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MY TALIESIN EXPERIENCE by Ar.Vivek Sabherwal

MY TALIESIN EXPERIENCE by Ar.Vivek Sabherwal

I have had  the distinct pleasure and honor to be part of Taliesin for over three years as an Architect apprentice and it was the most important experience of my life. Unquestionably, my previous education and experience implemented the learning experience, but I must admit I could not distinguish between good and bad architecture then. However, that changed after I joined Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in 1992.

Begun by Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife Olgivanna in 1932 at Taliesin, Wisconsin, an alternative to a strictly academic programme of professional training by architects, Taliesin was then dedicated to educating and inculcating young men and women into a life of architecture. Mr. Wright designed a programme to provide a total learning environment, synthesising all aspects of apprentices’ lives in order to produce responsible, creative and cultured human beings. Taliesin still retains the key principles of its founders. The concept of experiential education, ‘Learning by doing’ was the foundation of the Taliesin apprenticeship program.  Apprentices were involved in all aspects of architectural projects that Mr. Wright received, from drawing plans to developing specifications, and to provide on-site supervision of actual construction. Although Mr. and Ms. Wright are no longer alive, their ideas still form the core of the training programme. The buildings of Taliesin provide an almost unlimited opportunities for apprentices to “learn by doing”.

The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture continues to attract significant and growing support from all over the world. When I was at Taliesin, there were apprentices from India, Japan, Germany, China, Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, Paraguay, Scotland and Greece. It now has accreditation as an internationally recognised centre for design training. The School offers programs leading to two degrees: Bachelor of Architectural Studies and The professional Master of Architecture. The apprentices in either of the two programs work closely with the senior architects on all aspects of projects of the architectural firm, with tasks delegated according to their demonstrated proficiency. The apprentices also get plenty of hands-on opportunity to work with materials and tools on construction projects at Taliesin.  Learning at Taliesin is by osmosis, no formal lectures, no confinement within conventional classrooms. The program is designed for individual needs such that apprentice progress is based on their ability to demonstrate specific skills and abilities in a wide range of areas. The two campuses, Taliesin East and Taliesin West offer a context for work, study and exploration that a traditional classroom cannot.

In most architectural schools, students are honing their graphic presentation and technical skills, and practice architectural problem solving skills. At Taliesin, apprentices first learn to consider Nature as the source of design. The educational program has not altered over the years to conform to an external vision. Instead, the school has successfully allowed outside investigators to understand how the learning –by-doing program at the school is successful. Today, the accreditation of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture has resulted in recognition of the potential for experiential pedagogy to become a national model for architectural education. It has both college accreditation and professional recognition from the National Architectural Accreditation Board. The self examination by the apprentices makes the educational program unique in many ways, enabling the apprentices to participate in the educational model actively and not passively. Taliesin education over the years has stayed away from conventional classroom exercises. The only time bells rings at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture is at mealtimes and they have kept it that way.

Taliesin Architects Ltd. was one of the entities of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation  which recognised the educational responsibility as teaching architects towards inculcation of a lifelong learning, in the young apprentices who come to the school. This was done through mentorship and daily exposure to real-time case situations, research and development into construction techniques at site, and client meetings. The apprentices became part of each project from initial client contact through visioning sessions, program development, design concept, design development, engaging in the project all the way through its completion, interfacing daily with the contractors, consultants, site work, until the project is completed. The Studio and the School were interlocked components of the Frank Lloyd Foundation, and the Studio in its effort to expand on its rich legacy of Organic architecture, served as the living laboratory for the “learn by doing” pedagogy. My desk in the Hillside Studio in Wisconsin was at the far end, one of the 40 drawing boards, under a forest of dark oak wood beams looming above my head allowing natural filtered light pouring in. One of the maxims inscribed on the beams, one of Mr. Wright’s favourite was, “What a man does, he has”. I would read this everyday in the Studio and ponder on its deep meaning.

 Construction, being a foundation component of the learning experience of Architecture, often the young graduates find themselves ill equipped having graduated from conventional schools of architecture. This lack of exposure to means, methods and materials is an arena, which architects have shied away from in contemporary practice. At Taliesin, it is fully embraced by the apprentices. A hands-on experience allows the young architects to understand the nature of materials, and the way in which those materials find an appropriate place in our architecture.

I have learned how to learn.  The pedagogy of ‘Learning by Doing’, the synthesis of ideas, facts and experience which can be obtained from the study of Nature with the guidance of senior members, and interaction with fellow International apprentices, along with a contact with the underlying principles of Mr. Wright’s Organic architecture, cannot be obtained anywhere else in the world today. The senior members served as instructors in the basics of architecture, utilising the on-campus projects as living case studies. As mentors, they weaved the greater cultural fabric of Taliesin into the life and creative endeavours of the apprentice. For six months of each year May to October, the school would operate from Taliesin [Wisconsin] and for the winter months November to May, the school moved to a desert camp, Taliesin West, Arizona, twenty miles north east of Phoenix.

