The School of Architecture at Taliesin was formally initiated in 1932 when twenty-three apprentices came to live and learn at Taliesin. The sources of this educational philosophy have roots that go back much further than the ’30s. The program of the School, while remaining true to its heritage, has evolved through experience and the need to address our changing times.
In 1931 Frank and Olgivanna Lloyd Wright circulated a prospectus to an international group of distinguished scholars, artists, and friends, announcing their plan to form a school at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin to “Learn by Doing.”
“The fine arts, so called,” they asserted, “should stand at the center as inspiration grouped about architecture . . . . (of which landscape and the decorative arts would be a division).” Education at Taliesin would emphasize painting, sculpture, music, drama, and dance “in their places as divisions of architecture.”
Each of these elements of the fine arts, as the Wrights conceived them, would lead to broader learning: “Drama would be studied as the essential structure of all great literature;” while “Music would mean the fundamental study of sound and rhythm as an emotional reaction both as to original character and present nature.” They anticipated a core faculty, “resident foremen,” at Taliesin supplemented by “a guest-system of visitation, consultation and criticism” and faculty from the “nearest university” who would make philosophy and psychology and other disciplines available “by extension work.” The “Wisconsin Idea” at the University of Wisconsin conceived of the entire State as a classroom, and the Wrights with close friends at the University proposed to make full use of it.
The students, or “apprentices,” would round out their education in the spirit of Tolstoy’s “What to Do.” “The entire work of feeding and caring for the student body so far as possible should be done by itself . . . work in the gardens, fields, animal husbandry, laundry, cooking, cleaning, serving should rotate among the students according to some plan that would make them all do their bit with each kind of work at some time.”
The ambitious plan for an endowed school exceeded the Wright’s capacity to attract funds in the second full year of the Great Depression. So the next year, 1932, they issued a more modest circular announcing the formation of the Taliesin Fellowship and inviting young people to venture to Taliesin. The Fellowship would organize around the principles they had articulated in 1931, and the program now called The Architecture School at Taliesin, has generally evolved along these lines.
But the sources of these ideas go back much further than the early 1930s. They rested on the Wrights’ own experience.
In 1886, Jane and Nell Lloyd-Jones, Frank Lloyd Wright’s aunts, founded the Hillside Home School, a coeducational country boarding school dedicated to education of children, based on the principle of “Learning by Doing”, a radical departure from most educational practices in those times. This philosophy made a profound impact on Frank Lloyd Wright, himself an indifferent student impatient with formal academic requirements and the rigid educational settings of his youth. After a brief stay at the University of Wisconsin, he left Madison to learn the profession of architecture in active Chicago offices. When he opened his own independent practice, Frank Lloyd Wright strongly supported the traditional training of architects in the apprentice system which he, himself, had experienced. Apprentice draftsmen and women always worked in his Oak Park Studio.
After the closing of the Hillside Home School in 1915, for which he had designed buildings and the Romeo & Juliet windmill, Frank Lloyd Wright continually pursued the idea of establishing a school for architects using the Hillside Home School buildings.
In 1928, Frank Lloyd Wright and his new, dynamic wife, Olgivanna, decided to repair the Hillside Home School buildings and reopen it as an institution devoted to architecture and the allied arts. Olgivanna Lloyd Wright encouraged and broadened her husband’s interest in education. The ninth and last child of an aristocratic Montenegran family, she grew up in a cultural and stimulating environment. Her mother, a crusading politician, served as a military leader, setting an example as a woman of accomplishment and serious purpose. Trained first in a progressive private school where Olgivanna learned both French and Russian, she eventually came under the tutelage of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. This charismatic mystic created the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau, outside of Paris. Based on his philosophy of spiritual development, Gurdjieff’s school stressed hard work, self-discipline, sacrifices and suffering, self-awareness, and conscious effort, often through performance. Olgivanna excelled in music and dance, and she came to the United States ready to put her learning into practice.
Frank Lloyd Wright readily accepted her ideas and adopted as his own her stress on the importance of the holistic development of mind, heart, and body as the essence of an educated person.
The first twenty-three apprentices who formed the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932 and other pioneers who joined them in the early 1930’s included some remarkably talented men and women. At first, Frank Lloyd Wright had few commissions through which to teach the apprentices, and he put them to work in the construction, operations and maintenance of the school. The apprentices quarried the stone and burned limestone and sifted sand from the adjacent Wisconsin River to make mortar. They cut trees and sawed them into dimensional lumber, and along with the masonry, built the large studio, now on the National Register of Historic Places, that still serves as the center of learning on the Spring Green campus and as an active architectural studio. The apprentices worked on all aspects of life at Taliesin, developing a largely self-sufficient school and community that operated successfully with a very low budget.
