The following editorial comes courtesy of former Taliesin teaching fellow Ryan Scavnicky following the recent news that the School of Architecture at Taliesin would close come June 30 of this year. This letter is the first in a series AN will run in the following days from former students, lecturers, and those in Taliesin’s orbit.
The gift shop at Taliesin West tells you everything you need to know about the closure of the School of Architecture at Taliesin (SOAT). Look around it and you will realize there is little gained by the world of architecture from a room full of tourists paying top dollar for home decor with prairie-style motifs. One can smell the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation cashing in on the aesthetic legacy produced by the work of the late architect. Meanwhile, SOAT has continued and built upon that legacy for 88 years, serving as a home base for experimental architecture and providing a counter-narrative to the sterile classrooms of state schools. Through its ups and downs SOAT remains intact and healthy, with enrollment increasing from a total student body of two to 30 in the last five years. Recently independent, on the heels of receiving a full eight-year accreditation, and re-energized by the herculean efforts of president Aaron Betsky and dean Chris Lasch, the school at Taliesin was thriving. Why then, the decision to close?
The architecture community isn’t just mourning the loss of another accredited degree-awarding machine; this is the loss of a pedagogical apparatus whose contemporary presence is in dire need. When we are in school we learn information, but we also learn life skills and craft behaviors which we model off of our colleagues and teachers. We do that outside of the classroom. In an era of infinite access to information, the “living community” of SOAT is increasingly valuable. I am grateful to have served three semesters as the Visiting Teaching Fellow, having experiences with students beyond that which is provided by typical institutions of learning today: I drove sleeping students home from a field trip to Kitt Peak Observatory, asked for help in ridding my apartment of scorpions, washed the dishes, gave a toast, played Dungeons & Dragons, learned yoga, wandered the desert to yell at God, taught Rhino, and I even performed a rendition of En Fermant Les Yeux when entertainment options were running thin. These extreme moments of “ad hoc” were intertwined with everyday life as fluidly as you can imagine. The value of education via distinct experience in today’s attention economy society is certainly worth more to the world than the ability to sell a couple more gaudy stained glass earrings. SOAT made this immensely felt, and the students I was honored to teach are now cutting-edge cultural operators.
On my first day of work, I made jokes about feeling like an Oompa Loompa—that the school’s significance was to provide scale figures to make the tourists happy. At least then I had a value that was being used in service to the field of architecture. In my experience, the current leadership at the Foundation doesn’t care about the mission of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin because they will still be able to sell $250 chess sets and tired craft classes to beady-eyed baby boomers as a stand-in for the heralded school.
Do you remember the plot of the movie Major League? Released on April 7, 1989, the film follows a professional baseball team in Cleveland, Ohio. Owner Rachel Phelps secretly wants the team to tank so that she can move them to sunny Miami. She attempts to do this by intentionally staffing the organization with oddballs and misfits who all have a major flaw in their game. Spoiler alert for those who still haven’t seen this cult classic—the ball club finds out about the scheme, and with nothing to lose, the team plays above expectations, eventually winning a playoff series with the New York Yankees. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is currently playing the part of owner Phelps, attempting to publicly eschew their role in putting the final nail in the coffin of Frank Lloyd Wright’s grand and timely pedagogical legacy just to line their pockets. They made a mistake hiring such capable and passionate administrators. Although SOAT pushed passed many obstacles, there is no nationally-televised game for them to win. Meanwhile, the Foundation is sitting in box seats, resting on their Usonian gravy train and toasting our collective tears. Everything in the statement released by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is accurate; but if you believe that to be the whole story then I know a Saudi Prince who would love your email address and social security number.
The failure of the School of Architecture at Taliesin to agree to terms with its landlord, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, is a real tragedy and we must learn from it. The architecture community needs to be acutely aware of the value of germinating a style recognized by popular culture and what that means for future commodification. We need to be cognizant of the potential impact outsiders can have on our field who fetishize and exploit the genius of our heroes. We must claim aesthetic territory and take no prisoners securing that value to be in service of architecture, lest any more establishments like SOAT become the victims of assassination by the very institutions sworn to protect them.
Correction: The article originally gave credit for the accreditation to Betsky and Lasch, however, the process had begun before they started at the school.