Dezeen Magazine

Taliesin West

"The Frank Lloyd Wright foundation has done its best to stymie our vision and spirit"

Aaron Betsky, president of Frank Lloyd Wright's School of Architecture at Taliesin, is leaving the post after a bitter fight to save the experimental institution. Here he details the behind-the-scenes battle to save the school.

For the last five years, I have led a small, experimental architecture school called the School of Architecture at Taliesin. Now it is being threatened with extermination. Herewith my thoughts on the matter.

There is no other architecture school in the world that is quite like the School of Architecture at Taliesin. It is both a fully accredited graduate programme that functions at a very high level, and an intentional community where the students, some of us faculty and staff, and several members of the original apprenticeship programme Frank Lloyd Wright started in 1932 live and work together.

The programme is again under a severe threat

Together, we not only learn about design, but also eat, help to cook and engage in a variety of cultural events. For the last five years, since the last attempt the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation made to close to the school, we have been building on Wright's legacy. With buildings and thoughts, we reimagine what an experimental, organic architecture might be, and how it would help make a designed environment that is more sustainable, open, and beautiful. Now the School of Architecture at Taliesin's programme is again under a severe threat.

When Wright and his third wife, Ogilvanna, started the apprenticeship programme, they envisioned a different kind of learning community, rooted in the arts and crafts ideals of the 19th century and therefore analogous to the Bauhaus, which was then just about to close. The difference was that they saw the programme as being both more focused and broader than similar experiments in design education and communities.

It was to be centred around the work of one man – Wright himself – but also dedicated to a diverse set of activities, ranging from agriculture and cuisine to dance and music, as well as "learning by doing": building the structures that housed its activities.

That meant converting the school Wright had designed for two of his aunts on the Taliesin property outside of Spring Green, Wisconsin, as well as large parts of the house he occupied there, for use by the programme. In 1937, the community also began building its winter home, Taliesin West near Scottsdale in Arizona, explicitly for that purpose.

Over the years, the foundation became more and more removed from its original stakeholders

Wright died in 1959, followed by his widow in 1985. They left all of their property, both physical and intellectual, to a foundation they had started to continue the apprenticeship's work. Late in her life, Ogilvanna Wright realised that the fellowship, as it had come to be called, needed to be continued in a more organised fashion.

She split it into what came to be the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and an architecture office (which closed in 2003), while opening the properties up to tours and licensing Wright's designs to support the activities on the two sites.

Over the years, the foundation became more and more removed from its original stakeholders and evolved its self-image into being the custodian of Taliesin and Taliesin West. The organisation interpreted the will by believing that, by giving tours and licensing products, they were educating the general public in the importance and meaning of Wright's work. In reality, most of the income they generated went, it seems to many observers, to support an ever larger and more well-paid staff.

In 2013, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), which accredited the school as an institution of higher learning (it is also accredited as a professional school by the NAAB and by the Arizona Private and Post-Secondary Education Board), pointed out to the foundation that, if it was going to engage in post-secondary education, it should have as its primary mission the support of that activity.

That would not preclude the foundation from continuing its work selling objects or giving tours as many other colleges and universities do; it would just reaffirm why the Wrights had started the organisation. The foundation board refused to do so, instead announcing that they were going to close the school.

The foundation made a series of demands on the school in return for letting it continue to use its historic homes

The same sort of outcry that has arisen in recent weeks led the foundation to offer the school an alternative: if it could raise enough money to support itself for at least a five-year period (an amount it decided would be $2 million), it could continue as an independent entity. To the foundation's surprise, the school raised the necessary funds before the deadline of 31 December 2015.

The school then set about applying to the HLC to have the accreditation transferred to the new entity, as well as recruiting students (something it was not able to do for over a year), continuing to raise funds, and developing long-term plans. However, the HLC denied its original request, requesting more information. The school worked to provide the data and assurances the commission asked for and the following year the accreditation was transferred.

However, the foundation made a series of demands on the school in return for letting it continue to use its historic homes – large parts of which were built by its students, faculty, and staff, and which the Wrights had left for its use – that proved extremely onerous.

The foundation, which had already sold its archives and much of the land the Wrights had left in its care, felt that, if it gave the school the academic freedom its regulators expected it to have, it would lose control over its copyrights and trademarks, as it could not control what student work would look like. They therefore would not let the school use its name and suggested instead that it use the geographic designator "at Taliesin".

