Students at Wright school 'learn by doing'

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PHOENIX (AP) — In 1963, Egyptian-born architecture student and Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice Kamal Amin built a small shelter in the desert at Taliesin West.

Like all of Wright's students, he was required to build his own shelter and live in it in accordance with Wright's "learning by doing" philosophy.

Amin hoped the shelter would impress his girlfriend. It eventually came to be known as the Lotus Shelter.

"As friends, the relationship didn't last — as we got married," said Amin, 85.

The structure has lasted, and it is one of the longest continually inhabited shelters occupied by students at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Scottsdale. And now, after more than 50 years, it is getting a makeover.

Students spent a weekend last month tearing off the tin roofing to correct bowing after consulting Amin, who lives in the Valley, on his design and original intent.

The Lotus Shelter — and no one is really sure who named it — is half-enclosed in a curved line of concrete block wall oriented toward the morning sun. The metal roof is a floating lotus-like design, and painted sunny yellow in the interior with a fireplace and chimney in the rear. In a word — groovy.

The shelters have a long tradition at Taliesin West, the winter home and studio of Wright. Taliesin West now houses the architecture school during part of the year and also offers public tours.

For more than 75 years, Wright apprentices and, later, students of the architecture school have built shelters among the boulder-strewn washes and cholla thickets.

The idea is to learn the fundamentals of construction, live in harmony with the land and avoid becoming "armchair architects," which Wright despised.

Today, students have a choice of living in a dorm or in a shelter. Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture Dean Victor Sidy said the demand to live in or build a shelter outweighs demand for a dorm room.

Sidy built his own structure as a student on the Taliesin West campus. When he became dean in 2005, he revived shelter building, which had been relegated to an extracurricular weekend activity. Students often embark on building a shelter only to find that what worked on paper doesn't work in real-world construction, and more than one student has had a structure collapse.

One or two shelters are built by students in a school year at Taliesin West's 600-acre spread. Half of those students choose to build their own, and the other half choose to renovate an existing structure. Beyond their public popularity, historical significance and the credit students earn for building them, the structures often help graduating students stand out.

Chelsea Clark graduated in September 2012 but came back to put the finishing touches on her structure, called Seachelter, even after graduation. Over three years, she rebuilt an existing shelter that is raised above the desert floor, expanded its deck and added a lofty roof and hanging sleeping compartment.

Clark's portfolio, which included her Taliesin West structure, caught the attention of her current employer, Cross 2 Design Group. The Seattle firm specializes in waterproofing.

"When I was graduating, we were just coming out of recession, and this group is a very technical group that does a lot of repair due to rotting over time," Clark said. "So my boss could see that I had real technical experience in putting materials together, and it was impressive enough to him that I've received a bump up on responsibility."

The school gives students $1,000 and the use of the Frank Lloyd Wright name to solicit donations so they can modify a shelter or build their own. The Lotus Shelter, because of its popularity, will receive $2,000 for its restoration.

Of the 40 structures dotting the desert around Taliesin West, about half are functional.

Amy Leber, scheduled to graduate in September with a master's degree in architecture, chose the Lotus Shelter as a project in gratitude to school professors who continually asked her questions so that "they guided me to make designs that I didn't even know I was capable of."

Left to be refinished are mortaring and repair on a block wall damaged by weather and a falling cactus, removing six kinds of paint and coming to a consensus on the color of the new paint.

Amin did not paint his original structure. The yellow interior roof came from a psychology professor who held classes at the shelter for students in the 1990s. Students are leaning toward a deep, earthy Taliesin red for the exposed posts and a light tan for the block while leaving the steel roof exposed.

"Do what's fun," Amin told the five students who worked on the shelter.

He built the structure alone in three days without sketching out the design. The restoration should be completed by May when students head to Spring Green, Wis., for their summer term.

Amin came to Taliesin West in 1951 and worked with Wright, who died in 1959. Amin stayed at Taliesin West, working as an architect and structural engineer before going into private practice in 1977.

He designed large residences on Camelback Mountain and Pinnacle Peak, and in Fountain Hills and Scottsdale.

The Lotus Shelter was built with curves and circles because that's what the ladies like, Amin told students.

"So that was your main design consideration, huh?" asked Garth Lindquist, a first-year master's in architecture student who has been living in the Lotus Shelter and working on its restoration.

"It still is," Amin said, laughing.

Lindquist chose the structure because of its history and its closeness to the desert landscape that seemed so otherworldly to him, being from Unionville, Conn. The first night he slept in the shelter, he awoke to a javelina staring him down.

He also chose the shelter because of its views.

"In the morning when I wake up, the sun is rising right over those mountains," he said, pointing to the McDowells. "You wake up with that image in your mind, and when you start designing, you think of ways to incorporate it."

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