a walking architecture unschool

Taliesin West

Little Maps of Taliesin West Design Build studio synthesis:

Photo by David Tapias

-What did we learn?

-a. To collaborate.

Architecture has always been and is a collaborative effort. What is collaboration? It is TRULY working together for the common good, listening, sharing, respecting each other, and a collective process of building ideas that substitutes individual authorship, pyramidal hierarchies and power relations. The studio was an explicit test ground on diverse modes of learning from each other and working together. Architecture schools, as our entire profession, need to shift from competition to collaboration.

b. To survive.

In the Sonoran desert, making architecture is not about comfort, or belonging, it is about survival. Everything here is a menace to human life -and unfortunately when driving around it seems that human life is a menace to life here. Making a living environment is not a trendy game, a cool divertimento or an egotistic statement. In such a resource scarcity, a construction is more obviously a device that gives a fragile environment to stay alive. What links Taliesin West shelters with the brightest examples of architecture -a family to which Taliesin West belongs to- is that by living there, going back and forth into and out of the desert everyday, among critters noises, stars and sunsets, the young architects’ experience is becoming tools not for comfort or dreaming, but for making places that arise full consciousness, allowing us to be ourselves.

c. Anticipation awareness and acute observation.

Architecture’s materialisation process is an open book. Design decisions are transparent. A trained designer can read all the doubts, conflicts, accidents, mistakes, steps, search, priorities and confusions that shaped a construction. However, there is always some missing steps you have to research and study. Taliesin West and even Ocatillo -only present through some pictures and drawings- are a constant spring of these magician’s tricks. The knowledge implied in every design decision is not obvious, not shown. But we can grasp it and keep it in our own top hat.

d. The little joys of building.

Constructing can be very tiring, sometimes very frustrating. Under the Sonoran sun, it can be nerve breaking. Experiencing this in our own bones can help us foresee easier, more efficient and relaxed ways for others to construct our future projects.

When you glimpse a colleague’s happy face of discovery, the joy of seeing things that you thought of actually work out, the most daring, intriguing, wild ideas running smoothly, the light coming out of these faces gives you the greatest feeling possible. Don’t expect architects who haven’t experienced that to understand it.



-What did we do?

-This was the first shelter studio that was ever organised at Taliesin West. Its goal was to share and make the knowledge and tools that would help the seven young architects that enrolled the studio to become better architects: improving their critical thinking, observation and transformation skills, ability to make poignant questions and give relevant -built and non-built- proposals to make a particular environment home. To do so, we followed and altered the little maps cartography. And as a practical example, we designed and built a shelter that is part of the desert encampment where Taliesin West learners live. The first three weeks, we worked on a brief exercise in which everyone had to make their own overnight shelter to spend a night in the desert. The only two restrictions were that they could only use materials found on site, and that they had to carry, assemble and disassemble them that same night, leaving no trace. At first everybody looked for an isolated place to camp, but one day, while walking around in the desert looking for resources, we came to a place during sunset that had good conditions to become a campground. We looked at each other and realised that it was better to camp together.

The chosen night, it was very windy and cold. So when we got to the site everyone ran to find a spot protected from the wind. Each one spontaneously helped each other to assemble their shelter. Daniel's canvas broke, so Pablo gave him a part of his own shelter, and so on. That night, we learnt three things: It's better to camp together. We can help and learn from each other. Sleeping in the desert is not about designing a fancy shelter, but about not only getting the conditions to survive, but to enjoy a memorable night.

From what we learnt in this first exercise, we decided to design and build our shelter collectively. We got a 25 metres paper roll in which we drew the shared ideas during the whole process. We gathered as much data as we could to understand how the school was now, and how could this shelter help it. This process brought to seven design hypothesis. With them in mind we were able to choose a site where we could develop them. We chose the most difficult, ugly and ruined one available. Everyday we went back and forth from the studio to the site to the workshop. Mockups were easily built and checked on site.

The school provided a 2000$ budget. The premise was to use as many on-site resources as possible. However, we gave us the freedom to get standard, cheap materials from regular warehouses.

This humble but great collective effort, following the little maps cartography during twelve intense weeks, led to a first construction of two shared shelters and a gathering space. On following years, these shelters will be inhabited by different learners, who will transform, maintain, improve and document them. All this lifecycle will be presented on this website.  

Photographs by Nathan Rist:

Learning environment for Little Maps of Taliesin West Design Build studio:

The short exercise developed during the first three weeks of our studio, allowed us to prepare a custom made learning environment, rooted in our group's and individual abilities, and also strengthening their weaknesses. 

1. Synchrony of exploratory and skill learning.
Most skills can be acquired and improved by drills, because skill implies the mastery of definable and predictable behavior. Skill instruction can rely, therefore, on the simulation of circumstances in which the skill will be used. Education in the exploratory and creative use of skills, however, cannot rely on drills. Education can be the outcome of instruction, though instruction of a kind fundamentally opposed to drill. It relies on the relationship between partners who already have some of the keys which give access to memories stored in and by the community. It relies on the critical intent of all those who use memories creatively. It relies on the surprise of the unexpected question which opens new doors for the inquirer and his partner.
The skill instructor relies on the arrangement of set circumstances which permit the learner to develop standard responses. The educational guide is concerned with helping matching partners to meet so that learning can take place. He matches individuals starting from their own, unresolved questions. At the most he helps the pupil to formulate his puzzlement since only a clear statement will give him the power to find his match, moved like him, at the moment, to explore the same issue in the same context.
Matching partners for educational purposes initially seems more difficult to imagine than finding skill instructors and partners for a game. One reason is the deep fear which school has implanted in us, a fear which makes us censorious. The unlicensed exchange of skills-even undesirable skills-is more predictable and therefore seems less dangerous than the unlimited opportunity for meeting among people who share an issue which for them, at the moment, is socially, intellectually, and emotionally important. 
Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich


2. Collective design process.
Traditional education tended to ignore the importance of personal impulse and desire as moving springs. But this is no reason why progressive education should identify impulse and desire with purpose and thereby pass lightly over the need for careful observation, for wide range of information, and for judgment if students are to share in the formation of the purposes which activate them. In an educational scheme, the occurrence of a desire and impulse is not the final end. It is an occasion and a demand for the formation of a plan and method of activity. Such a plan, to repeat, can be formed only by study of conditions and by sewing all relevant information
It is possible of course to abuse the office, and to force the activity of the young into channels which express the teacher's purpose rather than that of the pupils. But the way to avoid this danger is not for the adult to withdraw entirely. The way is, first, for the teacher to be intelligently aware of the capacities, needs, and past experiences of those under instruction, and, secondly, to allow the suggestion made to develop into a plan and project by means of the further suggestions contributed and organized into a whole by the members of the group. The plan, in other words, is a co-operative enterprise, not a dictation. The teacher's suggestion is not a mold for a cast-iron result but is a starting point to be developed into a plan through contributions from the experience of all engaged in the learning process. The development occurs through reciprocal give-and-take, the teacher taking but not being afraid also to give. The essential point is that the purpose grow and take shape through the process of social intelligence.
Experience and Education, John Dewey
3. Learn by doing.
Never design anything you don't know how to build.
Jean Prouvé