In January, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation tapped Aaron Betsky to head its school of architecture, which is split between two campuses: Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. Betsky, the former director of the Cincinnati Art Museum will move to Scottsdale in April. Though he assumes the role immediately, Betsky said his specific plans for the curriculum are still in progress.
As dean, Betsky faces a challenge beyond academic leadership. Last year the Higher Learning Commission changed its rules governing for-profit universities and schools that, like the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, are part of institutions whose “missions extend beyond academics.” To retain the school’s accreditation, the Foundation will spin off its academic entity. But to do so it said it must raise $2 million before the end of 2015, or it will lose its standing once the new rules take effect in 2017.
Chris Bentley: Why did you decide to take this position?
Aaron Betsky: I’ve been involved with architectural education for literally decades and I’ve always been a strong believer in the notion of experimental architecture, and an architectural education that doesn’t perpetuate the myth that architects just go out there and make the dumbest buildings possible. Architecture is a way you can come to an understanding of the human-made environment we’ve all created together and how you can make that better in a social sense, an environmental sense, and in a physical sense. So a chance to do that with a school that has such a great tradition of experimental architecture, that comes out of Frank Lloyd Wright’s engagement with everything from the notions of what makes a home, to what makes a workplace, to the nature of American suburbia and beyond.
What’s been your experience with or impression of the Frank Lloyd Wright School’s academic character? What would you like to change and what would you like to keep the same?
It’s not a big school where people are doing fairly standard building design. It’s a place where people are really trying to figure out what architecture is. They do it not just on the drafting table and the computer but out in the desert itself, especially in Scottsdale building their own shelters. I think a lot of people still think about Taliesin as a place that might continue the forms of Frank Lloyd Wright. But if you look at the student work you can see that Victor [Sidy] and the people who have been there have really begun to think more about how he thought of architecture as very important for what he called democracy—how he saw it in the arts and crafts tradition and the tradition of American pragmatism.
What is Wright’s relevance to contemporary practice?
He addressed issues that are central to the American problem and the world problem, that include: How do you make a home, what is a home? How do you shelter it and yet make it open to its community? What is that community when it is no longer just a center city or out in the farm? What is suburbia and what kind of forms can we developer for suburbia? How can we make an architecture that works with the land instead of being built on it? How can you create work environments that are open and conducive to the kind of creativity and sharing that we now understand is central to work? How can you create places of leisure and play that are again open and that celebrate our achievements and allow us in a playful way to reimagine the American and the world environment?
Are you charged with separating the school from the foundation, the fundraising, or purely focused on the academics?
Yes we need to raise money and I am already working with the school on that. We have a couple of galas. We’re working on some other ways that we’ll need to continue as an independent entity. It’s obviously a very big part of the job.
What is the fundraising situation so far? Are you on track to meet the goal?
Yes I am confident we’ll meet it. Some funds have already been raised. I can’t tell you what the percentage is but there are substantial pledges as well as hard cash in the door. Look, I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life—if not longer—raising money. In Cincinnati I was able to raise about $80 million over the last eight years. Schools are more difficult in some ways than museums, but I’m confident we’ll be able to raise the money for this school with its great traditions and name recognition for an even better future.