The School of Architecture prepares students to design the future

Above: Cosanti in Paradise Valley. Real Estate | 18 Aug |

In 1932, luminary architect Frank Lloyd Wright founded the Taliesin fellowship as an apprenticeship program focused on Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture as well as creative experimentation. The program later evolved into the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and, in 2017, the School of Architecture at Taliesin, with students splitting their time between Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale.

In early 2020, the school, citing differences with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which oversees both historical sites, ceased operations. It reopened later that year with a new name — The School of Architecture (TSOA) — and a new home —at pioneering Italian architect and former Wright apprentice Paolo Soleri’s local masterworks, Cosanti in Paradise Valley and, about an hour north of Phoenix, Arcosanti in Mayer. 

“We’re really happy with our new partners at the Cosanti Foundation and how they’re welcoming us into these new spaces,” says Chris Lasch, president of TSOA. “Transitions are never easy, but this one was tougher than most because of the pandemic.”

While the name and locations of the school have changed, the Master of Architecture program remains relatively untouched. The spirit of the institution — one of collaboration and immersion — continues to thrive.

Chris Lasch

Nicole Hollenbeck

Stephanie Lin

“We traditionally have students living, working and eating together. And we’ll still have that for some students,” explains Nicole Hollenbeck, chief financial officer at TSOA, noting that the pandemic caused the school to incorporate online education.

To prepare in-person learning during the spring 2022 semester, the students have begun renovating buildings at Cosanti, thanks to donations from Carlisle Companies, a Scottsdale-based construction materials firm. “We’ll be rehabilitating a historic site, called the Pink House, for the site’s office staff. It’s the actual Doubletree Ranch House — the first house that was built on the property,” says Hollenbeck. Some students will study at Cosanti, while others will live and learn at Arcosanti.

Stephanie Lin, dean at TSOA, believes this living arrangement fosters a spontaneous exchange of ideas. “There’s an intimate culture of formal and informal dialogue between faculty and students because the school fosters such a community-oriented culture. [Staff and students] spend all of our time together in a remote place, so I’m able to develop a type of relationship that students typically don’t have with their dean,” she notes.

Most cohorts at TSOA are relatively small, with the most recent graduating class producing six architects. The tight-knit community coordinates formal evenings and invites distinguished architects from prestigious firms to network and share ideas. This tradition started with Wright and his fellows at Taliesin and Taliesin West, during which time everyone would wear their best finery and present designs built in small boxes.

Lin joined TSOA in January 2021, and she says the unique history and way of life of the institution drew her to Arizona from New York City. “I was really attracted to the learning-by-doing ethos of the school’s pedagogy. There are some commonalities with my time at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where there’s a strong culture of making, but The School of Architecture takes it to a much more explicit level, especially with the shelters.”

Learning by Doing

Since 2016, students have designed, built and inhabited shelters as their thesis projects for the school’s Master of Architecture degree. Each student has a thesis mentor who helps with the design, and a faculty structural engineer evaluates the plans to ensure the building is structurally sound. For the past five years, the shelters were constructed in the desert surrounding Taliesin West, but beginning in 2020, they are now being completed on the grounds of Arcosanti, Soleri’s experimental urban laboratory.

“The shelters are a unique aspect of our program and a huge draw for incoming students who want to design, construct and eventually live in their own structures as part of a larger thesis project,” Lin says. “I’m really interested in these new formats of learning that are outside of the traditional classroom and outside of the architecture studio.”

Hollenbeck adds, “Knowing how to actually construct things is a lost art in architecture programs, but we’ve been hearing from employers that it’s quite a necessary art.”

Beyond the Desert

A new addition to the curriculum is Usonia 21, a service-learning initiative that Lasch describes as a collective design-build program that complements the individual shelter capstone project. Usonia 21 is part of an interinstitutional studio TSOA has built with the Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“The partnership goes beyond Zoom and online white boards. We’re using 3D software through Unreal Engine to convene a three-dimensional, online collaborative environment within which the students will work,” Lasch explains. “In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the racial reckoning that that whole country has been facing since, we’ve been working with Land Rich, an organization that addresses issues of Black land loss and heirs’ property through historically connected African American communities.”

When a landowner dies without a will, the land is handed down as heirs’ property. As generations pass, who legally owns the land title becomes unclear, which allows predatory developers take advantage of loopholes and acquire the real estate. Land Rich works with families to bring their land out of heirs’ property status.

One Usonia 21 project centers on Seabreeze, North Carolina, a Jim Crow-era beach community that was founded by former slaves Alexander and Charity Freeman. Seabreeze flourished as a place where Black people owned the land and businesses. In 2008, hundreds of acres of the Seabreeze community were purchased out from under the Freeman family in a partition sale that was not commensurate with the investments made by multiple generations of Freemans. Their property, like much of the land in Seabreeze, is heirs’ property.

Working with Land Rich, TSOA students prototyped a portable tiny house that will sit on a waterfront plot in Seabreeze owned by Billy Freeman and function as an Airnbnb. The rental income benefits the Freeman family and the Land Rich project. The project also provides a potential model for affordable housing throughout the Land Rich network for families to live in while the organization helps transition their land out of heirs’ property status.

The tiny house is designed to be disassembled, flat-packed and delivered across the country from Arizona to North Carolina. In addition to the structure, TSOA and University of Nebraska-Lincoln students created an immersive augmented reality experience that tells the story of Seabreeze during its heyday using interviews from the Freeman family.

“Part of Usonia 21 is about preparing students for the shelter project by introducing an additional design-build experience in the curriculum,” Lasch notes. “The whole idea behind service learning is exposing yourself to experiences that you can’t necessarily have within the walls of a classroom and expanding your perspective beyond the ivory tower of academia.”

Wright, whose philosophy encouraged a sense of solidarity with the landscape that architects design within, would likely agree with Lasch’s prescription. Though the school no longer bears his name, Wright’s influence and legacy is inextricably linked to the learning-by-doing ethos that endures at TSOA.

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