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were inextricably intertwined, that, in his words, “architecture
is life; or at least it is life taking form.” So, in 1932, in an effort
to teach that philosophy as well as raise some much-needed
cash, he and his wife, Olgivanna, founded what they called
the Taliesin Fellowship, a school and community for aspiring
architects at his home in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The
students, or apprentices, as theWrights called them, were
involved in nearly every aspect of what they envisioned as
a self-sufficient community: from cooking and cleaning to
growing food to quarrying the stone, mixing the mortar and
cutting the trees used to build a new studio.
In 1937, Wright and the apprentices used native rock
and sand to build TaliesinWest, their winter camp outside
of Scottsdale, which is now considered one of his finest
architectural achievements, and they began to split their time
between the midwest and the desert.
Critics compared the arrangement
to a southern slave plantation, but
the apprentices saw it as a golden
opportunity to learn from a master.
ThoughWright died in 1959, and
his wife, who remained at Taliesin’s
helm, died in 1985, the Fellowship lives
on. There are about 20 apprentices,
as the students are still known within
the community. Roughly half of
them are Bachelor of Architectural
Studies degree candidates, and the
rest are candidates for Master of
Architecture degrees. They continue
to travel back and forth between the
two architectural landmarks, where
they live with members of the Taliesin
Fellowship, 19 of whom studied withWright himself. There
are also about 120 employees—tour guides, architects, faculty
and staff—who work, and in some cases live, at both Taliesins
and a satellite architectural office inMadison, Wisconsin.
Just as their predecessors did, the apprentices continue to
immerse themselves in the three aspects of their education:
construction, which provides practical training; studio work
at Taliesin Architects, the on-site firm that descended from
Wright’s practice, where they learn and apply theory and
design skills; and community involvement, which, along with
lectures, presentations and independent studies, is Taliesin’s
answer to the liberal arts, and is considered a cornerstone of
the school’s mission.
So, while SarahMurphy might begin her day with a shovel
in her hand, she might end it at a presentation about Frank
LloydWright’s residential homes, or a slide show about the
future of office design, or huddled over a computer, learning
how to use a computer-aided design program. In between,
you might find her enjoying mid-morning coffee and egg-
salad sandwiches with the rest of the Taliesin community at
the apartment of Cornelia Brierly, who joined the Fellowship
in 1934 and remains an active participant. Or, as part of
Murphy’s maintenance duties, she might be cleaning and
preparing a guest cottage for one of Taliesin’s frequent
overnight visitors. At some point she’ll take a break to write
in her journal, where, as part of the school’s emphasis on self-
assessment, she’s expected to keep a list of her experiences
and her sense of what she’s learning from each one. She will
eat dinner—a simple buffet-style meal prepared with the help
of an apprentice—with the entire Fellowship, then clear her
dishes into the kitchen, where they will be washed by another
apprentice.
And when she is ready for bed, she’ll brush her teeth in the
women’s locker room, then venture a couple of hundred yards
into the desert to her “shelter,” an eight-foot-square canvas
shepherd’s tent where she’s meant to immerse herself in the
desert environment. (At TaliesinWest, all male apprentices are
required to live in a shelter; women apprentices may choose
to live in dormitory-style lodging.) After a year, Murphy can
request to live in a more elaborate shelter that has been built by
a previous apprentice and has since been abandoned. Or, if she
chooses to pursue her master’s degree at the school, Murphy
may design and build her own one-room shelter on Taliesin
West’s 470-acre campus.
Originally a result of budgetary constraints, today these
unusual living arrangements are a big draw for students as well
as the public. Students say that being exposed to the elements
of nature makes them better architects, and they love the
challenge of designing their own environmentally sensitive
space. Meanwhile, public tours of the innovative shelters have
become so popular that proceeds have funded several school
field trips.
Twice a month, Murphy will set aside her well-worn
sweatshirt and jeans and put on a long gown for the school’s
“Taliesin Evenings,” black-tie dinners that often include a
theatrical or musical performance, either by apprentices
or visiting guest artists. These Saturday night events are
considered more than just a nod to a longstanding Taliesin
tradition; they are yet another learning opportunity—in this
case, for students to function in a formal setting—a skill they
presumably will need if they are to be successful architects.
“What’s totally unique about Taliesin is it really does
take experiential learning down to a life basis,” saidMark
Hammons, an architectural historian, who is now assistant
Students and professional architects work together on drafting projects.
The dilemma facing the
school these days is
how to retain the ideals
and philosophies on
which it was founded,
while also answering
to a host of changing
cultural, professional
and financial demands.