Learning at Taliesin

On the eastern edge of the Driftless Area you’ll find the hills, streams, stoney heights and deep valleys of Spring Green, Wisconsin. Sculpted centuries ago by glaciers, the landscape defies the commonly held belief that the middle west is simply flat. Instead, nature abounds in rich agrarian technicolor. It’s no wonder why this town’s most famous resident said, when asked what church he attends: “I put a capital N on Nature and call it my church.” A typical Wright retort.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s summers were spent in Spring Green with his family of atypical teachers, Unitarian preachers, and all-around free thinkers. When he was young, he helped farm their land and later designed their homes, churches and a school. I toured some of these structures at Taliesin on a recent balmy summer day. As our guide led us through tawny rooms, I started to feel a kinship with the students and apprentices who studied there. Like so many members of today’s design community, they weren’t specialists. They were creatives at large who weaved form, function and significance into a coherent whole.

For the last 130 years, the school Wright designed at Taliesin has been a sort of incubator for multidisciplinary individuals. The space has housed three different institutions - each driven by the same philosophy: learn by doing. This idea first took hold when Wright’s mother and aunt opened Hillside Home School, arguably the nation’s first co-ed boarding school. Over the course of 29 years, Hillside educated dozens of girls and boys from elementary school through high school. These students learned from nature and each other - not textbooks. They took science classes in the outdoors, where the material world could be studied directly. They helped their younger peers develop a sense of responsibility. They painted, performed and wrote. In 1902, Wright created a new structure to accommodate the growing student body which included an assembly hall, gym, physics laboratory and art studio. In this interdisciplinary environment, kids not only grasped fundamental subjects, like math and literature, but also developed a connection to nature and compassion towards others. Learning by doing made the students more aware, self-sufficient and creative.

Early images of Hillside along with a school booklet.

When the school closed in 1915, Wright bought the land and nearly all of the property on it from his mother and aunt for $1 plus a yearly $250 stipend to support their room and board (which he never paid). He promised to reopen the space as a school and got his chance in the 1930s. At that time, the history of architecture was quickly shifting. Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, and others from abroad rose to height of popularity in the U.S. as Americans believed (as we so often do) that the European style was more sophisticated. (The fact that these architects felt indebted to Wright was often left to the footnotes or quick parenthetical statements like this one.) So, the European architects got the commissions for great buildings, they became professors at important schools, and they won the affection of journalists, curators, and soon enough, the country. Simplicity and purity, white walls and glass boxes usurped the new vision of American architecture Wright advocated for so fiercely. With little to build, Wright began to teach. It was a way to maintain relevancy, create a legacy, earn enough to mollify the debt collectors, and hopefully enlighten a new generation of architects. He called the program the Taliesin Fellowship.

The curriculum at Taliesin and the Bauhaus (where Mies and Gropius taught) bear a striking resemblance. Both schools thought of the architect as a generalist, so they had an interdisciplinary curriculum that spanned sculpture, music, drama and other arts. These schools also emphasized aesthetic fundamentals, like form and color. And, they were driven to transform society through good design. Today’s creative class, with all of it’s T-shaped idealist, can trace its lineage to the students of the Bauhaus and Taliesin. The team at One Design (and our designer-developers, strategist-writers, and project manager-researchers) is certainly part of this generalist tendency - constantly reaching beyond strict titles and departmental boundaries.

Just look at these crazy kids. Bauhaus is on the left and Taliesin is on the right.

The similarities between the Bauhaus and Taliesin fade when you consider how Taliesin practiced “learning through doing” (which was their motto). Wright’s apprentices farmed the land, chopped the firewood, cooked the food, washed the dishes and did other chores together - strengthening the bonds between them. They drafted the elevations, milled the wood, made the mortar, laid the brick and built the Taliesin campus. They had no formal construction training (hence today’s restoration projects on the property), but they had grit. When Wright began receiving big commissions again, the apprentices worked on landmark structures like Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum. Like the students of Hillside, these men and women deepened their knowledge, conviction and creativity through holistic, experiential learning.

In the 80s and 90s, the Taliesin Fellowship transformed into the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, an accredited Masters program that abides by today’s academic formalities and architectural standards. Though the curriculum has been standardized, the students still live on campus full time, do the dishes and act in plays. Nature is still the cathedral and the classroom. The tradition of Hillside continues because only so much can be acquired through academia. In architecture as with design, experience inspires creative problem solving.

Just as Wright’s apprentices might not have known how farming would influence their craft, I’m not sure how touring Taliesin will influence my work. But, the inspiration has been sown and something will emerge sometime, somewhere. In the meantime, I’ll keep following my curiosity through midwestern fields, historic buildings, and wherever it leads next.

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