Michele Yeeles - 2021 TSOA Graduate
My interest in studying architecture was sparked in 2000 while I was working at Reebok. Our Creative Director was hosting an international, interdisciplinary design offsite in Barcelona. As part of our research, we were encouraged to study all aspects of design in the city and report back to our colleagues. I found myself studying the vast array of architecture from the intricate forms of the Segrada Familia to the apparent simplicity of the Barcelona Pavilion. I was fascinated.
At the time, I was working full time as a design director in the footwear team and also studying part time for my MBA. My husband Martin and I had committed to starting our own branded product business the following year. Before we launched, we decided to take a cross-country road trip and hash out our business plan along the route. Our first stop was Fallingwater where I was further inspired. The following year, we attended seven weddings! One of which was held in Tucson, Arizona. After a brief look at the map, our route from Boston became obvious, we flew into Phoenix first and toured Taliesin West. Little did I know that the inspiration I experienced then would lead me to refer to it as ‘home’ several years later.
Over the next few years, I found myself drawn to various architectural activities and organizations in my neighborhood – I was a regular attendee at planning and preservation meetings in Fort Point, Boston and Cape Cod, and joined various committees, boards and commissions to help steer or enable their efforts. Volunteering along these lines satisfied my architectural interest for a while, but I was still curious to learn more. When Martin and I decided to pivot our business from product oriented to design oriented (which would free us up from a physical office space), I knew that the time was right to finally explore the study of architecture.
During 2017, I discovered that several schools and universities offered short (4-8 week) architectural design programs. This kind of course appealed to me because it would allow me to try out architecture without a long term commitment. Somehow, the traditional and top-ranked architecture schools didn’t feel quite right for me. There was a program in Vermont which was more hands-on which I found intriguing, but it was focused on building rather than architecture. The Taliesin Immersion program was the one that hit the spot. At 8 weeks, it was longer than most, it had a design/build element, a learning by doing philosophy and it was held in the desert at Taliesin West during January and February (the two coldest months of the year in Boston). After visiting the school, I applied and waited to see if they would offer me a place.
When I arrived at Taliesin West in January 2018 there were seven other immersion students enrolled – a really interesting and inspiring group. Our ages spanned from 19 to over 60 and our careers included aeronautical engineering, biotechnology, film, construction, footwear design, and human research for NASA! Only one had studied architecture before.
We were introduced and immersed into the discipline of architecture by professor Shawn Protz whose holistic approach built upon Wright’s principles and was titled “design with climate”. For the first two weeks, we were studying the built portions of Taliesin West and experiencing and documenting the buildings and the climate that we found ourselves in. I will never forget (or be able to thank him enough) for starting us out with such an important and fundamental foundation.
During the next eight weeks, we were also encouraged to join any of the classes that the masters students were taking and there were regular lectures and events held during the evenings and weekends, often followed by interviews for Wash (the student publication), parties at the broken student lounge (an indoor/outdoor space with a giant hearth for fires) or student shelter crawls. During our final week, we presented our shelter projects to the entire school along with the rest of the students who were presenting their mid-term projects for review. It was an incredibly inclusive experience which led to stimulating conversations and idea sharing, cementing mutual respect and friendships.
After the immersion program, I was hungry to learn more, so I took another look at various schools and their Master of Architecture programs. I visited quite a few schools at this point too, but they were nothing like Taliesin. The learning by doing philosophy, the shelter program, the small size of the school, it’s architectural locations and the staff and students that I had met during the immersion experience all made up my mind – it was the only school to which I applied.
During the next three years, I could feel myself learning and growing as I immersed myself in the school’s learning by doing philosophy. During the first year studio our professor Ryan Scavnicky asked us to trust him and let go of everything we knew about architecture and all of our personal preferences so we would be open minded in our explorations. I’m so thankful for his advice. Only three weeks into the first semester in Wisconsin, we found ourselves in Bartlesville, Oklahoma as part of a public Charrette designing a park for an open space between Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower and the Wes Peters Community Center. Almost the whole student body was there and we were divided into teams with first, second and third years all working together. Helping the third year students to build their thesis shelters was a major highlight and an important aspect of the learning by doing philosophy of the school. Other community based building activities, such as helping to build an earth cast structure at Cosanti, or designing tiny homes for the community of Seabreeze, North Carolina were also super rewarding.
Other group activities included workshops, often hosted by a visiting lecturer, a returning teaching fellow or collegiate friends of the visiting teaching fellow. During my time at the school, we had workshops with Allan Wexler, Hans Koesters, and Wai Think Tank. We also took several trips to museums, architecture studios and visited noteworthy architectural sites (including several Wright sites) and cities such as New York, LA and Chicago.
Although we had a few ups and downs during the second half of my time at the school, I am so grateful to my fellow students, the staff, the Taliesin Fellows, the school board and other friends and supporters of the school for finding new architecturally interesting homes where we could build, and for us to continue our education and the legacy of our founders. I’m especially proud that almost all of my fellow students chose to stay with the school during the transition (even after many of us had been offered places at other schools when we had to consider the possibility of finishing our studies elsewhere). In terms of learning by doing, we are part of the living legacy, and we all played a role in ensuring the future opportunity continues for others.
