Archive for the ‘School’ Category


Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Arcosonti is the desert encampment of Italian architect Paulo Soleri. Located about an hour outside of Phoenix, I have visited there just about every year for the past 2o years. Over that time, I’m sad to say I’ve seen very little progress on the vision that Soleri had for his self-sustaining community.

Like Talliesin West, Arcosonti is an architect’s vision of a live-in school that teaches architects about design. On this particular visit, there were 36 trailer homes that contained a school from Denmark touring the US via Route 66.

Arcosonti is most famous for its cast bronze bells designed by Soleri and featured in the gallery here and in Scottsdale. The bells were the linchpin of a major fundraising effort for the school over the years. I have a half dozen at my home and office clanging in the wind.

The buildings of Arcosonti sit on the edge of and face into a valley. The most dominant building is the casting kiln for the bells with its arc and unique shape on top.

The students own their own crane that has the word Arco Santi on the front bumper. Like Taliesin West, this has always been a site under construction, but, in this case, it will never be finished. The model shows a grand vision for this otherworldly place that looks like a space station on Mars from a science fiction movie from the 60s. Although we were not allowed to explore on our own, we snooped and enjoyed the climb onto a roof and through the living part of the campus.

I hope the school will live on as Taliesin since it is certain that the students learn well about the fluid nature of bronze, concrete, and steel.

(Buy some bells; they’re wonderful.)

A visit to Taliesin West

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Taliesin West is the Arizona branch of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s school based in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Wright came to Arizona in 1937–while in his 60s–to establish this experiment in the desert to teach students about architecture.

Wright’s students built Taliesin West. He wanted them to live in the open air to learn about building architecture that reflected and complimented nature.

One of the things to know about desert architecture is that it is an icon. There is nothing like a forest or verdant landscape to distract from human creation. That said, he was very keen on using indigenous materials to integrate architecture and nature. (Taliesin itself means “shining brow” in Welsh, the language of Wright’s mother.)

The rock with Native American symbols was the inspiration for Wright’s personal logo, which you can see it in the symbol on the tower and on the gate to Taliesin West. He used it as a signature for his studio on his homes.

Wright was influenced by Japanese prints and design for many years after living in Japan while designing the Imperial Palace hotel. (Unfortunately, the hotel was demolished in the 1970s to make room for something benign and uninteresting. It had survived two earthquakes and would have made it through the most recent one, too.)

Wright worked with many artists and sculptors. The original sculptures on site are the work of Heloise Crista–now in her 70s–who studied architecture with Wright but became a sculptor. I love the spirit of her pieces and how they show the inner soul of the person. Some were influenced by art deco, and others were more organic. The Asian sculptures on display came from a sale that Wright found in San Francisco. I saw almost an identical dragon sculpture in Japan. The sculpture garden at Taliesin makes for a wonderful spot in the sun. Notice how wonderful the sun reflects the highlights.

Cranbrook Academy hosts an evolving school of design thought

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Just outside Detroit in the wealthy suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Cranbrook Academy of Art endures as one of the best campuses in the world, if not the country. It is filled to the brim with great architecture, great spaces, and great art, and to this day, Cranbrook is one of the most highly regarded post-graduate programs for the arts.

DSC_0836Cranbrook was founded in 1926 by George Gough Booth and his wife Ellen Scripps Booth. Booth was the Detroit-based publisher of several newspapers and radio stations at the beginning of the 20th century. The Booths desired two major elements for their project: a coed elementary and high school, and an academy of art. Mr. Booth invited Eliel Saarinen to design the campus and most of its buildings after learning about Sarrinen’s work through his entry in the Tribune Tower competition. The design of the campus is a meeting of old collegiate gothic and modern. Some of the housing units are more modern, and some of the studio buildings reference the European industrial style.

Booth later asked Saarinen to recruit the faculty for the school. Saarinen’s wife taught fabric design–her designs are highly respected to this day. He also hired his longtime friend and collaborator Carl Milles, who would create most of the beautiful sculptural elements placed across campus. Milles’s sculptures engage the spaces, making them rich, open public areas. The sculptures feature horses, mermaids and beasts of burden.


Cranbrook’s influence is seen around the world. New graduates continue to influence the field of industrial design, graphic design, architecture and sculpture. You can recognize Cranbrook’s legacy in American design through the work of former students and faculty such as Charles and Ray Eames–of furniture and exhibit design fame–and Eero Saarinen. Eero was Eliel’s son who went on to design the St. Louis Arch, the JFK terminal in New York, the GM Technical Center, and the “Tulip Chair” featured on the sets of the original Star Trek series. Eero’s firm expanded Ceasar Pelli’s international architectural practice, which thrives to this day.

Walking through campus, you can see the evolution of its design, from Sarrinen the Elder’s classical Beaux-Arts to the organic modernism of Sarrinen the Younger (different from Meisian modernism, which is much more rigorous and controlled) to Cesar Pelli’s take on modernism (elegant, and embracing classical proportions of base-middle-top). The campus’s style evolves; it is dynamic.


Starting with a vision by Mr. Booth, Cranbrook attracted talent from across Europe to the Detroit suburbs. Booth and Saarinen convinced them to stay and form a school of thought, allowing it to evolve, thrive and maintain significance. This is different than the story of Talliesin, formed by the genius Frank Lloyd Wright, and which was based on a single man. Because of its lack of pluralism, Talliesin has not evolved like Cranbrook.

I have loved this campus since I first visited for SEGD meetings in the 1980s. For the past 6 years, I have helped to evolve a program in exhibit design that occurs every August. The light quality of the Michigan summer is wonderful, and reminds me of Saarinen’s native Finland, where this light level is typical going late into the night.