The way of life at Taliesin was intended to be a spontaneous experience. All apprentices were expected to fulfil the tasks assigned to them in the studios, kitchen, construction and maintenance. The apprentice mentor ratio was 1:1 which explained the importance of the apprentice student, non-existent elsewhere. I have found that spirit counts the most at Taliesin, with self reliance and a spirit of cooperation as important tools for community living. It is a place where architecture is pursued as a way of life, and learning, through active participation in the Performing Arts- music, dance, drama; it is a place to embrace community life, whether it is gardening, maintenance, cooking or joining Fellowship activities, which culminates in architectural exploration and an artistic endeavour. Mr. Wright once said that every task is an opportunity for creative work. Since the concept of a Taliesin – trained architect is very different from that of other colleges, a student here is referred to as an ‘apprentice’.

Community life at Taliesin is very special. Members of the Fellowship comprising apprentices who come to the school along with the senior apprentices who trained directly under Mr. Wright, live on campus. Some members who live off-campus also embrace its community life. As a new apprentice, it was first difficult to understand why I had to work in the kitchen as a helper, or in the garden. I asked myself, “What do these things have to do with designing buildings?” When I was finally assigned to work on the drawings for buildings, I brought with me not only the work experience of a kitchen, farm and garden but also that of having worked at Taliesin as a carpenter, mason, roofer. I soon realised that the first hand experience of having worked on the construction of buildings gave me a clearer understanding of what I was putting down on paper.  Work also became an adventure and I soon started to take pride in whatever work I accomplished.

During my stay at Taliesin, I examined different aspects; architecture, culture, philosophy, creative insights of Mr. Wright’s working method, and will attempt to present a thorough analysis of his thoughts about different aspects of architecture and life.

I had the good fortune of studying in the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives at Taliesin West, the transcripts of his talks given to apprentices at the Sunday Breakfast table in his lifetime, and then selecting an appropriate one and organising a discussion at the Sunday breakfast table for the Fellowship. The Fellowship comprised a group of two dozen apprentices, a few guests and of course the senior Fellowship members [original apprentices to Mr. Wright]. Working on the restoration of his buildings at Taliesin, research of his drawings in the Archives, and undertaking the selection of Mr. Wright’s audio talks, was an eye opener. These audio recordings of talks were made by Bruce Pfeiffer in the1950s when Mr. Wright addressed the Fellowships on Sundays following breakfast. Years later, after listening to the talks, or reading the transcripts I realise how much  closer I have come to the ideas and statements, with a clear focus and a deeper understanding of his Philosophy. It was a wonderful learning experience, listening to the audio tapes of the world’s most articulate architectural genius.

The best way to appreciate good architecture is to experience it – walk around the building, go inside, spend time sitting, and experience the spaces, the scale, proportion and the finer details. This was done extensively, at both the Taliesin buildings, in Arizona and in Wisconsin, and also his private works. I never felt the same after visiting his buildings. After walking into the central space of the Guggenheim Museum, the Workroom of the Johnson Administration Building, the living room of Taliesin, or Fallingwater, one felt as if an invisible force had shaken you, opening you to a new truth of spatial experience never been witnessed in any other building. It is difficult to interpret the actual experience of space, so important in the understanding of the architecture of Mr. Wright. To my mind, both the Taliesins [Taliesin and Taliesin West] have a special place in architectural history, simply because they were not only great designs but also because they were both apprentice – built and apprentice – maintained. Even now, after so many years of Mr. Wright’s death, these important landmarks continue to teach apprentices the true architecture.

I believe there is much to learn and emulate from the Taliesin experience.

Taliesin is an attempt to grasp the ideal, “Learning by Doing”, of enthusiastic cooperation in solving common problems, working together in the Studio and the Kitchen, working at construction sites, meeting the clients, working on Saturday mornings in the gardens, and entertaining guests in tuxedos in the evenings, all of which makes the life of the apprentice so full and fascinating here. My three and a half years at Taliesin immersed me in a totally creative environment where everyone contributed in many ways, be it music, gardening, studio, theatre, cooking and group learning opportunities. It was the Taliesin ideal of a well balanced life in a beautiful environment with extraordinary buildings. I had an invigorating life at Taliesin and I am grateful to God that I have spent few unforgettable years of my life at Taliesin.

Everybody at Taliesin is so committed, the vitality, daily challenges and the dynamic environment is such, that all the visiting scholars and critics I came across said they have not come across any other community as vibrant as this one.

As John Rattenbury, senior architect at Taliesin Architects Ltd, describes the daily life at Taliesin, “You learn the best way to relax is not to lie around, but to find another project. It is very stimulating to be engaged in a variety of activities that require different types of skills. It provides many types of outlets for your energies”.

Mr. Wright challenged young architects to move to a higher lane of architecture. He said: “The Architect must be master in the interior sense, not only of his materials, but also of the human spirit. The soul of humanity is in his charge really”.

 His work, the thing that is entrusted to him by way of his virtue, is the broadest of all. His education passed on to the young apprentices [students] through his school at Taliesin, his publications and his Architectural work are very important contributions to the profession. 

 

Authored By:

Ar.Vivek Sabherwal

First Indian Architect to receive Master degree in Architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, USA.Currently, Director at Apeejay School of Architecture & Planning, Greater Noida