Looking to the Bauhaus for lessons that apply to Taliesin today. Image courtesy of the author.
In 1933, with mounting pressure from the Nazi Party to end the making and teaching of “degenerate art,” the allied art institution known as the Bauhaus was forced to close. During its 14 years in operation, the Bauhaus faced constant opposition by German conservative politics of the time that accused the faculty and students of being radicals and viewed the school’s pedagogy of uniting art, craft, and industry as an attack on national cultural traditions. Yet, despite such hostility, the school managed to survive two forced relocations, the leadership of three different directors, and still set off the most important and ubiquitous artistic movement of the past century. As a kindred American institution, the School of Architecture at Taliesin (SOAT), currently faces a similar fate of closure, one must wonder what the shuttering of the Bauhaus can teach us today.
Learning from the Bauhaus
Around the same time the Bauhaus was closing, a small apprenticeship school in the United States called Taliesin was founded on a similar philosophical foundation. Established by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1932, Taliesin offered students the unique opportunity to live and work with Wright while learning art and architecture through his mentorship. Like the Bauhaus, Taliesin shunned a traditional education structure in favor of hands-on learning and sought to unify the arts under architecture design education. Unlike the Bauhaus, Taliesin was not subjected to the same political pressures and has remained in operation where today it is a degree-granting institution offering accredited Masters in Architecture degrees.
In January of this year, SoAT sent shock waves through the architecture community with the sudden announcement it would close at the end of this academic season due to ongoing operational disagreements with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation – an organization Wright created in 1940 to protect his work and legacy. A few weeks later, after overwhelming public support to keep the school open, SoAT reversed its earlier decision to cease operations, but the Foundation has continued to refuse renegotiation of an expiring Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which outlines all relations between the two – including the School’s lease of the campuses in Arizona and Wisconsin. Adding to the confusion, the Foundation remains adamant on developing a non-accredited education program they would own and operate in-lieu of the more robust and highly regarded National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB)-certified program SoAT currently offers.
While the Bauhaus philosophy was able to transcend a specific building or location; Wright’s principles instead ask students to be immersed in nature and to learn and abstract directly from his architecture.
Unlike the Bauhaus, SoAT was built around the work and philosophy of a single individual. Though Wright’s architecture is widely praised, his principles have long been viewed as idiosyncratic, overly personal, and thus never caught on in a usable way that differentiated followers from copyists. Where the more universal Bauhaus philosophy became the standard bearer of the 20th century Modern architecture movement, Wright’s philosophy has been relegated to a small enclave of architects and designers – most of whom are former apprentices and students of Taliesin. That is why SoAT’s “learn by doing” mantra is unique in architectural education; it is structured around learning Wright by inhabiting Wright. While the Bauhaus philosophy was able to transcend a specific building or location; Wright’s principles instead ask students to be immersed in nature and to learn and abstract directly from his architecture.
The hubris of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is in their disregard for how SoAT’s accreditation propels Wright’s ideas and gives access to an otherwise unreachable field: the architecture profession. Afterall, the posthumous proliferation of the Bauhaus principles was not merely due to their designed simplicity but rather their adoption by architects and other architectural institutions around the world. These ideas survived because they continued to be taught and practiced around the world. Without SoAT acting as a conduit to the profession and disseminating the Wright philosophy, the Foundation not only ignores the reality of accreditation and licensure in architecture but further marginalizes Wright’s influence as merely biographical or devotional figure – not as an innovative and relevant designer whose teachings and influence continue to have far-reaching impacts.
The hubris of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is in their disregard for how SoAT’s accreditation propels Wright’s ideas and gives access to an otherwise unreachable field: the architecture profession.
Though Stuart Graff, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, has stated that a non-accredited program will continue at Taliesin, education was never meant to be second to tourism at these campuses. Since Wright’s establishment of his Fellowship school, Taliesin and Taliesin West were always primarily meant to be used to train architects. From the amount of acreage he purchased for Taliesin West, to the scale and proportions of the drafting studios and dining rooms, the architecture of these campuses is a living document of Frank Lloyd Wright’s intent for an educational community. The decision by Mr. Graff and his board to discontinue SoAT’s MoU and create a non-accredited program under the umbrella of the Foundation, suggests a devalorizing of architectural design education and the School’s “learn by doing” pedagogy in favor of limiting the future and reach of Wright’s legacy. This consolidation may give the Foundation a sense of unity and strength within their own organization but certainly not within the purview architecture community.
This is an embarrassing episode for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and one that can be easily remedied by removing Mr. Graff from his position and working to make Taliesin whole again. The creation of both the school and the Foundation was always to be centered around Frank Lloyd Wright’s intent, principles, and legacy – not Mr. Graff’s. As legal heir to Frank Lloyd Wright’s physical and intellectual properties, the Foundation has a responsibility to preserve the integrity of not only the Taliesin campuses but the principles expounded by Wright throughout his lifetime. This begins by the Foundation’s Board of Trustees renewing the MoU and working with SoAT’s leadership to keep the school open for future generations.
The decision by Mr. Graff and his board to discontinue SoAT’s MoU and create a non-accredited program under the umbrella of the Foundation, suggests a devalorizing of architectural design education and the School’s “learn by doing” pedagogy in favor of limiting the future and reach of Wright’s legacy.
Learning from the example of the Bauhaus provides a valuable lesson to the current situation at Taliesin: principles and ideologies can outlive narrow-minded and misguided opposition in the worst of times. The establishment of Wright’s architecture school was built on an idea about community, learning through life experiences, and finding design inspiration from the world around us. That is the true heart of Taliesin. The Foundation may own Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes, but they do not own that heart; that has always belonged to the school and fellowship of former and current apprentices, students, and faculty. It is time for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to realize this and help to rebuild Fellowship at Taliesin.