Alumni Stories

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.

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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.