Surrounded by bright, committed and energetic apprentices, Frank Lloyd Wright’s career as an architect found new vigor, and soon the students could learn as they worked on some of the most innovative buildings in America. The celebrated master of the Prairie School had expanded his vocabulary, and apprentices under his direction created renderings, made models, did the engineering and produced construction drawings. They supervised construction on projects like the Johnson Wax headquarters (Racine, WI), Fallingwater (Bear Run, PA) and the first Usonian houses. They did the first perspectives of the Guggenheim Museum (New York, NY) and Monona Terrace (Madison, WI). The Taliesin Fellowship had with astonishing speed developed into an exciting architectural laboratory which attracted some of the nation’s best work and hosted many of the world’s great artists and great minds. In 1940 the Museum of Modern Art exhibited some of the models made by the students.
In the winter of 1935 Frank and Olgivanna Lloyd Wright moved the entire Fellowship to Chandler, Arizona, where they constructed the model of Broadacre City, Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of the integration of living and working in successfully planned communities. This first winter in Arizona inaugurated the tradition of moving the School between Wisconsin and Arizona that still continues. After the first two winters in temporary quarters, he purchased land in Scottsdale and, in 1937, with the apprentices, began the construction of a new kind of desert architecture at Taliesin West.
As the work of the architectural office expanded, some of the apprentices decided to stay at Taliesin, continue their professional development as practicing architects in Frank Lloyd Wright’s “firm,” marry and raise families. Others left Taliesin and began successful careers in architecture with other firms and on their own. New apprentices replaced those who left; the talented group who stayed became the Senior Fellowship. They also became the “resident foremen,” the faculty that the Wrights had envisioned.
Following a hiatus during World War II when new construction all but ceased and rationing precluded the cross country excursions between Arizona and Wisconsin, the demand for Frank Lloyd Wright’s services returned in force and accelerated until his death in 1959. The post-war influx of commissions reaffirmed the need for permanent members of the Fellowship to produce architectural work and to mentor the growing number of young men and women seeking to experience the concepts embodied in organic architecture. During these exciting years, the fellows and the apprentices worked on more than 100 houses, including the Usonian Automatics and other experiments with concrete blocks. They also worked on the Guggenheim Museum, the Price Tower (Bartlesville, OK), the Florida Southern College campus (Lakeland, FL), the Grady Gammage Auditorium (Tempe, AZ), the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (Wauwatosa, WI), several planned communities (Pleasantville, NY and Kalamazoo, MI) and the expansion of Taliesin West.
Young men and women could come to Taliesin and get first hand training working with outstanding architects on some of the nation’s most visible and important projects. With the growing life at Taliesin they would also participate in music, drama and other fine and performing arts. They interacted with the constant parade of the world’s best minds who came to visit the Wrights and the Fellowship. When their skills developed and they had sufficient experience, some would stay and join the Senior Fellowship, but most would leave, pass the boards and become registered, practicing architects. In recent years, these former apprentices have organized as the Taliesin Fellows. They hold reunions, conduct meetings, publish a journal, and, in 1996, became the official alumni organization of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.
After Frank Lloyd Wright’s death, the Senior Fellows incorporated an architectural firm to continue the practice and to mentor the apprentices. These activities now took place under the umbrella of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation which Frank Lloyd Wright established in 1940 by deeding to it all of his personal and intellectual property. His will confirmed his gift to the Foundation, and after 1959 it became the governing entity for all of the activities at Taliesin with Olgivanna Lloyd Wright serving as its president until her death in 1985.
As with other professions, the practice of architecture has become increasingly structured. The American Institute of Architects (AIA), the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), the National Council of Architecture Registration Boards (NCARB), and other organizations which govern the standards of architectural practice, increasingly required graduation from an accredited institution of higher education and an accredited architectural program as a pre-requisite to sit for the Architectural Registration Examination (ARE). These exams have become the sole gateway to licensure and professional practice for the majority of the States. In response to this changing climate, the Foundation stepped forward to formalize the apprenticeship program into the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Apprentices, however talented and well trained, could not become licensed architects in many states without the approved degree.
The educational program, under the direction of new academic administration positions, adapted most of the basic tenets of “Learning by Doing” and the educational philosophy that underlay the Taliesin Fellowship to the range of institutional characteristics required of an accredited institution of higher education. The new Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture expanded academic offerings and experiences, developed a library, added facilities, and placed the essential elements of student life — counseling and advising, admissions, and financial aid — on a much more formal basis. Both campuses, which have earned National Historic Landmarks status from the National Park Service, now have many of the elements of a small college. From 1985 until 1996 the School underwent a rigorous process of reporting towards accreditation, which was earned successfully at both the Institutional level and the Professional Architectural level. A School Endowment has been developed and is continuing to grow. An Alumni association, the Taliesin Fellows, provides graduates a vibrant professional and personal network.
The basic elements of life, learning, and work at Taliesin have remained in much the same relationship as they began and evolved under the leadership of the Wrights. The students continue to learn experientially, augmented by more formal classes and workshops. The natural landscape and open spaces at both campuses provide settings perfect for studying the relationship between the natural and built environment. The intellectual life of the School is fostered by the core faculty and enriched by visiting scholars, artists, and architects from across the globe.
With more than 80 percent of its graduates actively engaged in the field of architecture, The School of Architecture at Taliesin builds upon the foundation of the educational ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright and interprets them within the context of our rapidly-changing world.