For the past ten years the CAF has worked to bring six stellar Chicago Public School students to Taliesin for a week of immersive exploration and learning, with the goal of generating new ideas in the field of architecture. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin is a key partner for the experience, providing space, amenities and feedback for the students and staff during their stay.
The folks at Taliesin gave us a big challenge this year: build an outdoor structure where students and faculty can make phone calls and have private conversations. The constraint? It must be mosquito-proof and located in a pocket of the rural woods where cell phones can get reception, and it must be mobile enough to accommodate the school’s transition away from Wisconsin in winter.
In Chicago I met Mike, the CAF program director, and Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop. Soon after I met our six students: Jeisson, Audrey, Joseph, Edwin, Diana and Jovana. We picked up our second teaching fellow, Daniel Splaingard, in Madison and traveled together in a packed van for the rest of the trip to Spring Green, WI.
We began our week-long class with a broad exploration of architecture and the importance of place. The minute we got on the road in our ten-passenger van Alex handed out whiteboard markers. “What should we call this thing? Write down everything you can think of!” For five intense minutes we all sketched our ideas on the windows of the rented van. The themes of “learn by doing” and “failing fast” came up a lot, as well as the notion of translating pencil sketches to hands-on sketching with a hammer. After sharing, cross-pollinating, and more brainstorming the name that stuck was “Be a Teen Design Hero!” Hero was the perfect word to describe the six teenagers we spent the week with. In their young maturity they certainly should be something of a role model to other aspiring young designers.
Our exploration continued on-site at Taliesin. During one of our first mornings on campus we spent a couple hours competing in teams on a scavenger hunt. Each team was given a list of places and things to find: the buggiest location, the highest point, the scariest place. The hunt forced us to bond in our respective teams and the competition made us devoted to searching the entire place for the best representative in each category.
That healthy competition became more intense during our game of Capture the Flag on the third day. For nearly three hours we operated in a focused strategic mode, claiming stakes in various parts of the school’s land, and discovering the optimal location for hiding a flag and for running around unseen by the other team.
Joseph’s words sum it up best: “After running up that giant hill to get the flag it made me realize that no one would want to run all the way up there to make a phone call. The hill would naturally make it a bad place to put our phone booth.”
The game was the perfect way for our teens to discover the concepts of low and high barriers to entry and affordances.
After our adventures running around Taliesin and discovering all of the hidden nuances of the topography we were tasked with creating maps to tell the story of the space.
As we started sketching out our findings, overlaying the personality of the land with its geographic reality, all of the students realized a very important lesson. Our experience of the land is completely different from how it is represented on a map. Google maps doesn’t tell you about fields where the bugs are especially rampant, or the fact that the rocks are slippery near the river.
Having just experienced all of these nuances, we included all of the important knowledge we had gained about the place itself. In the end, we created a unique description of Taliesin, and in the process had identified the constraints for where our phone booth should be located.
The school at Taliesin is a unique experience for all the students who attend. They spend six months of the year in Wisconsin, and the remainder of their time at Taliesin West in Arizona. All the students live on campus and participate in cooking and cleaning. I was stunned the first day we were there when all of the students left their desks promptly at 6:30pm to head down to a communal dining hall. The whole community comes together for lunch and dinner each day, and they work together outside of class, maintaining the garden or singing in the chorus.
As an outsider I was delighted to be invited into their community for the week we were there. It was a privilege to share their unique way of life and learning, and our students understood the specialness of it, too. The teens jumped right in when asked to help with cooking and cleaning. They really enjoyed being part of the whole experience.
Our students bonded with one another instantly from the very beginning of the trip. Their relationships remained strong during the entire project and proved very useful when it came time to start building prototypes for our phone booth. The entire design process went fairly smoothly as a result of our students’ maturity and devotion to the project.
Jeisson captured his thoughts in his blog post:
“…this team means something to us and it empowers us to know that we will make something that we will all love, so we all support each other in our journey, even through small details like a minute bend in a singular plank.”
Our first collaborative effort was sketch-building. Alex dumped out a pile of skinny sticks on to the grass and asked each team of three to sketch a layout for our phone booth in a proposed location. Each team dispersed and selected a different location to construct a life-size sketch of our ideas.
After the first drawing Alex told us to rip it apart and re-sketch in a new location. My team chose a spot in the brow of the hill and built a pseudo-3D sketch showing how a structure could jut out of the hillside and make use of the uneven terrain.
Our third attempt was a real 3D built sketch using found materials and the skinny sticks. We quickly learned how strongly a pre-fabricated found element can impact the design process as our team struggled to manipulate our ideas around the angled 2x4s we had been so excited to discover in a discarded wood pile.
Fifteen minutes and about a hundred zip ties later we had a built structure with a faux roof!