The school's growth was not as fast as it had planned

The newly named School of Architecture at Taliesin had to rebrand itself completely and communicate that its new name still embodied the legacy it carried on. The foundation also insisted that the school restrict its fundraising in various ways, put limits on the uses of the property, and in general set about placing a plethora of rules and regulations, which it felt were necessary to protect the historic properties, on the school and its community.

Because of these difficulties, but also because the school was now a small entity responsible for its own operations, its growth was not as fast as it had planned in the many planning documents it produced. Though it continued to meet fundraising targets and the quality of students' work improved at a rapid rate, the school missed enrolment targets and had trouble attracting and retaining qualified personnel (although not faculty). The latter issue was exacerbated by, in the eyes of the school staff felt, was an extremely difficult working environment created by the foundation.

The foundation also refused to guarantee or provide a loan that the school always had indicated it would need as it grew, and which the foundation had indicated it would provide in the agreement it made with the school. The school was therefore forced to find a lender who would provide it with operating capital without any significant collateral or independent borrowing history.

It was able to do so eventually, obtaining a line of credit from JP Morgan Chase and another one from the Tawani Foundation. Meanwhile, the school attracted a great deal of attention and students at an ever-higher level. Graduating students were getting placed at world-renowned firms and the school was thriving.

The school has met the foundation's seemingly unreasonable demands

Throughout this process, however, the foundation appeared to doubt the school's ability to survive and did very little to support it – beyond the agreed-upon donation of the use of the property, which it values at an absurdly high amount – and operating support that declined to zero as of last year. Even still, the school has met the foundation's onerous demands by paying not only for all of its food and certain services but also by paying the foundation a general administrative fee.

The agreement between the foundation and the school expires at the end of this fiscal and academic year (31 July 2020). Over the last year, the foundation indicated that it would make strong demands for increased payments from the school, as well as saying that the school needed to somehow prove its viability and plans.

When the school tried to provide such documentation, the foundation did not react. The school board chair felt he had developed a compromise by agreeing to a two-year extension of the current arrangement, during which time the school and the foundation could collaborate on developing programmes and structures that both would felt be more viable (I had announced my resignation as school president in November of 2019).

At the school's board meeting on 25 January of this year, however, the foundation board chair announced that the foundation would not enter into a new agreement, let alone continue the existing one, "under any circumstances".

The school board enquired as to whether the foundation board would change its mind if the school found more money to pay them, and the board chair answered in the negative. The three members of the foundation board present at the meeting explained that they felt that their mission would be better fulfilled using Taliesin and Taliesin West for educational programmes "that would reach thousands rather than the few students there," and that would bring in more money.

The school was given two choices: close immediately, or give up its accreditation and continue for one more year while developing programmes with the foundation. However, the school would have to continue paying the foundation's fees while not being able to recruit students, retain those who sought an accredited degree or raise funds. This would have been financially impossible, so the school was forced to take the first option and announce its closure.

All we need is for the foundation to continue the task for which Frank Lloyd and Ogilvanna Wright founded them

Since then, shows of support and solidarity have come from students, faculty, staff, and alumni (the foundation proposed to the alumni group, the fellows, that it would develop new educational programmes, and the fellows declined, opposing the foundation's actions and pledging to raise and additional $500,000 for the school). The school was able to affirm that a promising exchange programme, which would bring in a minimum of six full tuition-paying students every year, could still occur.

Over 28,000 (and counting) signed a petition started by the students. Educators and professionals from around the world pledged their support. The Arizona Private and Post-Secondary Education Board, at its 25 February meeting, pleaded with the foundation and the school to go to mediation to resolve their differences – an option the school immediately accepted, but which the foundation has not indicated any openness to.

To make it clear that the school was not closing because it wanted to, but because the foundation was forcing it to, and because of this outpouring of support, the school board voted on 5 March to rescind its vote and remain open. It feels it is obliged to its students, to the Wright's will and legacy, and to the architecture community in general, to fight to continue its work. It believes it has a clear – though difficult – path forward and is asking the foundation to give it that chance.

When I joined the school in 2015, I believed that it could build on its legacy to become the best experimental architecture school in the country. Though I am now leaving and though the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation has done its best to stymie our vision and spirit, I am still convinced that the school is well on its way to fulfilling that goal. All we need is for the foundation to continue the task for which Frank Lloyd and Ogilvanna Wright founded it.

The photo of Taliesin West is by Andrew Pielage.