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The first time Michael DesBarres visited Taliesin, as a 12-year-old in 1988, he knocked on the front door. “If there were formal tours, we didn’t know about them,” DesBarres remembers fondly. But it was what happened next that left the biggest impression: DesBarres and his father were greeted by the architect and Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice Charles Montooth, who invited them into his office to look at his drawings. “It was an amazing experience,” says DesBarres, “and one that has become even more special over time as I realize how unique it was for him to be so generous with strangers.”
DesBarres should know. Though he now lives and works in southern California, the former Taliesin architecture student and faculty member has returned to his alma mater every summer for the past 10 years to teach the Advanced Digital Design Studio. For DesBarres, it’s one of the best parts of the year, and a chance to reengage with Taliesin. For his students, it’s an opportunity to learn from an experienced architect trained at Taliesin.
The two-week course, which is open to anyone ages 16+, focuses on the use of 3D modeling in the design process. Students will learn how to use SketchUp 3D design software and will incorporate principles of organic architecture into their own designs. One practical outcome: students interested in pursuing or are currently pursuing a degree in architecture or design can create material during the course that can augment applications and portfolios for admission or scholarships.
But there are other, less obvious outcomes too. In sharing their work, students will learn to give and receive constructive criticism in a low-stakes, real-world environment. “The ability to talk about design, and also to hear and understand the way others perceive the work, is critical to building confidence and compassion as design professionals,” says DesBarres. In addition to gaining architectural knowledge and technical skills, he says, “students also practice collaborative learning, self-guided study, focused inquiry and creative experimentation, all within a structure that encourages ideas and the opportunity to try something new.” That sense of experimentation is at the heart of the summer program. Frank Lloyd Wright believed in experiential learning or learning by doing. And while Covid-19 restrictions have made an in-person camp impossible this year, DesBarres is quick to note that experiential learning hardly requires students to be in the same location.
Another advantage of the virtual format is that the class is open to a much wider audience of students spread throughout the country—all of whom can benefit from DesBarres’ individual attention. Roughly half of the course is generalized instruction, while the other half is available for one-on-one meetings. “I take the time to reach out to every student and invite them to contact me as needed throughout the project,” says DesBarres. “I encourage students to take advantage of this opportunity as everyone’s interests, skills, and goals are different.”
That individual attention, coupled with the chance to study under the lineage of Frank Lloyd Wright, makes Taliesin’s camp unique. “If you or your kids have an interest in architecture, art, design, engineering or anything benefiting from 3D digital design like visualization or video games, this is an excellent introduction to the use of the design tools and concepts of the architectural profession,” DesBarres says, noting that some students return year after year. “Even if you’re a seasoned user of the SketchUp software, I can guarantee that you will learn new tricks and trades which will improve your work.”