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It has been 46 years since Frank Lloyd Wright died. And now the architecture school and the fellowship that bear his name are fighting for their survival, in part because of their unconventional nature. NPR's Ted Robbins visited Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's home, school and studio in Scottsdale, Arizona.
TED ROBBINS reporting:
Built in the 1930s, Taliesin West looks more modern than the new construction surrounding its 600-acre site east of Phoenix. It's a compound of low-slung, angular buildings, concrete walls embedded with quartz, jutting redwood roofs, translucent ceilings letting in natural light.
Unidentified Woman #1: The circulation...
ROBBINS: And crisscrossing Taliesin West, hourly guided tours describing the place in its heyday.
Unidentified Woman #1: And any given winter night, you might see the fireplace roaring and a bunch of sleeping bags out here with some of our apprentices sleeping right here.
ROBBINS: These days, about a dozen apprentices study at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.
Unidentified Woman #2: You think it's a little...
ROBBINS: Blake Smith(ph) and Megs Willard are among them. Right now they're trying to figure out what to do with a small, bright, empty room. The room is empty because last year there were fewer apprentices that at any time in the school's history, eight.
Mr. BLAKE SMITH: This room--let's face it, this room is not being used.
ROBBINS: Megs Willard wants to change Wright's brown walls so apprentices can display and critique their own work.
Ms. MEGS WILLARD: Everything here is--well, you can imagine. Wright kind of scripted every space at Taliesin West. So we're trying to design some sort of neutral crit space so you can exist without being competitive with the space around you.
ROBBINS: In some ways, this small challenge represents the central dilemma at Taliesin West and its sister campus in Wisconsin, Taliesin. One one hand is Frank Lloyd Wright's continual creativity, which he described in this 1958 interview.
(Soundbite of 1958 interview)
Mr. FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT (Architect): I believe that what we would call a creative individual will be a man who can see inside and come out with something fresh, something vital to whatever it happened to be he was doing.
ROBBINS: What he was doing was inventing organic architecture, his approach to design, where every building grew naturally from its environment. Even Wright's approach to architecture education was organic. Classroom lectures were replaced by hands-on programs; students became apprentices.
On the other hand is Frank Lloyd Wright's dominant persona. He set up the school and the Taliesin Fellowship, then populated them with his disciples. Some critics say they are frozen in Wright's time.
Arnold Roy is a senior member of the Taliesin fellowship. He met Frank Lloyd Wright in 1952. Now almost a half-century after Wright's death in 1959, Roy sits at a drafting table in Taliesin's studio and says many people here are still looking for leadership.
Mr. ARNOLD ROY (Senior Member, Taliesin Fellowship): I mean, the man was a genius of such stature, and just as a practicing architect following Frank Lloyd Wright, it's a humbling experience.
ROBBINS: In the last year and a half, two CEOs have resigned, along with the school's dean and a number of faculty members. The turmoil came after a report became public saying the Taliesin needed $100 million for future development. The need for restoration work in Arizona and Wisconsin has now more than doubled that estimate. Beverly Hart, who stayed on as Taliesin's chief operating officer, says the report started a gut-wrenching time for Taliesin's board of directors.
Ms. BEVERLY HART (Chief Operating Officer, Taliesin): We had members not speaking to each other. There was no clear consensus on--forget about where we wanted to go; there was no clear consensus on how we even wanted to figure out where we wanted to go.
ROBBINS: Some senior members of the Taliesin fellowship resisted change. They had veto power over anything the board wanted to do, and that veto power threatened the organization's non-profit status and potentially the school's accreditation. Other fellowship members, like Arnold Roy, told them it was time to let go.
Mr. ROY: No, we have to accept these changes. I said, `You may not like it, but we have to accept them. I mean, just look at reality. You have to.'
ROBBINS: Finally, at a recently board meeting, the senior fellowship agreed to give up its veto power. The board voted to include more outsiders, and, says Beverly Hart, Taliesin is now looking for a new CEO who can do fund-raising.
Ms. HART: Certainly proven fund-raising was not a goal of the boards at the time.
ROBBINS: I think, to an outsider, that seems amazing for a non-profit organization.
Ms. HART: I would agree.
ROBBINS: Today, most of Taliesin's income comes from tours. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture has never made money; it charges a modest $13,000 a year tuition, which includes room and board. But a former apprentice is now the school's new dean, and Victor Sidy is hopeful. He wants to increase enrollment from the current dozen to 30 and to use Taliesin as a laboratory, not just a museum.
Mr. VICTOR SIDY (Dean, Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture): This is an amazing challenge: How can we take a wonderful set of buildings and breathe that type of life, intellectual rigor, creative energy into them and come out with cutting-edge ideas?
ROBBINS: The hope here is that Taliesin West might do what its creator, Frank Lloyd Wright, did so many times during his life, reinvent itself. Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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