Taliesin Closure Sparks Controversy
In late January, the School of Architecture at Taliesin (SoAT)—the educational academy first established by Frank Lloyd Wright at his 800-acre family homestead near Spring Green, Wisconsin—announced that it will officially close its doors this June. Since it was founded in 1932, the school had evolved from an apprenticeship program, called the Taliesin Fellowship, which gave aspiring architects the chance to live at the estate and study under Wright, to an accredited three-year graduate institution.
Although the school has historically maintained small enrollment numbers (its current capacity of about 30 students represents the upper threshold), the news of its closure has caused immense shock and sadness across the architecture community. For over eight decades, the program has offered a holistic curriculum based on Wright’s principles of organic architecture, with students living and working alongside each other in a tight-knit DIY community. Since 1937, when the Taliesin West campus was established in Scottsdale, Arizona, the school has operated seasonally between the two locations, which were named last year to the UNESCO World Heritage List, along with other notable Wright buildings. Over the years, students at Taliesin West have had a long tradition of constructing their own shelters on the property’s 600 acres of desert land. “It was a really healthy, intense, 24/7 architectural education,” says Cody Johnson, who was a student from 2014 until 2016.
According to SoAT’s announcement, the closure was the result of an inability to reach an agreement with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, a separate organization that has stewardship of the Taliesin properties. (The two became independent entities in 2017, after the Higher Learning Commission decreed that the school could no longer be an accredited institution while under the auspices of the foundation.) Just hours after SoAT’s announcement, the foundation released its own statement, which placed the onus of the decision on the school. In an e-mail to RECORD, Jeff Goodman, vice president of communication and partnerships at the foundation, stated that “the school has consistently failed to meet projections for enrollment, philanthropy, and earned revenues.” But, also speaking to RECORD, students and recently departed staff describe the school as being as robust as ever, and even growing under the leadership of president Aaron Betsky, who came on as dean in 2015 and helped raise $2 million for its independence. (Betsky had announced his plan to resign at the end of the semester.) Victor Sidy, who was dean from 2005 until 2015, says that the school “was finally on the path of cruising towards altitude.” Alexandra Moquay, who left her post as SoAT’s director of development last month, claims that the foundation’s financial support of the school has been primarily in the form of $1 per year rent for the use of its properties, as stipulated in the Memorandum of Understanding instated when the two organizations separated. But Goodman emphasized the importance of its donation, stating that, without it, “the school would never have been able to operate.”
Several current students have told RECORD that, since the announcement, the foundation has acted aggressively toward them, for instance by incrementally restricting their use of certain spaces, and insinuating that possible legal action could be imposed upon them for speaking out against the closing of the school. Goodman calls these claims “entirely untrue.”
Sidy and others have commented that the school’s closing could have been avoided had the foundation been more committed to its survival. Michael Rust, treasurer of the Taliesin Fellows, the school’s alumni association, says that his organization was “not even given a chance to try and help.”
Going forward, the foundation has indicated its plans to “advance Wright’s legacy” by hosting K–12 and adult-education programs at the Taliesin campuses, but advocates for the school say that its founder intended to train architects for practice—an endeavor that could not be met by initiatives such as those proposed by the foundation. “It is my opinion that the consequences of the closure are so much greater than the foundation anticipates,” says former student Johnson.
Both organizations say they are exploring options for current students to become accredited at a local university, such as Arizona State University, but, as of press time, details have not been confirmed. A current student told RECORD on behalf of her colleagues, “We’ve dedicated time, money, and hard work at Taliesin. While we are grateful that other universities have reached out to us, it is really not an adequate solution to say we can simply resume our education elsewhere.”