Shelter Experience

LEARNING BY DOING. The Shelter Construction Program is a unique experiential learning opportunity for students to design, build, and live in a structure they have created.

The Thesis Program at TSOA is a continuation of the Taliesin Fellowship’s historic Student Shelter Program. While attending the School, some it’s students live in student-built shelters scattered in the desert areas of the campus. These small structures, designed and built by students in response to the landscape and desert climate, have been a hallmark of the program since its inception in the 1930s at Taliesin West.

As the focus of the student Thesis Program, students will formulate the entirety of their shelter project themselves, from site selection through space and use programming through to design, construction and inhabitation. The shelter project functions as a proof-of-concept for a thesis designed to be scalable and adaptable to how we live in our modern world, as the set of ideas that students develop in their thesis, first embodied and tested through the creation –or, more often, recreation of disused existing shelters— of these environmentally astute dwellings, might also form the foundation of a critical practice that students develop throughout their careers.

The ability to initiate and execute a small comprehensive project while still at the School provides students a rare and rigorous platform to investigate architectural ideas in a holistic manner, solidly grounded in historical and cultural fact, circumstance, and context as informed by careful and penetrating research.

Architecture taught as applied praxis

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 he referred to as “camp.” 

Today, students 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. 

The desert has a cathartic effect.

Frank Lloyd Wright

branch | Conor Denison | 2019

This project addresses the notion of shelter in its most basic sense, and what it means to live in the Sonoran Desert. Half of the year the shelters serve as student dwellings, yet for the other half of the year they remain in the desert as something else entirely. This project seeks to create something which is significant for both halves of the year. The shelter increases in earth as it rises out of the earth, emerging in layers as one continuous earthen mass. What appears as a simple cubic mass reveals a hidden world within. Carefully placed openings reveal the varying thickness of the structure while allowing for sunlight and airflow to move throughout. The dwelling is a rammed earth structure with custom interior form work. Special thanks to Quentin Branch for guidance and support.

Sunken Wrap | Pablo Moncayo | 2015

Subterranea – Sunken Wrap explores an inhabitant’s relationship to the sky and the constantly changing light suffusing its sunken sleeping chamber. This design was inspired by the desire to re-use and up-cycle existing available materials, thereby significantly lowering the cost of construction, and includes an above-grade communal gathering area.

Skybox | Chelsea Clark | 2012

Skybox began as a post-and-beam structure. The most recent version was renovated and redesigned by Chelsea Clark in 2012.