Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 6 | Winter 2024

At Taliesin

Words by Elyas Boyan
Illustrations by Lola Lambert
Photographs by Annie Yang, Casey Breen,
Elyas Boyan, and Lola Lambert

August 27, 2023: 

Ten people stepped off the train in Portage, WI, with clothing, notebooks, literature, and drafting supplies to last three weeks. They headed to Taliesin, where time would stop for a while as they tried to understand their place in relation to the history of a property; to the life’s work of an architect; to a practice of creation and destruction; to the Driftless rivers and hills. 

It is hard to put into words what Taliesin was, and what it is. It began as a retreat for Frank Lloyd Wright to escape the city and return to the hills of his childhood. Over time, it became his home and studio, a place where he could experiment freely with shape and form, workshopping his style of organic architecture and teaching it to others. From 1932 until 1985, Wright and his wife, Olgivanna, ran an on-site holistic architecture school known as the Taliesin Fellowship. Fellows slept in wings off of the drafting room, rotating cooking, cleaning, farming, and construction tasks, while simultaneously training as architects with Wright reviewing and critiquing their work. Learning at Taliesin grew into a lifestyle for many, with some far overstaying their tenure. One fellow, his family, and Minerva, the 99 year old wife of one of Wright’s apprentices, still live on the property. The Fellowship even outlasted Wright himself, maintained by Olgivanna in his stead after his passing.

Despite the longevity of the Fellowship and the life it brought to its corner of the Driftless Area, as a student and resident of its walls and hills for three weeks I felt a distinct sense that life had come and gone. All that was left was the occasional tour group passing through, idolizing the ghost of an American architect, and the haunted buildings crumbling under their own weight. (It really was a place of experimentation. Wright pretended that physics wouldn’t affect his work; many buildings were poorly and quickly constructed on a whim. The amount of money invested in repairs and restoration each year makes it clear that despite Wright’s confidence, physics made no exceptions. If there is no foundation, will a building sink? Yes, yes it will.) Eight college-aged kids and two teachers reinvigorated the place with just our presence, yet we could feel the emptiness trying to press in on us; the ghosts trying to reclaim their territory.

I passed my time at Taliesin exploring the surrounding woods and corn fields, where I encountered cabins built by fellows, untouched for decades; small rivers winding their way towards the Wisconsin; towering oaks and walnuts; fields completely overtaken by poison ivy. I walked around with a sketchbook and pen in my pocket and my pants tucked into my socks. I spent time in the drafting studio, the same one hundreds of architects-in-training used before me; the same rickety desks and stools designed by Wright and built by the fellows. It felt like an escape—the same way Wright had imagined it for himself—yet the eerie silence prevented me from feeling completely at ease.

The photos curated here aim to capture and process the surreal experience we had this fall. Superimposed are excerpts from the journal I kept while At Taliesin. The title is a reference to the newspaper column that Wright and his apprentices published during the first years of the Fellowship.

The Guest Wing — Photo by Annie Yang on September 15th, 2023

Hillside Home School Library — Photo by Elyas Boyan on August 28th, 2023

Midway Barn — Photo by Annie Yang on September 1st, 2023

Tan-y-deri — Photo by Lola Lambert on September 13th, 2023

Romeo and Juliet Windmill — Photo by Casey Breen on September 5th, 2023

The Main House — Photo by Annie Yang on August 29th, 2023

Fog on the Path to Midway Barn — Photo by Annie Yang on August 31st, 2023

Birds over Midway Barn — Photo by Elyas Boyan on August 29th, 2023