During my final year, we had secured a new site for the school and our thesis projects so I was keen to collaborate with our new hosts and neighbors. The agricultural program at Cosanti was receptive to the idea that I build my thesis shelter adjacent to their food forest. It was an amazing experience to put all of the design, building science, structural and material theory into practice and incredibly fulfilling to collaborate with the Arcosanti community, the faculty and staff, my fellow students and supportive friends, alumni and Martin to build it.
Since graduating, I have continued learning by doing in my approach to architecture. I am working with a number of established architects on a freelance basis – the projects include a new custom designed home on the waterfront in Wellfleet, a vintage barn conversion, a whole house renovation and extension, a couple of artists studios, an interior design studio, and a few smaller projects. One of the projects is with my prior professor Shawn Protz and fellow graduate, Shelby Hamet. We’ve known each other since the 2018 immersion experience and Shelby and I matched pace through the master’s program. Although we’re now scattered across the country, I really appreciate that we’re able to continue to collaborate over zoom.
Martin and I are also preparing to launch our new design practice – Y Studio, where we aim to further our collaboration with thoughtful design intentions and solutions.
Holistic Living Architecture
2019 Graduate, Conor Denison, Recounts His Experience at The School of Architecture
I first learned about The School of Architecture (then the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture) during my workshop at Arcosanti in May 2015. I was going to school for a Bachelor’s degree in Geography at the time, and found out about this experimental city in the high desert of Arizona through one of my classes. I arrived at Arcosanti during FORM, a three day music arts festival, and was completely blown away by what I saw and experienced. I completed the five week workshop, which was such an incredible experience that I stayed the rest of the summer at Arcosanti volunteering in the construction department. During this time, I began to realize my interest in pursuing studies in architecture. We visited Taliesin West on a field trip while staying at Cosanti in Scottsdale, and I knew right away that I wanted to go to school there. It never occurred to me to apply to other schools, because I had a feeling that it was the right place for me.
After spending the summer at Arcosanti, I returned to school in London, Ontario, to complete the final year of my Geography studies. During that time, I applied for the School of Architecture’s summer Immersion Program at Taliesin, and awaited a response, praying that I would be accepted. My hope at that time was that I would complete the Immersion Program to see what the School was like, and decide if I was truly interested in studying architecture. I arrived in Spring Green, Wisconsin, in May 2016 and began the Immersion Program one year after I visited Taliesin West for the first time. Over the course of that summer I regained the enjoyment I had experienced at Arcosanti of communal living. Studying architecture was a big challenge (as a matter of fact it still is!) and there was certainly a steep learning curve. Not only were the skills to design and create architecture completely new, but so too was the conceptual way of thinking that was required to be a designer.
That Immersion Program in Wisconsin was the perfect introduction into what it meant to be part of the School, and it was as well-rounded an experience as I could imagine. On any given day I might join John and Lidjia on the farm to harvest carrots in the morning, go on a hike with Gigi to learn about the flora and fauna of the Driftless region, attend lectures and studio classes, work in the kitchen with Jay chopping vegetables and setting the tables for dinner, rehearse in the theater with Terry for our performance at the end of the summer – always followed by a long night in the studio working, and on a Friday we might end up going into town for a drink and some karaoke. A typical day was anything but typical, and it was this lifestyle that drew me in. I found it to be meaningful carrying on the holistic way of living and studying architecture that was developed during the Taliesin Fellowship and carried on by like minded people throughout the years.
I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Master’s program at the School following the Immersion Program, and after spending a week back home in Toronto I returned to begin the three-year program. Each semester was more incredible and memorable than the last, and every day brought so many unique opportunities, experiences, and people. I was always thrilled to meet people from all over the world. The program provided the opportunity to realize my full potential not only as a student of architecture, but as a well-rounded person. While architecture is the backbone and central focus of the program, it is certainly not the only focus.
The prospect of building a shelter was both intimidating and thrilling as I approached my final year of the program. While the design process was at times very personal, the project itself quickly became a collective effort. At times it seemed daunting, and that we may have been in over our heads, but the shelter projects gained momentum that we worked very hard to keep up with. I am so grateful for the friends, teachers, and mentors I worked alongside during the shelter program – without them I would have not known what to do. During my studies at the School, I had the opportunity to help build several incredible shelters, each of which was completely unique from the others. It was an honor being able to add to the diverse library of structures built by generations of architecture students over the last 80 years.
In my final year at the School, I had the chance to attend a conference hosted by the American Institute of Architecture Students in Seattle. Chris Lasch, the current President of the School and our Dean at the time, arranged for us to tour the office of Olson Kundig, and during this tour I had the same feeling I had visiting Taliesin West. After graduating, I worked for my mentor and teacher Quentin Branch for several months in Arizona, and sent my portfolio in the mail to apply to the Internship program at Olson Kundig. I worked at Cosanti alongside some friends from Arcosanti and classmates from the School on a project before I moved out to Seattle in February 2020 to begin the 6 month Internship. I have continued to work at Olson Kundig, learning more each day about the fascinating and complex pursuit of architecture.
I never would have expected that my decision to do a workshop at Arcosanti 6 years ago would have led me on the path to where I am today. I will always fondly remember my experiences at the School, and I have a tremendous amount of pride in being an alumnus of the program. Over the years I have met many alumni, and recognize a camaraderie we all share in having helped contribute toward the legacy of the program, and I am proud of the students, faculty, and teachers who are continuing to keep it alive today. I want to thank everyone that shaped my experience, and made it such an important part of my life.