Wright in the Desert

One student's one room homage to Frank Lloyd Wright

During their first year at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, students design a shelter capable of comfortably housing a person in the Arizona desert at Taliesin West, where the school holds winter sessions. Constructing it is optional, though, and most people complete their huts within a few months. Trevor Pan spent 400 days, stretched over two years, working on his project, and even remained at school to finish it after graduation.

What took so long? Pan explains that his shelter, dubbed 3 Desert Way, was his first built project—a labor of love. But the 24-year-old Colorado native is also in love with architecture, which he reverently spells with a capital A; he refers to it in the feminine gender, moreover, as though Architecture were a ship or a woman. “Architecture is an ideal,” Pan explains. “It’s a nice way of personifying it, I guess you could say, by calling it ‘her.’ ” In its ideal form, he adds, architecture produces buildings that can exist in only one location, made of materials taken from the earth nearby: an organic, holistic approach.

Organic design sports the “green” label today, but Wright was working this way a century ago—so for Pan, there was no better place to study than at the school that Wright himself founded. “When I first visited, I realized this was the place,” says Pan, who received his master’s degree there in May. “Seeing how the building and the landscape are one thing was a life-altering experience.”

Trevor Pan stretched "sunbrella" fabric over wood beams to create a sleeping shelter at Taliesin West. At the corners, open louvers provide natural ventilation. Photo: Jerry Portelli

Also life-altering was 3 Desert Way, a Wright-inspired bungalow consisting of only one, 100-square-foot room. Pan maximized every inch, adding built-in seating for twelve and a foldaway bed. Outdoors, he landscaped a 150-square-foot patio, more than doubling the shelter’s livable area.

Frank Henry, Pan’s mentor and the school’s studio master, explains that the shelter assignment explores Wright’s “learn by doing” directive. “You learn the nature of materials, their limitations, and how to attach one to another,” he says. “In a traditional school of architecture, you don’t have that. You may study physics and construction documents, but you don’t get your feet dirty and learn what concrete really is.” Most shelters soon fade into the desert, Henry adds, but Pan’s dedication ensures that his will survive.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Pan was among the handful of students who stuck by the Wright school during its recent turmoil. When the dean left in 2005, several faculty members and students also left, leading a national accreditation board to put the school on notice.

But the school is on the mend. With a new dean, enrollment is rebounding. Another reason for optimism: As interest in green architecture keeps growing, future generations will likely be drawn to learn Wright’s organic principles. At least, that’s what Pan expects.

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