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For The Home

Learn By Doing

Author: John Roark
Issue: February, 2018, Page 144
Photo by Brian Lilley

“Hanging Tent” was built in 2001 and remodeled in 2010.
At Taliesin West, students design, build and inhabit their own desert shelters

Walking the undeveloped acreage of the Taliesin West campus in Scottsdale is a uniquely Sonoran experience. Beneath the blue sky, the silence of the desert is broken only by the musical play of rocks beneath your feet. But signs of humanity soon appear. Dotting the landscape are dwellings that bear the unmistakable influence of Frank Lloyd Wright. Upon closer inspection, hints of occupancy become evident: beds with linens fluttering in the breeze, stacks of books and power tools. For 80 years, this is where architects have cut their teeth.

In 1938 when Wright began building his winter home, Taliesin West, his apprentices lived in inexpensive pyramid-shaped tents. Over time, the living quarters became more sophisticated as the pupils incorporated found materials into their designs. This desert immersion is a tradition that continues today as a thesis requirement for students at the school.

“Lotus,” circa 1965, still stands today. Both structures can be seen as part of the Taliesin West Desert Shelter tour.
“Wright’s educational philosophy was learn by doing,” says Fred Prozzillo, vice president of preservation at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which maintains Taliesin West. “Apprentices worked in the drafting studio under his tutelage. They learned construction by building the campus. And as they developed their shelters, they would invite his critique. So you could say that from day one this was part of the learning model.”

During their first two years of the school’s accredited master’s degree program, students maintain and sleep in existing structures—without the creature comforts of electricity or running water. In their final year of study, each presents a proposal for a new build, and armed with a $3,000 stipend for construction materials, he or she builds their vision on an existing 12-foot-square concrete pad of their choice.

“When you live in the desert, your senses heighten,” says Prozzillo, a 2000 graduate of the program, whose own structure still stands. “You gain an understanding of the elements and become attuned to the environment. You figure out how to do more with less.”

Today, the campus includes 63 sites that can be viewed as part of a two-hour Desert Shelter tour, the proceeds of which benefit the student fund. From bare concrete to partial ruins to completed dwellings, each site tells a story.

Third-year student Jan Sobotka will begin creating his shelter in 2019. “We have a wonderful playground to experiment and build our ideas,” he says. “To live and work in the desert is an illuminating experience one doesn’t get by sitting at a computer clicking a simulation button.”
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