves to support the school.
An accurate picture of the two institutions’ finances is difficult to bring into focus. Based on the 2017 memorandum, the school has failed to reach its projected increases in enrollment and tuition revenues, although the number of students has grown from 20 to 30 in the last five years. And Betsky had mounted a successful 2015 fundraising campaign that raised $2 million, evidence of the school’s potential to grow its base of support.
Graff insists the foundation remains committed to “extending Wright’s legacy of educating architects” through a new program that could include K–12 programs, adult education, and joint efforts with new partners. Still, it seems fair to ask why—if the foundation is willing to spend money to create a new program, one that is not even accredited—it couldn’t have simply continued supporting the existing school?
This year’s impasse appears to be the final chapter in a split that had been growing for years. “The [foundation] board never really understood the school. It never seemed to respect, even then, the intention of Wright’s,” says Kroloff about his time on the boards. “They didn’t want to recognize the fact the foundation was set up to perpetuate the school and to perpetuate his legacy in organic architecture.”
Kroloff sharply disputes Graff’s characterization that the school had become a serious financial burden to the foundation. “I’ve seen their books. I know what the financials said. The school was not draining them. … This was purely an act on their part to rid themselves of something that they found bothersome.”
In his interview with Architectural Digest, Graff insisted the foundation isn’t out to rid itself of the school. “We believe in the program,” he said. “We just wanted to make sure that in the best interest of the students it was sustainable. Give me a sustainable model, I’m there.”
Victor Sidy, AIA, who served as dean from 2005 to 2015 of what was then the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, acknowledges the school wasn’t self-supporting, “but I can also say it was never meant to be self-supporting. … During the time that I was head of the school, we were never questioned about the need for financial sustainability.” Nevertheless, he says the school had made strides toward self-sufficiency, and with an increase in enrollment of only four students, to a total of 34, would have reached the point where “it would have been a very small drag on the foundation.”
Sidy saw a change in the foundation’s attitude with the split in 2017, when what had been a partnership effectively became a landlord-tenant relationship. “This was an organization that I had known as being generous and future-oriented,” Sidy says, “and what I see now is an organization that is selfish and shortsighted.”
More Than a School
At the end of my shelter tour, Etchell and I sat down at an open-air plaza where students often gather. Both she and De Aguilar stressed the strong sense of community that develops when students live and work so closely together. In a statement about the closing, the students said they are losing more than just a school: “We are losing our home, our deeply interwoven community, and the chance to pursue our education at a truly unique, experimental institution.”
Alumni also have spoken out, both in the media and in a letter signed by more than 20 former students that calls on the boards to reconsider their decision. Whether any of this will matter remains to be seen, but Sidy holds out hope. “If the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation had any interest in turning a sad situation into a positive one, they could do it,” he says. “Absolutely they could do it, if they had the will.”
The school is currently working out an agreement with the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University in Tempe so the Taliesin students can complete their degrees there. But Etchell says the experience won’t be the same. Before the announcement, she says, “we were really excited about our future. … We had relationships starting to grow in China, maybe an exchange program. We had the project in Globe. All of these things we were going to build on.”
In Globe and Miami, two small towns in Arizona, students were helping locals rethink their built landscapes. Etchell plans to continue working in Globe after her graduation, including on a proposal to convert the old train depot’s grounds into a town plaza. She sees the project as an iteration of Wright’s ideals, creating an organic design that evolves out of the character of a small community. It reflects the founding mission of the Taliesin school—one she feels has been abandoned by a foundation more concerned with maintaining Wright’s buildings than building on his philosophy. “They’ve forgotten what the purpose of this was all about,” she says, “furthering an idea, not just preserving the idea.”