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The Arizona Desert

Shelter is at the very heart of what is taught at The School of Architecture.

One of the first activities Frank Lloyd Wright undertook when he created the Apprenticeship Program in the Arizona desert was to design a series of triptych tent sites, intentionally plotted across the desert washes in an orientation that complemented the communal buildings then under construction at Taliesin West. Each of the student apprentices was responsible to organically integrate into the landscape and construct a foundation for their own four-sided canvas Shepherd’s tent at one of the sites. The tents consisted of a simple steel skeleton draped with light canvas, and provided about ten square feet of habitable space, which was just enough for a bed, a side table, and a chair. Students lived immersed in the landscape and with a visceral experience of the desert.

Today desert shelter building is still the heart of our program as the subject of the capstone thesis. In their final year, students research, design, construct and live in a shelter of their own as we continue to reflect on and experiment with living and building in the desert.

Life in The Sonoran Desert

When Frank Lloyd Wright first encountered the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, he was instantly enthralled. He said, “The desert has a cathartic effect.” What could be more architectural than the lessons of the desert? Wright was immediately aware of the desert as the connecting link between land and sea and he commented on the similarity of the life forms of the coral reef and desert bajada. Wright saw the Sonoran Desert as an opportunity to introduce students to natural processes as the basis of design. The desert is devoid of design theories. The plants and creatures of the desert have only one agenda—survival—and their solutions are essential, simple, and beautiful. Wright saw the desert as the ideal environment in which to observe nature’s working. When the Fellowship arrived at the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, they found a landscape empty of current human habitation and the amenities of urban life. First pitching tents on the mesa, the Fellowship, under Mr. Wright’s direction, began construction of work and living spaces, which referred to as “camp.” TSOA retains major features of a winter encampment.

Students today are provided with the continuous opportunity to experience, with all of the senses, the desert as a distinct bioregion and to learn from its unique climatic conditions and the adaptations made by its plant and animal inhabitants in order to survive. Residential life at TSOA continues the experience of the pioneering Fellowship and ensures that students develop a profound understanding of the desert environment and the impact of natural phenomena on the design of buildings.

Each year, students are afforded the opportunity to remodel, rebuild, or construct new shelters within a specific procedure. Students constructing new shelters are expected to live in them. Participation in the School’s educational experience implies acceptance of the rewards and the risks of living directly in the natural environment of the desert.

Students may request to live in more permanent structures based on space availability or may live off-site. Students with mobility issues or particular sleeping requirements will be accommodated.