During our critique we saw that each group had built a completely different type of structure, even though we were all working from the same constraints. When assembled together our explorations of space and structure turned into a comprehensive representation of variety and possibility for our phone booth.
Once we had discovered the best location for our phone booth we began exploring the structure itself. We did some sketch-building in our desired location to discover how a structure would exist in the space. We even brought in some Taliesin community members to test out our structure, asking them how it felt to approach and sit in the space we had designed.
Once we had a good idea of the structure’s footprint we measured and cut 2x6s for the frame of the deck. After building out the frame the team worked together to drill and screw down reclaimed decking to the top. It was a long process, and the team was so devoted to the project that they gladly worked into the night hours to finish as much as possible. It was a beautiful moment of coordinated building as each teen worked a different leg of the assembly line, each person moving in coordination with the other.
After the deck was finished we continued building walls and a roof above it. All our construction methods were fast, using 1x2s, screws and zip ties to quickly fasten walls together. If we weren’t satisfied with a decision it took minimal effort to undo it and try something new. We built our first prototype in only 45 minutes using these methods.
When we returned to it after lunch we had a quick group critique. One of our students spoke up: she didn’t like the structure. In her eyes it was full of chaos, lacking any sensical order that would make it a comfortable and relaxing space for a conversation. She quickly discovered she was the lone voice of dissent. Everyone was silent. It was the first time anyone in the group had disagreed! No one knew exactly how to work around conflict.
Moving forward, we deconstructed our first prototype and laid out the 1x2s to start sketch-building once more in an effort to design a new structure with more order. This time the students took over the plans for the building. After our first critique Alex and I could see that the students would need to take a new level of ownership for the project. To get them to a favorable solution faster, we let them conduct the designing, sketching and building on their own without any of our help.
I was nervous as we walked away. We were on a very strict time table for the remainder of the project, and as the sun was beginning to set I knew we couldn’t afford to waste any time arguing over a design. It was difficult to leave knowing that they might not arrive at a solution without us. Still, it was better for us to let them try (and potentially fail) on their own. At least they would own the failure, and have a greater understanding of the design process.
After 45 minutes we came back to find a purely symmetrical structure that lacked any of the visual interest of the first iteration. We gave a few inspirational words of critique and walked away once again.
After another hour the student-led team had created the foundation for a viable solution that included order as well as neatly defined chaos.
After the foundation for the design was built, Alex and the team worked together to build a roof for the structure. In the end, it was the students’ desire to balance order with chaos that led to an innovative roof design that reflected the slope of the land and fulfilled the functional need to wash off rain during storms.
At the end of our week together the students had an incredible opportunity to present their work to the Taliesin community. The night before the presentation I sat down with each student to talk through their experiences with them. I interviewed each student and helped them identify a story they could tell that would describe their personal experience in context of the project.
The day of the presentation the students each wrote a blog post with their stories and final reflections and worked with me to create slides for the Keynote. Somehow everything magically came together in the end. The students were heartfelt and genuine in their description of the week, and their personal stories proved compelling to the entire Taliesin audience.
I was so proud of each of them for pulling together an outstanding, articulate presentation in less than a day. Most adults I know can’t do that.
After the formal presentation, Edwin led a tour of the space where our structure lives. He did a fantastic job describing the team’s process of discovery and exploration and told about our methodology for designing and building the structure.
By the end of the show all our students were glowing with pride at what they had accomplished in only a week. For many of them this was the most significant thing they’ve done so far in their lives.
I’ve been able to reflect after a few days away from the project. While I was immersed at Taliesin it was clear that this is a truly special project. The students were amazing, and the experience of co-teaching with Alex was a new and welcome experience. He works very differently than I do, and having my own limits tested all week helped me grow as a teacher.
I’m still amazed at how close our team became in only a short period of time. My first instinct was to believe this relationship grew out of the fact that we were all secluded in a rural community together; we have no choice but to get along. Our student Jeisson’s first suggested that we got along because of our common interests in architecture. But there was something deeper; each student there worked hard for months to earn a spot on the trip, and as a result every single person was wholly motivated to make the project a success.
As a designer it was a fun experience for me to visit Taliesin and spend a week with architects. I was a little bit of an outsider, and at times I could feel myself being a disruption. Whether it was through pushing back at Alex, or pushing the kids to think in a different way, I clearly saw the value of having an outsider’s perspective and of not being afraid to be the lone voice outstanding.
In part questioning my own high expectations for the kids, I wonder “Where is the line between ‘good enough’ and ‘great’ for a high school student? When is ‘good enough’ acceptable?”
Finally, the real joy for me was in developing relationships with a new group of friends. Over the course of the week each of our six students emerged as a unique person. I was delighted each day to learn a little more about them, getting to understand their depths as young adults in the world and discovering as much about them as they were learning about themselves.
I am so happy to have had this opportunity and look forward to even more reflection and finding relevance in my future work.